Master Your Feelings With New Tools Inspired by Neuroscience
Neuroscience research uncovers a new type of emotional intelligence.
Posted June 29, 2019 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Many of us believe that our emotions are fixed entities that are hardwired into our brains or automatically triggered by situations that provoke them. Rejection makes us feel bad; success makes us feel good. Or some people are just angry people, while others are happy souls. We also might believe that emotions can be controlled by just changing our thinking.
Neuroscientists say otherwise. Northeastern University neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has done extensive research into how emotions work in the brain and has come to the conclusion that emotions and thoughts are not separate processes; instead, the entire brain actively constructs both thoughts and emotions by billions of neurons signaling each other. Our brains are plastic and can change with new concepts.
According to Dr. Feldman Barrett, our brains are wired to make predictions that help our survival—“This is safe, but that is dangerous,” or “This will bring me pleasure; that will bring me pain.” She argues that the way our brains interpret and categorize these predictions is what we experience as emotion.
This means that we have a choice of seeing our emotions in terms of broad categories or developing a more finely nuanced understanding of what we are feeling. She suggests that understanding and describing our emotions in terms of more fine-grained categories (e.g., "sad," "tired," "anxious," or "angry"—versus just feeling "bad") helps us become more emotionally intelligent and better at responding to them.
Dr. Feldman Barrett gives an example to illustrate this point. She states that when we just see our emotions as “Feeling Awesome” or “Feeling Crappy,” we have limited response options. We would typically do more of the things that help us feel “Awesome” and avoid the things that we associate with “Crappy” feelings. This makes us less emotionally intelligent than we need to be.
What if the thing that feels “Crappy” today is actually good for you and results in future “Awesome” feelings (e.g., working hard to pass a test)? Or what if something feels “Awesome” at first, but then feels very “Crappy” later on (like drinking too much alcohol or dating a narcissist)? Or perhaps something feels both “Awesome” and “Crappy” at the same time (like giving a presentation).
Also, how might we distinguish between things that feel only a little “Crappy” (like not getting quite enough sleep one night) and those that feel severely “Crappy” (like having a severe migraine)? If we understand these complexities, we have more of a chance at mastering our emotions or acting more flexibly, in ways that best fit the situation.
Dr. Feldman Barrett coined the term “emotional granularity” to describe how much we describe our emotions in broad categories versus making fine-grained distinctions between different emotions. If you have high “emotional granularity,” you might express different “Awesome” feelings like contentment, excitement, interest, pride, happiness, love, gratitude, compassion and so on. Or you might describe your “Crappy” feelings as fearful, bored, terrified, furious, irritated, envious, ashamed, and so on.
Research on “emotional granularity” or “differentiation” supports the idea that it is a type of emotional intelligence that can improve long-term health and well-being. People who have more of it visit doctors less often, use fewer medications, and have less frequent hospitalizations for illness. More fine-tuned expression of emotions is also associated with better social and emotional functioning overall.
“Granularity” allows you to respond to your emotions more flexibly (taking into account the situation, your goals, and your body’s energy needs), makes you less likely to drink alcohol as a way of coping with stress, and less likely to respond with aggression to provocations or hurtful actions of others. Other research links “emotional granularity” with a lessened neural response to rejection and less anxiety and depression.
In a study with spider-phobics who were exposed to spiders, describing emotions in detailed, nuanced ways (e.g., “This big, hairy spider is disgusting and both terrifies and interests me”) worked better than two other techniques for reducing fear and promoting approach. The other two techniques were cognitive reappraisal (e.g., “The spider is harmless”) or distraction (focusing on something else). Results lasted for at least one week beyond the experiment. Perhaps the “emotional granularity” strategy worked better because it is more of an approach than an avoidance strategy. It involves actively facing feelings, rather than escaping or trying to make them go away.
Tools to Increase Emotional Intelligence Using "Granularity"
Below are some tools for using “granularity” to regulate emotions:
1. Fine-tune your feelings.
When you feel irritated with somebody in your life or are judging them, try to look more specifically at what you feel and why you feel that way. Does their bragging make you feel insecure, or do you feel impatient that they are wasting your time, or helpless that they won’t listen to you? Are you concerned that they are acting self-destructively or scared that they don’t value your advice? Each of these descriptions can lead to a different coping response that best addresses your underlying need.
2. Express your feelings in words.
Write down your feelings in a diary and try to tie them to the events that provoked them. You can do this with both positive and negative feelings. Research by James Pennebaker, Laura King, and colleagues (as well as the current author) suggests that expressive writing can improve health and well-being over days, weeks, and months.
3. Explore contradictory or complex feelings.
Dig deep to discover the complexity or contradictions in your emotional response and those of others. For example, when I come home from a trip, my dog waits eagerly at the door, barks loudly when she sees me, and wags her tail. I interpret this as meaning she is very happy and excited to see me but also wants to let me know that she is mad and sad that I went away. She feels great relief that I am back, because she was scared of being alone and confused about where I went.
Barrett, L. F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Frattaroli, J. (2006). Experimental disclosure and its moderators A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 823-865. doi10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.823.
Kashdan, T. B., Barrett, L. F., & McKnight, P. E. (2015). Unpacking emotion differentiation transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving distinctions in negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(1), 10-16.
Kircanski, K., Lieberman, M. D., & Craske, M. G. (2012). Feelings into words: contributions of language to exposure therapy. Psychological science, 23(10), 1086–1091. doi:10.1177/0956797612443830