Emotional awareness is a fundamental skill for our mental balance, but not everyone can develop it. Although we all experience emotions, we are not all able to accurately recognize and name them. In fact, did you know that about 250 emotions and feelings have been cataloged? Between sadness and joy, feeling bad or good, there is a vast emotional range that we should delve into.
If we are unable to recognize our emotions and feelings, if we do not find their causes and we do not understand how they affect our behaviors and our decisions, we will not be able to manage them correctly and we will end up constantly living on an emotional roller coaster that, sooner or later, it will cause us imbalances. This is why it is so important to develop emotional awareness.
What is emotional awareness?
Emotional awareness is the ability to perceive both one's own emotions and those of others, and also to perceive the emotional climate that exists in a given context. The definition of emotional awareness implies the existence of other basic skills:
- Be aware of your emotions. It is the ability to perceive and identify one's feelings and emotions quite accurately.
- Give emotions a name. It is the ability to use the emotional vocabulary appropriate to the feelings and emotions experienced, labeling them correctly.
- Understanding the emotions of others. It is the ability to accurately perceive the emotions and feelings of others, as well as to relate with empathy by practicing the appropriate verbal and extraverbal language.
- Acquire awareness of the relationship between emotions, cognitions and behavior. It is the ability to understand how emotional states affect thinking and behavior, as well as understanding the influence of our ideas and behaviors on emotional states.
There are many examples of emotional awareness. On a personal level, we can say that we are emotionally aware when we understand that we are not doing our best at work because we feel unmotivated - not bored, but unmotivated - and we understand that this feeling comes from the lack of challenges, so we act by changing work or looking for new projects that represent a motivating challenge.
Another example of emotional awareness on an interpersonal level is when we arrive at a place and notice a certain tension in the air. We can realize that people were arguing just before we arrived and we decided to do everything possible to relax the environment.
Therefore, emotional awareness implies a path through which we perceive the emotion, give it a name, look for its causes and try to give it an assertive outlet.
Emotional haze: the dangers involved in not distinguishing emotions
“For a long time, man has been more interested in controlling his passions than in knowing his emotions,” wrote psychologist Paul Fraisse. But plunging into some kind of emotional fog is the worst thing we can do.
A very interesting study conducted by psychologists at the University of Michigan revealed that people suffering from depression have one thing in common: they do not accurately distinguish the differences between the negative emotions they experience, such as sadness, guilt, anger and frustration. This may explain, at least in part, why depression is so difficult to overcome.
To reach these conclusions, the researchers asked healthy people and others suffering from depression to report their emotions at specific times during a week. Thus they found that depressed people found it very difficult to distinguish between different negative emotions.
These people would have found themselves in a kind of "emotional haze", which occurs when we are unable to distinguish the emotions we experience and give them a name. The problem is that this state can aggravate ailments such as depression or anxiety. In fact, it's hard to improve our life if we don't know exactly how we feel about certain aspects of it.
For example, can you imagine how difficult it would be to know when it's time to fill the fuel tank if you didn't have the gauge on your car's dashboard? Something similar happens with our emotional state, we cannot improve or use emotions in our favor if we don't know how we feel and why.
What happens in the brain when we label an emotion?
In 1915, physiologist Walter Cannon discovered the link between fear and increased adrenaline secretion. He suggested that emotional stimuli have two independent excitatory effects as they cause both a change in the brain and in the autonomic and somatic system. Since then, neuroscience has not stopped studying the effects of emotions on the brain, finding that they produce and are produced by a complex cascade of brain changes.
A study conducted at UCLA revealed what happens in our brains when we label negative emotions. These neuroscientists asked a group of participants to see pictures of angry or frightened faces.
These images increased activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain closely linked to emotions that acts as an alarm when it detects possible danger and triggers a series of physiological changes that prepare us to flee or attack. Indeed, it has been seen that the amygdala also responds intensely to subliminal images, which our consciousness does not capture.
At this point, the researchers wondered if simply labeling those emotions could mitigate them and decrease the level of activation of the amygdala. Subsequently, participants were asked to identify the emotions they were seeing. The results were surprising: almost immediately the activity of the amygdala began to decrease, while the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex was activated, an area linked to thinking, behavioral inhibition and rational processing of emotions.
In practice, what happens is that when we label what we feel we are forced to activate the most rational part of the brain. This zone activates a sort of "hand brake", preventing the emotions from taking control and causing an emotional hijacking. By understanding what happens to us, the negative emotional impact decreases and this makes emotions less painful.
How to develop emotional awareness?
We are not born with already developed emotional awareness, it is gradually improving, as we experience new emotions and the adults around us help us to label and manage them.
Unfortunately, in many cases this learning does not happen and emotional awareness atrophies. This does not mean that the person is not able to experience the many emotions and feelings, but he is not able to recognize them and, therefore, it is much more complicated for him to manage them.
The good news is that emotional awareness can be improved at any stage in life.
- Pay more attention to emotions. Many times we don't pay enough attention to how we react to events. To develop emotional awareness, however, we need to start looking more within ourselves. It will also help us to pay attention to the physical reactions that these emotions generate and which can vary, from the sensation of having a lump in the throat to a pleasant tingling, pressure in the chest or the sensation of heat. All these changes are a direct reflection of the emotions in our body.
- Don't judge emotions, just give them a name. It is important to get rid of the idea that there are good and bad emotions. Emotions are just an indicator of what we are feeling, so we don't need to judge them but to try to understand their message. The first step is to label them correctly. Do you feel angry, frustrated or just plain angry?
- Try to understand their message. To develop emotional awareness it is not enough to identify what we are feeling, we need to understand why we feel this way. This implies an arduous work of introspection. Often, we assume that emotions are the reaction to a concrete fact, but this is not always the case. You may get angry that your partner was late for your date, but maybe that anger is a subdued irritation that reveals a deeper problem in the couple or maybe it's the expression of excessive stress at work. Understanding the cause of emotions will allow us to manage them better.
- Identify thoughts associated with emotions. To understand the origin of emotions, it will help to focus on the associated thoughts. When you feel sad, do you immediately start thinking that you are a total failure? If you get angry, do you think nobody loves you and everyone tries to take advantage of you? Often these thoughts are a reflection of your world view and can explain, at least in part, your emotional reaction.
- Express your emotions assertively. The next step in developing emotional awareness is learning to express those feelings assertively. When a painter uses anger as inspiration, for example, he is giving a positive outlet to that emotion. Going out for a run when we are angry is another way to release that anger, but we can also try techniques such as transcendental meditation, which will allow us to have a healthier and more balanced relationship with our emotions.