top of page
  • Writer's picturehayneslamottepsych

Enrich Your Life Through Emotional Granularity

When you think of someone in your life that embodies wisdom, who do you think of? What qualities does that word make you think of? Certainly, there’s a conventional sense that people become wiser as they age – however, you may also be able to think of someone for whom that doesn’t seem to be the case.

When I think of wisdom, I think of someone who has psychological flexibility, and can understand something from multiple different perspectives – someone who is able to parse the inner tension they might experience it and find a way to channel it into something helpful to them and those around them.

This kind of wisdom is learned through experience, it is not innate – we are not born with it, and it is never too late to work on developing it. A big part of this psychological flexibility involves something called emotional granularity, which is the ability to understand your emotional experiences and what they might mean in a fine-grained way.

This post builds off of information from other posts I’ve made about the way in which your brain works and how it constructs emotion contextually based on the situation you are in. If you haven’t yet, please check out those posts here:

Understanding Emotional Granularity

Emotions are the meaning we make out of the sensations happening inside of us in relation to what’s going on outside of us. The sense you receive from your body about its general state (from good to bad, and from calm to excited) is called affect (we colloquially refer to this as “mood”). As it is a general summary your brain receives about your body’s current state and needs, all sorts of things can influence your emotions via your affect: not getting a good night’s sleep, being hungry (the existence of the word hangry recognizes the impact of our body’s state on our emotions), being overwhelmed from being in a new or socially demanding environment for too long.

Affect is a big part of your “gut instinct” reaction to events. However, when we do not have as much awareness as to why we may feel the way we do, we also tend to misattribute our affect. For example, a study of judges found that they were more likely to hand down harsher sentences right before lunch time, when the judges were hungriest. The unpleasant feeling due to hunger was instead being attributed to a sense that defendants’ crimes were more severe, impacting their decision-making.

Similarly, most people can remember a time when they got yelled at by a supervisor or manager – although in the moment we may assume the supervisor’s behavior to be a reflection of our own poor performance, more likely than not there were other contributions to their affect that caused them to act the way that they did.

Emotional Granularity is about being able to make sense of your affect and your context in a way that is useful to you in your life. If you are feeling hungry, finding and eating food is a more helpful way to address this internal signal than is yelling at your friends. Alternatively, if you feel repeatedly disrespected by one of your friends, understanding this internal experience as frustration due to perceived disrespect is a helpful step to taking some kind of action to resolve this feeling so that it doesn’t keep happening (talk to the friend about it, limit contact with them, talk to other friends about it).

On the lower end of emotional granularity, people experience alexithymia, which describes a tendency to understand one’s affect in purely non-emotional terms. This connection between your bodily states and what’s happening in your life that feels automatic to people who frequently have emotional experiences is actually quite foreign to someone with alexithymia. Where someone else would experience anxiety, someone with alexithymia would experience merely a stomachache. Studies suggest that approximately 10% of people experience this, so it’s truly not a rare occurrence.

There’s a really accurate (and funny) portrayal of this in the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in which the character Josh Chan tries to make sense of his feeling badly. The situation is that, while he has a girlfriend, he had also been receiving a lot of romantic attention from his friend Rebecca, until she transfers this attention to his friend:

Certainly, there are some cases where this non-emotional lens would be useful, such as not spinning oneself into further anxiety through one’s interpretations of internal body states. However, it can also often be very useful to understand things in emotional terms, primarily because we live in a world where others use them to make sense of the world.

Most people have around moderate emotional granularity, in that they can identify most of their culture’s general categories of emotions such as anger, surprise, happiness, disgust, fear, shame, and pride, among others.

Those with higher emotional granularity can describe more shades and subtleties of different emotions and differences between these emotions in different contexts (as mentioned in a prior post, all emotions are constructed by your brain contextually based on the situation you are in).

There is also an understanding inherent to high emotional granularity that emotions are not mutually exclusive. This means that where someone with lower emotional granularity would stop searching for an explanation for their feeling once they land on one category (“Anger”), someone with higher granularity would keep searching to identify any and all emotions that would apply (“Anger,” “Hurt,” “Vulnerability,” “Exhaustion,” “Hopeless”).

Someone whose child has their first go at potty-training will likely experience a mix of feelings: outward displays of excitement to reinforce the behavior, internal sense of pride in their child’s abilities, a sense of sadness and loss at their kid’s childhood moving by quickly, with a dash of disgust at the open-air dookie that is now their responsibility to clean up.

Therapists similarly experience emotional granularity when their clients get to a place of no longer needing services. This indicates a success of the therapy which is a positive, but the therapist might at the same time miss seeing that client, and this doesn’t mean that they’re rooting for the client’s mental health to take a turn for the worst.

Supporting Your Emotional Granularity

Developing emotional granularity can support you in choosing more effective actions in response to your emotions, and can even change your emotional experience itself over time.

What are a few things you can do to support your own emotional granularity?

The first quality that this requires is curiosity. As I mentioned above, people with currently low emotional granularity tend to stop once they’ve identified a broad emotion word (or possibly no emotion word), so curiosity is the mindset to keep looking for a more specific way to understand and describe what you are feeling.

For example, when you feel badly in response to a social situation, consider what might more descriptively be behind that feeling in your body: maybe the person you were talking to seemed conceited which makes you feel insecure, maybe you feel annoyed because you believe they’re wasting your time, or maybe you feel ignored and unimportant similar to messages you have received elsewhere in your life. Each of these subtle differences would have their own implications.

Learning more emotion words and how to distinguish between them is another way to support your emotional granularity. Having more emotion words can strengthening your speed at understanding your emotions in a helpful way. Generally, the fewer words you need to describe a concept, the more quickly your brain will be able to apply the concept. So for example, knowing the word “frustration” will help you acknowledge your feeling of frustration in the moment faster than the longer phrase “lower level of anger.”

Similarly, if you are friends with people of different cultural backgrounds or people who speak other languages, you could ask them about emotion concepts that don’t exist in your culture or language. This is another way to expand your awareness of different potential emotional experiences.

Another practice that supports emotional granularity is mindfulness, both through meditation and more everyday ways of practicing it. This essentially operates by supporting people’s openness to and attention to the nuances of their internal feelings, as well as their openness to recategorization – understanding the same thing with new concepts.

A final practice that helps people develop emotional granularity is going to therapy, which helps provide individualized ways of understanding yourself and your patterns differently. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in the assistance of a licensed therapist, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page