Emotional awareness is multifaceted. It is knowing that emotions are a physical sensation and knowing where in your body you feel specific emotions. For example, anxiety may feel like tightness in your chest, feeling sweaty, mind feels blank, feeling dizzy, feeling nauseated, etc. Then being able to accurately interpret these sensations based on the facts of a situation. The bodily sensations experienced with anxiety and excitement, for example, feel very similar. It is also having the language to accurately describe our emotions. On average, an American adult has about 3 words to describe emotions, mad, sad, and glad (or variations of these). However, our actual emotions tend to extend beyond these three. It is difficult to understand our emotions when we do not have the language to describe them. Emotional awareness also includes emotional expression, and gaining the language to express our emotions is an important aspect.
One of the most common factors that may cause someone to not be in touch with their emotions is history. If you’re like me, you probably heard your parent or caregiver say things like “stop crying or I will give you something to cry about!”, “Boys don’t cry”, or “it’s not ladylike to yell”. Statements like these teach us that having this specific emotion is not okay. So we suppress them. We are also not often taught the language to describe our emotions or to interpret what we are feeling inside. Emotional awareness is a skills, not a biological thing, yet we are often not taught how to experience and describe emotions. There are also some mental health disorders that lead us to not be in touch with our emotions. A key factor in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is avoidance, which includes avoiding emotions. So emotions are purposefully shut down and avoided in an effort to stay safe.
Tips on recognizing and understanding emotions:
1. Self-compassion. We judge our emotions so harshly. It is important for us to be compassionate to ourselves and whatever emotions come up. We can’t always control the emotions that arise, but we can control what we do with these emotions. It is important for us to validate the emotions we are experiencing.
2. Educate ourselves on emotions and words to describe emotions. For this, I recommend Brene Brown’s new book “Atlas of the Heart” (not an advertisement, just a therapist who is a huge fan of the content of the book). This book breaks down various emotions, what they feel like and language to describe them
3. Mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness of emotions and practicing allowing ourselves to experience difficult emotions can help a lot. When emotions are uncomfortable, we shut them down. However, practicing acceptance of that emotion and allowing it to be there, despite the discomfort, can teach us that emotions aren’t always that scary. One of my favorite meditations is “sitting with difficult emotions” where you think of a situation that brings up a mild to moderate amount of emotions and practice allowing and sitting with this emotion, describing how it feels in the body.
4. Therapy! Going to therapy to learn how to be more comfortable feeling and expressing emotions can make a huge difference!