- Our emotions influence how we live our lives and our relationships with others and ourselves.
- Emotional awareness is essential for making decisions that are in our best interest.
- Increasing emotional awareness calls for taking time to reflect on and monitor our feelings.
- There are many skills that can be learned in order to enhance our emotional awareness.
“I just felt like hitting him!”
“I just felt bad!”
“I feel like he’s just afraid of expressing his emotions.”
These are just a few of the responses I’ve heard when I’ve asked my clients the question, “How do you feel about that?” The question is an exceedingly important therapeutic tool for good reason. Whether or not we’re aware of them, our emotions are the driving force for much of our thinking, feeling, and behavior.
The Need for Emotional Awareness
Emotions originating in our bodies impact our relationships at work and in our personal lives. They influence how we live our lives, including our motivation, how we choose to spend our time, and even the career or work we choose to pursue. In effect, they guide us in how we live and create meaning.
If we're not aware of our emotions, we can be held hostage to them. Without emotional awareness, we live according to a script that we’ve never taken time to better recognize and understand.
Emotional awareness is essential for making decisions that are in our overall best interest. It informs how open we are to life and whether or not we're vulnerable, take chances, maintain curiosity, identify and persist in achieving our goals, and navigate conflict—with others and ourselves. For all of these reasons, being able to better recognize, identify, accept, and understand our emotions is essential for emotional and physical well-being.
The Importance of Self-Monitoring for Emotional Awareness
Self-monitoring is key to all learning. Whether we’re learning an instrument, how to meet the demands of a job, a new computer program, or the rules of a board game or sport, we need to engage in self-monitoring. By doing so, we can correct our behaviors and gradually gain a sense of mastery of the task at hand.
Such monitoring is just as meaningful to increase our capacity for emotional awareness. The following strategies provide a variety of ways to help meet this challenge.
1. Use a feeling list or feeling wheel.
A feeling list or wheel provides dozens of feeling words. Such wheels often categorize each emotion as “comfortable” or “uncomfortable.” Some also categorize feelings associated with more global emotions such as “positive,” “proud,” and “powerful”—feelings associated with “confidence.”
2. Recognize the message of your feelings.
All of our feelings provide messages to us. They inform us about our safety, impact our motivation, help us to identify our values, and allow or inhibit connection in our lives.
3. Develop resilience to experience difficult emotions.
Some feelings—such as shame, vulnerability, sadness, and grief—may be extremely difficult to tolerate. However, there are specific skills you can practice that inherently can increase your tolerance for experiencing these feelings. These include mindfulness meditation, self-compassion exercises, and bodywork exercises that help sufficiently calm our body’s threat system. Information on developing such resilience is available in workbooks, videos, and classes.
4. Practice mindfulness meditation.
The practice of mindfulness meditation involves attending to internal experiences such as your feelings, thoughts, and sensations. It is training in attention—recognizing what you are attending to, being able to choose where to direct your attention, and enhancing your capacity to monitor it.
5. Promote self-compassion.
Practicing exercises in self-compassion opens you up to greater objectivity, with full acceptance of what you find. It calls for overcoming judgment or fears of recognizing your feelings. Self-compassion calls for acknowledging our full humanity, including all of our feelings. It also entails acknowledging that we have flaws and weaknesses and that we make mistakes. Additionally, it highlights the awareness that we are not alone with our feelings.
6. Take your emotional pulse.
This involves pausing for a minute or two, three or four times a day, and observing what you are feeling at those moments. After identifying one feeling, take time and reflect on any other feelings you may be feeling. For example, if you’re anxious, you may recognize being fearful or overwhelmed.
Our days are filled with opportunities to do this. You may choose to practice this in reaction to an interaction you’ve just had, a scene you’ve observed in a movie, or regarding characters described in a book.
7. Listen to your body.
It’s important to recognize that feelings originate in our bodies. Being able to listen to your body requires practice and patience.
Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. Sit or lie down. Take a few deep breaths and then resume your regular pace of breathing.
Start a conversation with your body. Simply ask your body what you are feeling—and then listen. Stay with it for a few moments as you may not get an immediate response. If you identify a feeling, ask “What else are you feeling?”
You may also want to scan your whole body, starting with attending to your head and going down. This is a core practice in self-reflection regarding feelings.
8. Notice patterns of feelings associated with your behavior.
This involves observing your feelings aroused in a variety of settings, such as when you are engaged in leisure, at work, or in your relationships. What behaviors lead to positive or negative feelings? What feelings lead to specific behaviors? What feelings help motivate you to achieve your goals and which ones inhibit taking action?
9. Identify those feelings you have in reaction to experiencing certain feelings.
Much of our daily stress is related to feelings that arise from our tendency to judge our feelings. Such judgment interferes with accepting the entire range of emotions that are part of being human.
Being “emotionally avoidant” is associated with anxiety, depression, and anger. According to Buddhist psychology, it is this judgment that causes much of our suffering. While pain is a natural part of life, we can learn to control the judgment that leads to much of the suffering in our lives.
Contrarily, it’s also helpful to recognize feelings you experience with regard to having positive feelings. This can be especially helpful for strengthening your motivation to engage in certain behaviors—for example, some social anxiety prior to going to an event may be overshadowed by reminding yourself of the pleasure you experience following your attendance. Similarly, remembering how it feels after your exercise rather than when you begin, or envisioning your feelings when engaged in a creative endeavor, can help you navigate the tension of starting it.
10. Consider using apps.
In recent years, a number of apps have been developed for the purpose of increasing emotional awareness. These provide specific guidelines for identifying emotions as well as tracking moods. Some of these are more comprehensive than others. For example, the Mood Meter, developed at Yale, addresses the broad range of skills for emotional intelligence—including emotional vocabulary, emotional awareness, emotional regulation, and understanding our emotions.
Emotional awareness is key to identifying and recognizing our core values and desires. As such, it is essential for living from our authentic self—and consequently improving our relationships with others and ourselves.
Such awareness provides you with the depth of awareness to help you answer the question, “How am I feeling right now?” Fortunately, regardless of your current level of emotional awareness, such awareness can be learned.