Today I’d like to tell you about emotions and how to identify which ones you are feeling. My hypothesis is that if you struggle with this, one key part of that is that nobody has ever clearly explained to you what it is you are supposed to be doing.
I’d like to try to do that today based on my own experience of learning to get better at this. It’s unlikely to instantly solve all your problems in this space, but it should guide you in the right direction for solving them yourself.
If you don’t particularly struggle with labelling your feelings, you might find this piece useful anyway - even for people who are good at the basics, it can be helpful to get better at this (certainly I consider myself in no way done at getting better at it), and having a good grounding in how the basics actually work can help with that.
Insert caveats and footnotes as appropriate
What follows is my working knowledge of a lot of things, which I think is basically correct, but it’s definitely not 100% correct and it’s certainly incomplete. It’s worked very well for me, it’s based on a lot of reading, and I’m pretty confident that most people will benefit from treating what I say here as true up until it stops working for them, which it may well eventually do (I haven’t hit that point yet, although I have hit the point where I need more complicated tools as well).
One limitation I’m aware of: Part of why I am reasonably confident in what I am saying is that I have learned a lot of this the hard way, having not figured it out at all well until my mid 30s, so I’ve got relatively recent knowledge of learning how this stuff works. But the counter to that is that I don’t have a good working knowledge of how normal development of these skills is supposed to work. So this is probably better advice for people who have made it to adulthood without really getting a good handling on feelings than it is to children.
Another: I’m sure there is actual underlying variation in how easy this is for people, and I don’t know what that variation feels like from the inside. I have personal anecdata that it’s entirely possible to think you’re intrinsically bad at it and learn to be good at it, but it’s entirely possible other people will find that more difficult than I did. I think even in those cases it’s almost certainly worth trying the approach that I’m describing here, but for all I know you might plateau faster than I’d expect. It may be that some other insight will get you unstuck, but if so I don’t know what (feel free to let me know if you try this approach and it doesn’t work for you, I might have some ideas and I’d be interested to hear).
Why does this matter?
The short version is that you definitely have emotions (not having emotions is a form of severe brain damage and basically makes it impossible to function by ruining your ability to make even the most basic decisions), and not understanding them makes it very hard to understand your own behaviour.
As I’ll talk about below, emotions are intimately bound up in behaviour, and most of the time when we behave in some way that seemingly doesn’t make sense, it’s actually because of some fairly reasonable emotional reaction that is just currently opaque to us.
One example that routinely comes up: Procrastination tends to work like this. A lot of people procrastinate and consider this mysterious, or a deficit of character, and it’s actually because they’ve got some negative emotional reaction to the thing they’re procrastinating on - they think it’s a waste of time, they’re afraid of failure, etc. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong, but either way they will not be able to stop procrastinating without engaging with the underlying emotion (though they might be able to put it off long enough that panic overrides those other emotional reactions…).
Another example is that if you can’t tell whether you’re angry, you’ll often react angrily to people without realising that you’re doing so, which isn’t much fun for you or for them. Similarly, if you can’t tell when you’re nervous, you might steadfastly maintain everything is fine up until the point where you e.g. get up on stage and flub your presentation because your hands and voice are shaking too much.
Finally, one very important reason why being able to understand your emotions is that, hot take, being happy is good and it’s much easier to be happy if you can recognise when you’re happy and use that as a signal to do more of it.
Alexithymia and you
The primary audience of this post is people who have some degree of alexithymia - difficulty labelling your feelings. If you struggle to answer questions like “Am I angry?”, “Am I happy?”, etc. this is basically what alexithymia is.
Wikipedia describes alexithymia as “a personality trait characterized by the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions experienced by one's self” and I hate this definition, not because it’s wrong, but because I think it has wrong connotations.
What I would like to suggest instead is that alexithymia should be considered as more like illiteracy. It’s not a personality trait, it’s not an inability, you just literally don’t know how to perform the skill of attaching an explicit verbal description to the emotions you are feeling, which we might reasonably call “emotional literacy”.
This doesn’t mean that there is no underlying cause to your alexithymia. There’s significant individual variation in how easy it is to pick up reading too - some people have dyslexia, some people have vision difficulties, some people for whatever reason take to reading like a fish to water, while some are reluctant to spend much time getting good at it even if they’re perfectly able. All sorts of factors impact how easy people find it to learn to read. For some people their lack of literacy may even be due to it being literally impossible to achieve normal literacy - e.g. if you’re blind it’s not going to be possible for you to learn to read normal text because you can’t actually see the text. I think such cases are rare in alexithymia, but I don’t know how rare.
But the biggest factor that impacts whether someone learns to read is the quality of teaching they’re given and, unlike reading, we’ve got very little in the way of widespread education in emotional literacy.
I’ve heard this described as us being “culturally alexithymic”. We do not have a culture designed around learning to talk about and understand our emotions, and as a result we leave it up to individuals to learn or not on this front, and this is some of the gap I’m trying to plug here.
Yes, it really is like literacy, I promise
If you struggle to identify your emotions then it may seem like other people have some magical ability that you don’t, that they just somehow know what emotions they’re feeling. And to some large degree this is true - once you’re good at labelling feelings a lot of the time (by no means all - anyone who tells you they never struggle to identify their feelings is either lying or lives a very unreflective or uncomplicated life) you just do this automatically, but that’s not because you’ve got an emotional superpower, it’s because that’s just how skills work. Most of the time when you’re reading you don’t think about the mechanics of literacy either, you just read. When you catch a ball, you’re operating purely on reflex, but you still had to learn to catch a ball at some point.
One of the key features of skill acquisition is that it changes how you look at the world. A climber looking at a rock face sees a path up where a novice just sees a chaotic rock wall, a chess player looking at a chess board sees lines of attack and coherent positions, where a novice just sees a bunch of pieces on a board. And the subjective experience of this is not that the expert sees the same things as the novice and then constructs their understanding - vision (like any other sense) is an active process of engagement in the world, and the way you look at things is determined by your understanding of those things. You look at the important bits first, you spend longer on the bits you don’t understand and skip over the familiar bits. When you see something important you look for related features (e.g. “the king is over there, what’s threatening it?” or “there’s a good hold there, can I find my way to it?”). The result is that through skill acquisition you have a fundamentally different sensory experience in a way that you would not recognise prior to acquiring that skill.
Labelling feelings is like this: You learn to pay attention to what you are feeling differently, in a way that leads to a more coherent and sometimes automatic understanding of them, but you’re not doing anything fundamentally unlike what you are already able to do, you’re just engaging with it in a more skilled manner.
Emotions and feelings
Annoyingly, the distinction between “emotions” and “feelings” in colloquial use isn’t very clear, and different people make the distinction slightly differently. This is made worse by the fact that among people making technical distinctions between the two there are about as many differing definitions of the split between feelings and emotions as there are people writing about them. I’m now going to compound the problem by providing my own working definitions of them.
First, feelings are basically anything non-verbal you can access through introspection. A lot of this corresponds to actually physical sensations in your body: You feel pain, you notice some tension in your shoulders, there’s a tightness in your chest, your stomach hurts, that sort of thing. Some of them are more ambiguously physical although are still like a bodily sensation - e.g. you might feel a sort of generalised lightness, you might say “That doesn’t feel right” when someone says something that you think is wrong but can’t actually say what’s wrong about it. Such feelings often correspond to intuitions - a generalised preverbal sense of what might be true.
Emotions, in contrast, are words which label behaviours. Anger is an emotion because behaving angrily is a thing. People behave like they’re in love, or are afraid, or any one of other emotional labels.
It’s useful to think of emotions as being like colours. Behaviour is infinitely complex, but we have a set of descriptive words applying discrete labels to it. If you say someone is behaving angrily there’s still a lot of variation that could apply - they might be shouting, they might be holding themselves tensely and speaking in clipped tones, etc - in much the same way that if you say that the house is red you haven’t exhausted the range of possibilities - it could be painted bright red, it could be red brick, etc.
Importantly, emotions can label behaviours independently of the internal state of the person (or animal) exhibiting those behaviours. It makes complete sense to say that an actor is behaving angrily when in fact internally they are completely chill.
However, there is a particular internal state of experiencing an emotion, which is that you are in some sense “inclined” to act in that way. You “behave angrily” when your behaviour meets the description of anger, but you “are angry” when it requires active work on your part to avoid behaving angrily. The internal state neither implies nor is implied by the external behaviour, but when you are angry you are naturally drawn towards behaving angrily.
This is what experiencing an emotion is: Being drawn to perform the behaviours characteristic of that emotion.
In general one might talk about having an emotional state - the whole mass of subconscious forces encouraging you towards particular behaviours. This is usefully described by emotions, but in much the same way that you can’t just describe how something looks by listing its colours, it needs more detail. e.g. you can say that you’re angry and afraid, but you can also say that you’re angry about a particular thing because it puts you in this scenario where you’re afraid of this happening… You might even be in an emotional state where there’s not a convenient single label you can apply to it and have to just try to describe it as best you can, possibly using metaphor (e.g. “It feels like there’s a great weight on me from all these expectations” or “I feel like something is missing and I should be looking for it”).
With these working definitions in mind, the core skill of emotional literacy is paying attention to feelings in order to determine what emotions you are currently experiencing.
This, hopefully, makes it clear why it’s so literacy-like: You literally have a vocabulary of words that you are trying to read out of a particular set of signals, and you have to learn how the two relate.
How to feel your emotions
This may seem like a dumb question, but have you ever thought about how it is that people can feel their emotions?
The answer is that they pay attention to their body. Experiencing an emotion is primarily noticeable based on bodily sensations. People don’t always consciously notice that this is what they’re doing because it’s become so automatic, but this is where the information is coming from.
If it doesn’t seem plausible that your emotions, which exist in your head, are experienced as bodily sensations, consider this: When someone is experiencing and acting on a strong emotion, they look different, right? An angry person holds themselves differently than a non-angry person - more aggressively, you can see they’ve tensed up, they may have a different facial expression, etc.
That way that they look different? It feels different from the inside. If you’ve tensed up, you are literally tense and you can feel that in the pattern of muscular activation. That’s your body preparing for a fight.
There is a lot going on in your brain that isn’t easily directly consciously activated. This isn’t mysterious and mystical, it’s just obvious and mundane. Consider again catching a ball - you don’t consciously think through the process of catching the ball, you just catch it. Similarly walking, or riding a bike, or brushing your teeth. Most actions even where you consciously intend them you’re at least partially handing over to some unconscious part of your brain.
Among those unconscious processes are things responsible for a lot of your emotional responses, and one of the things they do is get your body ready for the action. If part of you decides you need to gear up for a fight (getting angry) it gets your body ready to gear up for a fight.
Paying attention to what these parts of your brain are doing is by far the easiest way to get access to your emotional state, because it’s right there where you have direct introspective access to. It’s a key part of the feedback loop between different parts of the brain, and you should be paying attention to it and taking advantage of it for figuring out your internal mental state.
What you are trying to do in learning emotional literacy is to begin to understand this mapping of physical sensations in your body to predispositions towards particular classes of behaviour.
Environments for learning emotional literacy
I think emotional literacy is actually a very easy skill for most people to learn, as long as they have a decent environment in which to learn it, and as long as they have not previously been put off the entire thing by having experienced particular types of bad environments for it in the past.
Unfortunately, we’re very good at constructing bad environments for learning emotional literacy in.
Your basic pattern of learning to do anything is just trial and error, but trial and error isn’t just a matter of trying things and failing at them, it’s more like:
Try to do it.
If it worked, great.
If not, try to understand the error.
Use that new understanding to better inform how you next try to do it.
(3) and (4) are the parts that people are most likely to run afoul of. It’s easy to try and error, but unless you can understand the errors you made and then use them to inform what you try next, you won’t actually improve.
In particular what you need in order to make these steps work well are:
Clean feedback loops, where you are likely to get clear feedback on errors you make that point you in the right direction.
An environment in which trying is safe. Note that this requires it to be safe to both make an error and to get it right.
Here are some examples of things that make this hard to develop this skill:
Being surrounded by people who are themselves emotionally illiterate, and thus cannot give you feedback on it.
Having people (especially parents, teachers, etc.) around you who will actively argue with you about your emotions because they’re inconvenient. “You’re not sad, you love this show!” etc.
Having people around you who will punish you for your emotions. e.g. “How dare you be angry! Don’t you know how hard I worked?”, or making fun of you for being sad, for wanting things, etc.
You’re under far too much external pressure to be able to slow down and actually pay attention to how you’re feeling (this is more a problem for adults trying to learn emotional literacy than children, although it can be a problem for children too).
Environments in which attempts at exercising emotional literacy are discouraged or actively punished are rife, and as a result people often end up failing to learn it as a form of strategic incompetence - can’t be punished for saying you’re angry about something if you carefully hide all hints of anger from yourself.
(This points out a specific problem which is that emotional illiteracy is often selective. e.g. it’s very common to be specifically unable to identify whether you’re angry but have no problem whatsoever identifying when you feel guilty. To continue the analogy to literacy you could think of this as a jargon problem - just because I can read doesn’t mean I can read things about a subject I know nothing about)
I don’t think such environments are the only problem people can have with learning emotional literacy, but most of the rest fall under the problem I talked about in Clearing hurdles in learning - if you’ve got a good environment for this, you just progress to the point where you naturally get stuck, and you need someone to help you get unstuck.
The first such hurdle is figuring out how to build an environment in which you can learn. My suggestion for good examples of such environments include:
Journaling (possibly on the computer, possibly by hand. If you feel really unsafe labelling emotions, you might find it helpful to do it by hand and then shred it).
Pseudonymous twitter alts (I know you think Twitter is a horrible place, but there are a lot of therapy alts and people are mostly very nice to them and you can block the ones who aren’t, and the pseudonym is helpfully distancing).
Actual therapy with a real live therapist. Group therapy is also an option though I don’t know much about it.
Talking to friends, partners, and other loved ones about your feelings. Though honestly this one is probably hard mode unless you have ones who you really trust at a deep level to be supportive (and one problem you might be having is being unsure if you really trust them at that level! This is not necessarily a reflection of how trustworthy they are - even if they’re very trustworthy, if you’ve got a history of loved ones you can’t trust to be supportive, you may be struggling to fully believe they are trustworthy even when they are).
Barriers to getting good
One problem that crops up with emotional literacy is that often people who are not already good at it have strong internal barriers to getting good at it, so the thing that stops them improving is not the external environment but the internal.
This is actually the case for most skills (e.g. I continue to maintain that most people who are “bad at mathematics” could be fine at mathematics given the right teacher, but have very much internalised an idea of being bad at mathematics that does not let them try. For my part, I’ve got better at singing and catching a ball as an adult, where I was very much like this).
Here are some common barriers, although it’s by no means a complete list.
Suppose you were in a crowded club (remember those?) and someone said something to you and you couldn’t hear it. It is hopefully clear that this is not because you’ve got a hearing problem, the club is just noisy.
Anyway, if you’re constantly full of anxiety, guilt, etc. then it’s no wonder you can’t figure out what else is going on, they’re crowding everything else out like the noise at the club. You’re not so much struggling to identify what you’re feeling as you are experiencing only a single dominant emotion.
If your current emotional experience is one you would describe as actively bad, your primary problem that you’re bottlenecked on is not “How do I figure out what I feel?” but “How do I feel less bad?”.
Some concrete things that might help:
Talk to an actual professional rather than just listen to some guy on the internet (possibly just your GP, as this may be a thing that medication helps you with, but a therapist might be a good idea too).
Practical interventions in problems in your life. If there are things that are stressing you out, can you just fix them rather than enduring the stress?
Mindfulness practice (maybe. It’s certainly meant to. I haven’t had a huge amount of experience of this myself).
Run of the mill relaxing activities - touch grass, get a massage, have a nice hot bath, hang out with friends with no specific agenda (delete as appropriate).
Additionally, the rest of this piece will not be useless to you if this is you, but I’d recommend really focusing on learning to recognise how bad you are currently feeling and what that seems to be responding to rather than worrying too much about nuance.
Demanding a particular answer
It’s impossible to get the right answer to a question if you won’t accept that answer. If every time your emotional literacy skill says “fear” you go “no no I can’t be afraid, that would be ridiculous, it must be something else” you’re never going to recognise the fear emotion.
Typically this arises because there are some emotions which you feel are immoral or inappropriate to be experiencing in a particular situation, either because you think it would be bad to act in line with that emotion, or because you think that it would imply something bad about you to have that emotional response.
Here are two principles that are helpful to get out of this problem:
You have no moral obligations to experience a particular set of emotions. Moral obligations cover behaviour, and while it takes work to act out of line with your emotions, it’s entirely doable and is much easier once you recognise what those emotions are. You can be angry at someone without actually hurting them, you can be afraid of something without running away, and recognising that you are angry or afraid improves your ability to do this.
You can think of emotions as coming from parts of you rather than the whole, and those parts can be mistaken in a way that you do not as your whole self endorse. Some part of you might be afraid because it remembers a particularly humiliating experience that the current situation reminds it of. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to experience, and the part of you is just trying to help out, but you can do that by acknowledging it and going “It’s OK, I’ve got this” when you recognise that despite that fear you actually do know how to handle this situation.
Understanding your emotions correctly is almost always more useful than demanding that they fit a particular model of what you think the right emotions in a situation should be, and working with them will tend to over time align those emotions more effectively with the ones you’d endorse as correct (sometimes by changing the emotions, sometimes by changing your understanding of what’s correct).
Yet another problem that can crop up as you try to learn emotional literacy is that you might not want to (or might want not to, which is subtly different). Often this comes from a strongly internalised belief that emotions are bad in some way (this is common in men, but it’s also common if you’ve got a history of people using your emotions to manipulate you, or punishing you for your emotions) but it can also e.g. come from having a negative response to paying attention to your body, particularly if you’ve got a lot of health issues.
My recommendation for dealing with this is two fold: Firstly, try to get good at it slowly and gently, taking your time, and pay particular attention to any feelings that come up around the particular problem of trying to get good at emotional literacy.
If you find yourself trying that and still not being able to work on it, or finding the whole experience frustrating and unpleasant, go seek out a therapist and talk to them about this. You might want to find one who specialises in Internal Family Systems, as that’s likely to be particularly helpful for this sort of problem.
Once you’ve started to get a handle on the problem (learning to recognise predispositions to certain recognisable categories of behaviour based on your introspective sense of your own self), and you’ve created an environment in which you are safe and able to practice that, most of the rest is just about paying attention. You notice the things that you are trying to predict (your behaviour, and your predispositions to particular behaviours), you notice the things you are trying to use to predict them (the feelings that are available to you from introspection), and you try to line them up.
For example, you might go, “I notice that I am feeling tightness in my chest, and I recognise that as a feeling I have when people say mean things to me, and I often get defensive and catty in response to such behaviours. It’s likely that this feeling is an indicator of being upset.”
As time goes on you might get more nuance. “Hmm it’s a tightness in my chest, but it’s not really an upset tightness exactly. It’s not that I’m feeling hurt exactly, it’s that I think that guy is an asshole. I’m probably angry more than I am upset.”
(these are more or less accurate examples of how I experience this, but I don’t know how well they translate)
By paying attention to all these things, you gradually learn to match them up, as your responses become familiar to you.
Paying attention to intuitive correctness
One of the best places to start is your sense of intuitive correctness of verbal statements, which I basically guarantee you have and just haven’t consciously noticed you have.
It’s this: When someone says something to you, before you have any conscious thoughts about it you probably have a pretty good sense of whether you think it’s right or wrong (though that sense might be “I have no idea”).
For example if I said to you “The population of the united states is about 90 million.” your first impression is something more like “Wait no that seems wrong” even if your first thought is something like “Wait no it’s not it’s more like 300 million” (or possibly “No I’m sure it’s much larger than that”. Or possibly you don’t have any intuition about population statistics and this example didn’t land, but if so I encourage you to stare at a bunch of factual claims and see if you can notice what I’m talking about).
You can also notice this if I say truisms. “The sky is blue”, “water is wet”. You barely even register these. The reason you can react to the example of the population of the united states is that you have an intuitive response of incongruity that then generates a thought.
Pay attention to that. Notice your own thoughts, and the feelings that lead to them, when engaging with the world, and see if you can notice your intuitive sense of correctness of statements.
The reason this is important is that when labelling feelings you really have to be paying attention to this sense. This is one of your most valuable tools in the trial and error process - if you say “I am happy” and something in you protests “No, that isn’t right…” pay attention to that.
Paying attention to behaviour
Here’s a thing that’s worth spelling out: You’re allowed to figure out what emotions you’re feeling in broadly the same way you would with anyone else, which is by paying attention to what you’re actually doing. If you’re behaving in an angry way, maybe you’re actually angry.
It’s not a perfect approach by any means, but it’s good to learn to pay attention to your own behaviour, and infer things from it, and is an important step for understanding and labelling your feelings better.
It also helps to track broader patterns - for example, noticing what you’re always happy to spend time on (you want to do that thing) and the tasks that you avoid even when you know you should do them (you don’t want to do that thing, or possibly you’re afraid of or anxious about that thing, or…) and generally nonjudgmentally notice them and infer hypotheses as to what emotions they might correspond to.
As always, pay attention to the sense of correctness here. If a hypothesis like this feels wrong, it probably is. If you’re not sure, that’s OK, keep paying attention.
Paying attention to thoughts
Additionally, unlike with other people, you have access to your thoughts as well as your actions. For example if you find yourself thinking “I’m not angry! That person just behaved terribly. How dare they treat me like that, they’re such an asshole!” then, well, again maybe you’re angry.
Getting good at metacognition (thinking about your own thinking) is a really important introspective skill, and paying attention to patterns of thoughts that support particular behaviours is a good route in to understanding your emotions. e.g. if you think someone is an asshole, you’re predisposed to treat them as an asshole, which probably corresponds to a particular set of emotional responses to them…
Thoughts are also a good handle to start from when trying to understand where your feelings are coming from. If you notice you think something, you can ask “Why do I think this?” and start generating hypotheses, and pay attention to whether that feels right.
Paying attention to feelings
And, finally, you should of course pay attention to how you’re feeling.
You should start by very literally just paying attention to your actual physical sensations. For example, I notice my neck is tense at the moment, my eyes are a little tired (I really need to get myself some glasses, but in the short term I should put some eye drops in), I can notice some slightly tension in my shoulders and a little bit of pain in my lower back, plus scanning downwards there’s the usual pain in my right hip, etc.
I recommend doing this for a while without worrying too much about how it relates to emotions. Just get good at paying attention to bodily sensations. It might help to actually try saying things out loud, or writing them down, just going through a list of everything you notice about how your body feels right now.
What you will tend to notice over time is that there are certain characteristic familiar patterns of how you are feeling. Some of these will be purely physical (e.g. my shoulders are probably tense because I’m sitting at a computer a lot), while some you will tend to notice are physical reactions to certain situations. When you start spotting patterns like that you should get interested, because that’s probably an emotional reaction of some sort that you could be paying attention to.
Learning to label
The basic process of putting all of this together is something that’s called Focusing in therapy circles, which is an unfortunately culty sounding name for a slightly more explicit version of a very normal process that people do all the time.
Focusing is the following process:
Ask “What am I feeling?” (possibly “What am I feeling about XYZ?” or other similar questions).
Pay attention to the sensations in your body. This is a very literal instruction - notice things like pain, tension, pleasant feelings.
Say things about what this might mean at a conceptual level, generating possible interpretations. “Maybe this tension I’m feeling in my shoulders is from anger? Fear? I might be afraid of…”
Pay attention to the sense of correctness on the things you’re saying. If any of them feel almost but not quite right, try to generate things that sound closer to right. “I might be afraid of this going wrong. Hmm. Except it’s not really the actual outcome I’m worried about, I’m worried about it being my fault if things go wrong. I think people will blame me, and that will feel like…”
If you can run this process to completion there will be a “Yes! That’s it!” moment at the end where you’ve got it exactly right. Often the feeling will shift and there will come a sense of relief at being able to articulate it (Focusing people call this a “body shift”. I’m a little confused about what’s actually going on in a body shift and it might be a number of different things, but for the purposes of getting a basic handle on Focusing it’s mostly a nice indicator that it’s working).
Focusing for skeptics is a pretty good articulation of a worked example of this process if you want to read a bit more about it.
Note that if you’re struggling with this, chances are good you’ll get stuck somewhere around step 3. You’ll generate a bunch of suggestions and the sense of correctness will respond with “??? How should I know ???”. That’s fine. My recommendation would be to do the process anyway, including noticing any changes in physical sensations that crop up while you’re doing it, and if you don’t get anywhere treat it as a good practice run. It still puts you in the right mindset for trying to pay attention to the mapping between physical sensations and your emotional state, even if you don’t manage to complete the whole process.
If this post was helpful, then I have two books and two practices to recommend.
The first book is “The Power of Focusing” by Ann Cornell Weiser and I know what this book looks like and I’m sorry. If it's too woo looking for you then you can read “Focusing” by Gendlin, which is the original and slightly more respectable looking book. Focusing is basically the skill I’m trying to point at here, though slightly broader and I think typically less well explained in its foundations, and Weiser’s book is by far the best manual of it I know despite its slightly woo vibes.
The second book is “The Book of Human Emotions” by Tiffany Watt-Smith. It’s erratically good and is more of a reference book than something I recommend reading cover-to-cover, but I recommend having a flick through it and using it as a reference for how people talk about and describe emotions. In particular if you think you might be experiencing a particular emotion, or want to understand it better, it can be worth looking it up in the book (although be warned, some of the entries are fairly unhelpful. I think e.g. in the “love” entry she just throws her hands up and all but says “Nope, too much has been written about love, can’t be bothered to recap all of that”. I’ve never noticed anything in it that’s actively misleading, but I haven’t looked that carefully).
The two practices (as well as working through the exercises of “The Power of Focusing”) I recommend are:
Try journaling. This doesn’t have to be something you do every day, although it might be helpful to do so if you find that easy. Write down things about how your day has gone, your thoughts about a particular subject, and notice any feelings that arise while you’re writing. Write about those too.
If you struggle with the metacognition and paying attention parts of this, try a mindfulness app. I don’t really have much experience with these (I’ve read up on and use the basics of mindfulness and done a bit of meditation, but the apps didn’t really work for me). I don’t actually have any strong opinions on whether you should have a regular mindfulness practice (I don’t, but I know people who swear by it), but I do think most people will benefit from learning the basic skills even if they then choose not to use them as part of a formal practice.
Above all though, I recommend just thinking of this as something you’re not currently good at rather than a fixed character trait, and paying attention to all the things I’ve pointed out in your daily life, and hopefully that’s enough to see some improvement all on its own.
The cover image is The Feeling Wheel, obtained from Wikimedia commons, and was originally released under a creative commons license here. Personally I don’t find feeling wheels all that useful, but they’re conceptually interesting.
If you would like to join a community of other readers of this newsletter, we have a discord server, which is partly for talking about the newsletter, and partly as an attempt to build a community in line with its general themes. You can join us there by clicking this invitation link, or you can read more about it in our community guide first if you like.
Being able to explicitly say what emotions you’re experiencing isn’t strictly necessary for understanding them, but it’s a pretty good tool, and is necessary for then communicating your understanding.
Mine is not too far off one you’ll find in Antonio Damasio’s work if you’re curious, although I’ve not actually read as much of that work as I perhaps should.
This is mostly an aside because I like this fact, but humans echolocate and don’t notice they’re doing it. A lot of how you navigate a space is that you literally hear what’s around you - you can hear the difference between standing next to a wall and standing in a wide open space, because of how small sounds echo. We are very good at just subconsciously integrating sensory information into our interpretation of the world and deleting the records of where that information came from, which is I think a lot of what’s happening when people just “automatically” feel particular emotions without noticing bodily sensations.
"You should start by very literally just paying attention to your actual physical sensations."
My problem is I don't get those sensations associated with emotions! I didn't know everybody else did until I went through an exceptionally stressful time which for whatever reason allowed me to feel those things for the first time. Then bam- gone again.
There's a lovely example of how skill acquisition changes how you perceive the world in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zd_UcjMusUA Expert jazz drummer Larnell Lewis, who has listened to very little metal in general, hears the song "Enter Sandman" by Metallica for the first time and then plays it back near-flawlessly. For our purposes the interesting part is the first half, where you can see him breaking down the song based on his existing knowledge of percussion and song structure. After a while he starts air-drumming along, predicting (pretty accurately, AFAICT) where the song is going to go. When he comes to perform the song for real, he only has to remember a much smaller set of surprising parts, and for me (as a non-musician) it was as interesting seeing what surprised him as it was seeing what he was able to predict.