Emotional granularity, colors and rainbows

Imagine describing a rainbow without knowing any colors. It’s the same with our feelings. By learning more feeling words you improve your emotional granularity and you can more precisely describe how you are feeling, make yourself understood and develop specific strategies for managing each feeling.

How many colors are there in a rainbow?

This might sound like an out-of-place question but bear with me one minute. The answer actually depends where you were brought up. I was taught that there were six colors in a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet. Had I grown up slightly more to the east, in Russia for example, then I would have answered that a rainbow actually has seven colors. What I call blue, in Russia would be split between dark blue and light blue. In the end, I would argue that there are as many colors in the rainbow as we can collectively name and agree upon.

Again... why was this important? Because I believe it’s the same with our feelings. In How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett [1] introduces the term emotional granularity, that is “the ability to put feelings into words with a high degree of specificity and precision” [2]. Rainbows are the same in London as they are in Moscow, but having more words to describe their colors changes their total. Our feelings are the same, but having more words to describe them allows us to understand more precisely what is going on for us. Are we feeling bad (or as I would have said a few years ago, “not good”), or are we actually feeling upset, sad or bored? We can get even more precise! Is the feeling bad actually broken, betrayed or belittled?

The effect of this added precision is huge. Our ability to make sense of our feelings allows us to more easily understand what they’re trying to tell us and to more clearly communicate them, to ourselves and to others. If you tell your partner that you feel unseen they’ll be able to understand and support you better than if you had said simply that you were feeling bad. Precision is also helpful because it allows us to develop specific strategies to deal with each feeling. If we recognize that we are feeling ineffective, we can understand why and what we can do about it. Our coping strategy will be more targeted than had we identified our feeling as being sad, or down.

Developing your emotional granularity and learning to communicate your feelings more clearly isn’t done over night, but by learning more words and practicing regularly you can get the hang of it. Next time you’re checking in with yourself, don’t satisfy yourself with big words like “anxious”, probe a little bit further. Are there actually better words to describe your feelings? If you need help, use prompts. Google feeling words lists [3] and you can find handy lists you can save. (You can also use Feelmo, which I developed precisely because I thought it was impractical to carry a piece of paper in my pocket with words to choose from.) And remember, don’t feel like you have to find that one perfect word, pick multiple words and combine them like you were making a cocktail. Life’s too complicated to be described in just one word.


[1]: How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett

[2]: Understanding Your Feelings: Emotional Granularity Influences on Coping

[3]: I did it for you!

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