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How To Identify Your Emotions And Why It's Useful

You've probably heard that emotional intelligence is a key predictor of success in most if not all walks of life. Emotional intelligence is founded on self-awareness - ability to feel emotions, and to name them (emotional literacy), and to not be overwhelmed by them. (Actually, being able to name emotions helps you not be overwhelmed.)

But how do you go about improving your emotional awareness and emotional literacy if you do feel yourself somewhat lacking? This article suggests one method.

What Is Emotion?

The term "emotion" is quite broad and even vague - it covers a number of aspects of experience:

  • Feelings - by which I mean the perception of or experience of body states. For example your heart pounds in fear.
  • Thoughts & thinking patterns - by thoughts I mean particularly inner dialogue. For example in anger you have thoughts about revenge. There also thinking styles - in depression thinking is slow and repetitive.
  • Urges & impulses to act - in anger you're moved to yell or even hit out.
  • Attention - you tend to focus in particular ways and on particular things - e.g. in anxiety you focus rather narrowly on what might go wrong.

The Circumplex Model of Emotion

One of the earlier attempts at scientific analysis of emotion was the circumplex model - it's actually rather useful, even if it doesn't capture every nuance of the concept of emotion.

Essentially it sees any particular emotion as defined primarily by two paramters or "variables":

  • arousal (or how much physical energy is involved)
  • "valence" which basically means how pleasant or unpleasant the emotion feels.

Here is a simple diagram showing the "spectrum" of emotional states as suggested by the model:

circumplex model of emotion

How To Identify Your Emotional State

The circumplex model clearly suggests a way to identify your emotional state - you could follow steps something like these

  1. Ask yourself how well you feel right now - do you feel good, does it feel good to be in your shoes right now? Or maybe it's not so pleasant? Rate your "emotional valence" on a scale from say -5 (unpleasant) to +5 (pleasant).
  2. What's happening in your body right now? How much energy do you feel? Do you feel restless, agitated, energised, or maybe dull and lethargic? If you had to do some physical activity, that involved say running or using strength, how would that feel? Again rate yourself on a scale of say -5 to +5, this time for energy or arousal level.
  3. Now you have rated the two parameters you can simply read off your emotional state from a chart - just like using two coordinates to find a point on a map. 

Of course you need on which to look up your state - the value of the method clearly depends on having a good chart.

I don't have one that I can publish here without potentially breathing someone's copyright, but here is a link to one example that I think works pretty well.

You can also go to google images and search on "circumplex model of emotion" and find lots of other versions. Here is another one I quite like.

Of course each version is slightly different - we're not dealing with hard science here.

The Mood Meter App

The mood meter app is a software app available for mobile devices (both android and apple) and developed by Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence. It's based on the method I've just described - so you'll rate yourself on each of the two parameters, valence and energy or arousal, and then it will offer an emotional word that describes your state - in fact it offers several and you can choose which fits best.

It does cost a very small amount of money but if you feel lacking in emotional literacy I'd recommend it as a training tool.

Building Self-regulation Skills & Emotional Intelligence

The app is not just about increasing your emotional self-awareness - it's designed to develop emotional regulation skills and ultimately, greater emotional intelligence. So tehre are further steps beyond initially identifying your emotion, that I won't go into here.

If you use it lots over several days it can track your emotional state and show you reports.

You can learn more about the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence by watching video presentations on YouTube such as these:

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