MINDRAMP PODCAST - FLOURISH AS YOU AGE

FLOURISH - Managing Our Emotions

May 31, 2024 Michael C. Patterson Season 4 Episode 39
FLOURISH - Managing Our Emotions
MINDRAMP PODCAST - FLOURISH AS YOU AGE
More Info
MINDRAMP PODCAST - FLOURISH AS YOU AGE
FLOURISH - Managing Our Emotions
May 31, 2024 Season 4 Episode 39
Michael C. Patterson

 We are emotional illiterates. We have limited vocabularies to describe the subtleties and nuances of our moods, feelings and emotions. As a consequence, we find it hard to explain our feelings or to understand the feelings of others.  

We can start building our emotional literacy by defining  the differences between affect, feelings and emotions. We can then work to develop "emotional granularity," the exercise of defining our emotions with increasingly specific words and labels.

Support the Show.

Support our work to promote creative aging. Subscribe to the MINDRAMP Podcast.

THE MINDRAMP PODCAST
Please support our efforts to promote successful longevity. Thanks! Optional.
Starting at $3/month
Support
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

 We are emotional illiterates. We have limited vocabularies to describe the subtleties and nuances of our moods, feelings and emotions. As a consequence, we find it hard to explain our feelings or to understand the feelings of others.  

We can start building our emotional literacy by defining  the differences between affect, feelings and emotions. We can then work to develop "emotional granularity," the exercise of defining our emotions with increasingly specific words and labels.

Support the Show.

Support our work to promote creative aging. Subscribe to the MINDRAMP Podcast.

MANAGING OUR EMOTIONS

Hi. Welcome to the Flourish As You Age podcast. We are exploring ways to manage our mature minds in ways that will help us to embrace our age and to flourish within the aging process. In this episode I want to begin to address the important topic of emotions - emotional regulation, emotional intelligence. Clearly, our ability to flourish with age is greatly influenced by our emotional reaction to what we are experience. So, how can we manage our emotions in ways that promote happiness and wellbeing?

Let me start with by exploring the idea that emotions are labels, mental constructs that we use to interpret more fundamental physiological sensations. 

The psychologist Ellen Langer promotes her own brand of mindfulness that is similar to meditative mindfulness, but has its own unique aspects. One of the principles of Langerian mindfulness involves the development of categories to describe the things around us, the objects in the world, our feelings and our actions. Langer argues that the more categories we create, the more mindful we become.

From the hemisphere perspective, the naming of things - categorization - is very much an activity of the LH, the conceptual mind. Rather than see the holistic Gestalt of awareness, as does the RH, the LH breaks awareness into bits and pieces and gives them individual identities. It gives names, labels and categories to these shards of awareness.  

This process of categorization extends to the naming of our Self (Big S Self) as something unique and apart from everything else. Further, these categorizations give names and identities to things that happen to us and to physiological responses of our body. 

Langer’s idea about categories is that we come to rely on single, simple categories to name and, therefore, to understand our experience of reality. If we have just one category for our Self, we end up being very one-dimensional and boring. When we have only one category to describe a phenomenon, we become blind to the full complexity and diversity of existence. When a tree is just “a tree” we are being mindless about the true nature of the specific tree we are looking at. 

To be mindFUL, Langer suggests that we search for the unique characteristics of each individual tree and invent new categories to describe what we observe. This encourages us to really look at the tree - to be mindful of it. This tree is not just a generic tree, it is specifically a fig tree (new category). And, this fig tree is different from other fig trees. It is a big fig tree (another category), with massive above-ground roots (a new category). It is the big fig tree on the corner of First Street and Vine (another categories). And so on. 

The more categories we invent to describe  that amazing fig tree, the more individual, unique and magical it becomes and the more carefully and mindfully we experience it and relate to it. 

We can take this same mindful approach to our relationship to our emotions. Rather than limit ourselves to simple descriptions that cause us to be mindless about the phenomenon, we can be mindful, observe more carefully and continue to invent new categories to describe what is going on. 


Let’s start by examining the category - Emotions. Usually, when we talk about our feelings we use the word “emotions.” Or, of course, we use the word “feelings.” Which means pretty much the same thing. We use emotions and feelings to describe those strange perturbations of our psyche. But to label the vast universe of sensations that range from passion to lethargy, from joy to sorrow, from fear to lust with just on or two words is mindless. 

We can do a bit better by, at least, being more specific about the meaning of three different words to describe our sensations. Let’s start with defining “affect”, “feelings,” and “emotions,” and being clear about how they differ from one another.  

There is disagreement among emotion researchers about the definitions of these words, but I’ll go with the definitions that make sense to me. The main point being, that there are important differences between affect, feelings and emotions, however you define them.

In short, the word “affect” refers to our constant, background sense of how we feel about life. Affect is our general mood that is always with us. The foundation or default setting for our emotions.  

“Feelings” are raw, uninterpreted sensory experiences that rise to conscious awareness. Feelings are our awareness of physiological sensations of , say, comfort or thirst or pain.  
“Emotions” are our interpretations of our affect and our feelings. They are categories and labels we construct to give names to our general mood and to the physiological sensations that come to our awareness. 

Going back to Langer’s ideas about mindless categorization, we make the same mistake with our emotions. We smack a label onto a range of feelings and leave it at that. “Aha! This is anger.” “I am angry.” Or, happy, or sad, or afraid or jealous. 

By and large, we get by with a very limited vocabulary to describe our affect, our feelings and our emotions. There is much more subtlety and nuance to our sensations than is captured by the words we use. 

Just what does it mean to be angry? It could mean a whole range of emotions, ranging from irritated and annoyed to frustrated, or get ramped all the way up to rage.

Emotion researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett suggests that we can do a much better job of understanding our own emotions and of interpreting the emotions of others - having emotional intelligence - if we improve our emotional granularity. Barrett’s phrase, “emotional granularity” means creating finer and more granular categories to describe specific emotions. We should strive to expand our emotional vocabulary so that we can call upon increasingly precise words to describe exactly what we are feeling. 

Frequently parents yell at their kids, or spouses yell at their loved ones, expressing what appears to be anger, even hatred. But often they are feeling something quite different. A parent will yell at a kid who runs into the street not in anger, but in fear, concern and love. A spouse may yell at their loved one out of jealousy or envy or frustration. 

When we have a richer emotional vocabulary we can do a better job of interpreting our own emotions and a better job of explaining what we are feeling to others. Communication improves. The sharing of emotions becomes a means of increasing connections with others. 

I was so intrigued with the idea of emotional granularity, I created a card game called “MOTUS: The Game of Emotional Fluency.” It consists of a deck of cards with over one hundred words for different affects and emotions. There’re multiple ways to use the cards, but one game invites each player to choose an emotion for the cards in their hand and to connect it to an emotion on the table. 

Let’s say the word “nervous” is on the table and the player connects it with the word “aggravated.”As they make the connection, they explain what might make them nervous and how that nervousness might morph into aggravation. In the process, players increase their emotional vocabulary, learn to talk about their emotions and develop an appreciation for how emotional reactions evolve and change. 

Note that The MOTUS Game uses both hemispheres of the brain. The labels and categories for emotions are the work of the LH, as is the process of linking the words together in a way that make sense. Then, as the players get into the process of creating emotion-filled scenarios and taking about about their own feelings, they move the concepts into real-life examples. They move into the realm of direct experience and of sensation - from emotions to feelings. 

Remember that emotions are conceptual interpretations of feelings. They are constructed to give words to the strange and mysterious feelings that bubble up from our unconscious. In this sense, emotions are make-believe. They are inventions of our creative, conceptual minds. The feelings are real sensations.  The emotions that interpret and name the feelings are simply words and ideas. 

When we can really grasp the difference between feeling and emotions we can begin to make sense of the saying that “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” Pain is a sensation, a feeling. Something hurts. Suffering, in whatever form it takes, is an interpretation of the pain, an elaboration of the simple sensation. The pain may give rise to all kinds of emotions like fear, anxiety, desperation and anguish as we construct fanciful scenarios around the pain, to explain it, to ponder its significance. 

“Why me? Is it something I ate? It’s so unfair. Do I have cancer? Am I going to die? Will this pain never end? Reactions to pain, or any kind of feeling, have three potential phases: anticipation of the sensation, the actual awareness of the sensation, and finally recovery from the sensation. People who can manage their emotions well confine their pain to the middle phase, the actual sensation of pain. They still feel the pain, but they escape the anguish of anticipation of pain and let it go when it is over, escaping from a long aftermath of recovery. These skillful managers of emotion feel the inevitable pain, but escape the suffering of invented conceptualizations about the pain.   


So, to summarize, the more labels and categories we have about things, the more mindful we can be about their true nature. Our vocabulary about our emotions tends to be rather limited. We are emotional illiterates. As a way to gain emotional literacy we started by differentiating between affect, feelings and emotions. I then introduced the idea of emotional granularity, the process of finding more specific and precise words to describe exactly what we are feeling. The larger our emotional vocabulary, the better we can explain our own feelings and the better we can understand the feelings of others. Finally, when we recognize that emotions are invented concepts and we become more skilled at detaching ourselves from them. We can feel our feelings without elaborating on them and blowing them out of proportion. 

We can flourish as we age by developing our emotional fluency. So as you go through your day, pay attention to the words you use to describe your feelings and see if you can find labels that are more precise and instructive. 

You know, another interesting exercise might be to examine the words we use to describe aging and the aging process.  Often our words for aging have negative connotations.  Can we find different words that have more positive connotations

All right. I’ll leave it there for now. Until next time. Be well, be wise, and flourish. 



















Introduction
Emotions are Labels That Interpret Sensations
Defining Affect, Feelings and Emotions
Limited Emotional Vocabulary
Emotional Granularity - Lisa Feldman Barrett
MOTUS: The Game of Emotional Fluency
Pain is Inevitable; Suffering is Optional
Summary
Conclusion