Emotional granularity and how it can help you feel better.

In college, I was inadvertently a jerk toward someone in my writing class.

She described feeling “happy” in an essay, and I wondered aloud whether she might have used a different word:

“Happy” and “sad” were fit for kindergarteners (not that I shared my opinion like that), and I deemed that a college student could find language with more uh…depth.

I’ve since come to see “happy” and “sad” as fit for adult use, but won’t berate myself for asking my classmate to dig deeper. Not that I knew it at the time—or that anyone was talking about it in research literature—but what I wanted from my fellow student was emotional granularity.

A term coined by Lisa Feldman Barrett, emotional granularity refers to a person’s ability to differentiate between the specificity of their emotions. The ability to do this can be beneficial in many ways, such as making folks less likely to drink excessively when stressed to reducing their trips to the doctor.

The good news is that emotional granularity can be learned.

To the extent that I’ve developed the skill as an adult, I give much credit to a comment that triggered my habit for prying into what I’m feeling inside.

Years ago, someone told me that I was too weak to get angry and fight; a flawed accusation to me in a few ways, her reason, nonetheless, was because I didn’t show racial anger. But I didn’t show racial anger not because I suppressed it to avoid fights, but because I didn’t feel it in the first place.

(This is a fact I didn’t share, thinking that my accuser would have taken it as proof of her (flawed) position, and/or perverted it to mean something worse about me).

It’s not that I felt nothing about race relations, but it wasn’t anger. And it took many rounds of trying on various emotions for size until I found one that seemed to fit:

Grief.

Whether grief is an appropriate response to social ills—and who decides such, anyway?—isn’t the point here, but that dealing effectively with negative emotions can vary greatly given how well we’ve specified them. For example, a woman grief-stricken by the state of the world may more likely benefit from talking her feelings through with friends, thought leaders or God than by fighting evil power brokers.

Again, I’m not commenting on the relative merits of talking or fighting, but suggesting that one may be better for finding wellbeing in certain situations.

As far as depressed means “lowered in force” or “being below the standard or norm,” I could say that I’m depressed right now. But that would give a wrong impression. Granted, I haven’t been feeling great, but depressed, the way we tend to think about it, doesn’t fit what I’m feeling.

According to Dr. Barrett in a piece for the NY Times, our brains construct our emotional states, and “people who learn diverse concepts of emotion are better equipped to create more finely tailored emotions.” And, the way I see it, create more finely tailored responses to emotions that grip us.

Of the “not great” ways that I’ve felt recently, feeling stagnant has loomed large among them. Maybe I can’t change all the conditions contributing to the ways I feel, but I can overcome feeling stagnant by making progress on my personal goals.

In fact, simply planning to work on my goals has lifted my spirits, so I’m glad that I took the time to parse my emotions rather than calling myself depressed and responding in a way that may have done nothing to help me feel better.

Perhaps you can see what this has to do with you, but I’ll spell it out regardless:

The next time you feel bad, “go granular” on your emotions by asking how else you might describe the way you feel; keep asking until you pinpoint a feeling that fits.
Next, ask yourself what’s a good way of dealing with the feeling.

Then follow your inner voice.