In the days following the recent presidential election, I was an emotional mess. The startling upset of Trump’s victory left me, like many people, overwhelmed by my feelings, and a depressing sentiment of general awfulness fogged my ability to function. If you’d asked me how I’d felt at the time, I probably would have said “angry”, “sad” or “depressed”. I thought that allowing myself to wallow in my confused emotional state would be cathartic. However, it turns out I was actually yielding to a type of emotional generalization that may prove harmful and lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Research has shown that emotional differentiation or “emotional granularity”, which involves precisely describing and categorizing one’s negative emotions, allows for healthier emotional regulation. For example, separating out and labeling negative feelings into more specific compartments, e.g., utter disbelief, foreboding, or rage-tinged frustration is more beneficial than characterizing our feelings as simply being angry or depressed. Studies show that individuals who can specifically name their negative emotions are better able to manage them, regardless of their intensity. What’s more, those who are unable to get beyond a highly generalized understanding of their negative feelings are more likely to wind up acting out via unhealthy behaviors such as binge drinking, self harm or aggression. In her New York Times article titled “Are You in Despair? That’s Good”, psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett posits that people who develop emotional granularity skills are rewarded with overall greater health, well-being, and resilience in the face of life’s challenges.
So, what to take away from this research to help me move forward after the election? The first piece of good news, according to Dr. Barrett, is that more specific labeling of emotions allows for taking constructive action. For example, feeling outrage over proposed immigration legislation could lead to calling your state representatives or to participating in a march or protest. Or, accurately labeling your agitation and dread in light of planned Affordable Care Act changes might inspire you to focus more deliberately on setting aside healthcare-related funds.
The second (and more important) takeaway for me is that emotional granularity is a skill that can be learned and practiced, so anyone can benefit from the technique. It’s as simple as learning new words to describe your emotions. Generally, foreign languages tend to offer a greater range of richer and more nuanced expressions. You probably know the word schaudenfreude, but are you familiar with saudade? It’s Portuguese and describes a melancholic yearning for something or someone that may never return. It’s already proving to be a useful, finely-tuned expression for me as I ponder the actions of the incoming administration. I resolve to attempt greater emotional differentiation moving forward, with the aim to bolster my resilience in the face of the undeniable challenges ahead.