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3 Ways to Better Understand Your Emotions, by Susan David of Emotional Agility

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Broaden your vocabulary.

hbr emotion words list

Write it out

James Pennebaker has done 40 years of research into the links between writing and emotional processing. His experiments revealed that people who write about emotionally charged episodes experience a marked increase in their physical and mental well-being. Moreover, in a study of recently laid-off workers, he found that those who delved into their feelings of humiliation, anger, anxiety, and relationship difficulties were three times more likely to have been reemployed than those in control groups.

These experiments also revealed that over time those who wrote about their feelings began to develop insights into what those feelings meant (or didn’t mean!), using phrases such as “I have learned,” “It struck me that,” “The reason that,” “I now realize,” and “I understand.” The process of writing allowed them to gain a new perspective on their emotions and to understand them and their implications more clearly.

Here’s an exercise you can use to reflect through writing. You could do this every day, but it’s particularly useful when you’re going through a tough time or a big transition, or if you’re feeling emotional turmoil—or if you’ve had a difficult experience that you think you haven’t quite processed..

  • Set a timer for 20 minutes
  • Using either a notebook or computer, write about your emotional experiences from the past week, month, or year.
  • Don’t worry about making it perfect or readable: go where your mind takes you.
  • At the end, you don’t have to save the document; the point is that those thoughts are now out of you and on the page.

You can also use these three approaches—broadening your vocabulary, noting the intensity of an emotion, and writing it out—when trying to better understand another person’s emotions. As we saw with the example of Ed and his wife, we are just as likely to mislabel someone else’s emotions as our own, with similarly complicating consequences. By more understanding what they are feeling more precisely, you will be better equipped to respond in a constructive way.

Once you understand what you are feeling, then you can better address and learn from those more accurately described emotions. (If you want to assess your own Emotional Agility, here is a link to a quiz.) If Neena addresses the sadness and regret she feels in the wake of her failed project — as well as the anxiety about what it means for her career — that is more productive than trying to figure out how to deal with her anger at Jared. And if Mikhail can recognize his own career anxiety, he can start to craft a plan to build his future more deliberately — rather than simply miring himself in more of the same work when he gets home each night.

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