How are you feeling today, beautiful friend? Do you even know the words to put to the emotions you feel? Or is your emotional vocabulary limited to happy and sad – maybe with a dash of mad and some other random variation of “fine”?
We create our own experience of life, every single day – every single moment. Outside of us, there are circumstances we may or may not be able to control. Inside, though, we have thoughts that we can choose. Those thoughts produce emotions. The best part of that whole sequence is that we can choose the feeling and reverse engineer it to create thoughts that support us. We can also choose to stop the train at any point – or to slow it down (with practice) so we can course-correct before going off the rails.
This ability to choose our own adventure, to master our own minds, is one of the best perks of growing older and wiser. (Not that everyone learns how to do this – ever. But, it’s a possibility for anyone, anywhere, anytime.)
Happy and Sad, Mad and Scared
One of the many, many, MANY weight loss programs I tried before addressing my eating disorder was Naturally Slim. While it had no chance of working for me because of the craziness in my brain at the time, it did bring up something interesting that’s helped otherwise.
Part of the program involves identifying your emotions – especially before eating. It’s no secret that overeaters often use food to buffer themselves from life. Emotions can feel dangerous. Like a pressure cooker about to blow, when emotions get to be too much, it can be easier to shove a cookie in your mouth rather than to face the feelings.
But while practicing recognizing these basic emotions: happy, sad, mad, and scared, I had a realization. When did emotional life become practically monochromatic? Some people can’t even recognize these four emotions when they’re feeling them, no doubt. But there are nuances worth exploring, too.
Oh Where, Oh Where Did All My Feelings Go?
Kind of like using an over-simplified filing system, it’s easy to miss the nuances of emotion by lumping them all into just a few. I was listening to Brooke Castillo’s podcast episode #241. On it, she mentioned an emotional dictionary Patrick Ryan created.
So, I went looking and found this nice big list of 57 emotions:
Wow, 57 sure beats running through a short rotation of four!
If You Can Name It, You Can Work With It
There are benefits to having more choices for identifying how we’re feeling. One is that specificity is more useful in processing emotion. The second is like it. When I can imagine or remember a certain feeling, it’s a lot easier to steer myself in its direction.
It’s kind of like if you’ve ever tried to make yourself cry, like, maybe you were in a play and had to cry on cue. How’d you do it? Probably you thought of the saddest thing you could imagine – your dog died, your best friend said she hates you, something like that. If you focused hard enough on that imaginary scenario, maybe even piled a few of them on top of each other, all of a sudden, you could feel your eyes start to water. Soon, you had an actual tear rolling down your cheek. Bravo!
But it works in real life – at least when I practice it. If I want to feel peaceful, I can set a stage in my mind. A gentle river flowing over smooth stones, gurgling on its way as it carries an orange maple leaf on its surface. If I focus on that scene and recall the feeling of peace, all of a sudden, I feel more peaceful. Or, if I want to be happy, I do this.
Of course, we can do this with other, less lovely emotions. Want to feel worried? Easy. Drum up a recollection of finding a huge unexpected bill in the mailbox. How about a little midlife rage for you? Piece of cake. Or, recall the moment you got terrible news on the phone. You can dip back into that emotion instantly.
I’d challenge you to spend a few minutes reading through all the emotions on the list to see whether you can recall experiencing them. Probably yes! And it probably wouldn’t take you long to identify an experience in which you felt them. That means you’ve got everything you need to practice feeling any of them that you wish to feel.
Choose a Richer Emotional Life
As a mentor taught me:
Resorting to the same four emotions all the time – or even two – happy and sad – if we’re honest, it is like voluntarily going colorblind. If that’s all the emotional variation you tend to experience, you can expand your range with a little practice. Then, you can start choosing which feelings you want to experience. You may even find this practice helps you listen to and love your people, too.
Watch and see what happens when you start practicing.