The title of this article has two questions – a ‘how’ and a ‘why’. We’re going to start with the ‘why’.
In her research on emotions, Lisa Feldman Barrett has found that people who have “finely tuned feelings” have “more precise tools for handling the myriad challenges that life throws at you”. Not just that. People who can more finely tune into their feelings “have longer, healthier lives. They go to the doctor and use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness. Cancer patients, for example, have lower levels of harmful inflammation when they more frequently categorize, label and understand their emotions.”
She gives the following example:
“Suppose you’re a resident of Flint, Mich., facing that city’s troubles with water contamination. Suppose that each morning, as you turn on the tap or send your children off to school, you experience an unpleasant feeling of general badness. You are overcome and sink further into a funk. (… On the other hand, with a more developed ability to fine tune into your emotions, you may get in touch with) a more specific emotion, such as righteous indignation, which entails the possibility of specific actions. You might telephone a friend and rant about the water crisis. You might Google ‘lead poisoning’ to learn how to better protect your children. You might call your member of Congress and demand change. You are no longer an overwhelmed spectator but an active participant. You have choices.”
I’d like to use a metaphor to illustrate this. Your car’s dashboard displays all kinds of information, e.g. speed, how much fuel there is in the tank, alarm for seat belt, alarm when you need oil, etc. This is very specific and allows you to take action. On the other hand, imagine that there was only one light on the dashboard, green if everything is fine, and red if any or all of multiple conditions are bad: e.g. you are driving above the speed limit, and/or you have very little fuel left, and/or your seat belt is not fastened, and/or your oil level is low… It would not be very easy to take action, and you would probably feel a sense of overwhelm.
So this addresses the second question in the title of this article, “Why”: The more we tune in to our feelings, the more actionable information we get, the more we experience ourselves as able to interact creatively with our situation as opposed to being powerless and overwhelmed. This, of course, means getting as much control or power as is realistically possible. We are not talking about a magical ability to accomplish the impossible. It is fitting that Lisa Feldman Barrett chose the water situation in Flint as an example: Getting more precisely in touch with your feelings is not going to make the water any less toxic. It simply helps you do the things you can, however limited, as opposed to simply being overwhelmed.
Now, what about the first question: “How?” I will make some specific suggestions, at the end of the article. First, what is key is to realize that this involves having a different relationship to our feelings – based on a different understanding of what feelings are.
Essentially, the point of being more in touch with our feelings, especially the difficult ones, is not to so much to savor them (or wallow in them). It is to increase our ability to deal effectively with people and situations in our life.
Unlike the information provided by the dashboard of your car, emotions are not just abstract information. They are already the beginning of our response to a situation. That is, in situations that are charged, we do not first assess the situation, then decide on a course of action. We respond to the situation intuitively, with our whole being. A simple, concrete example: Imagine you’re standing up, and you sense somebody coming behind you with possibly hostile intentions. Chances are you’re going to raise your shoulders, bracing, in anticipation. You’re sensing a threat, and responding to it, without necessarily thinking consciously about what you’re doing. You may not even be aware of that movement. Or you may just experience it as some kind of a hunch, a felt sense, as opposed to a fully articulated understanding of the situation.
So being in touch with your felt sense is not just getting abstract information about the situation. You are getting in touch with processed information – – how your whole organism is gearing up in response to the situation. Your nervous system sensors are picking up on what is happening in your shoulders, your shallower breathing, and your mind is encoding this information as bracing for danger. Your felt sense is the experience you have of the way your whole organism is physically responding to the challenge.
I want to linger on that last phrase, and paraphrase it: Your felt sense is how you experience the response of your organism. What you feel is what is happening as your organism is responding (or preparing to respond, which in itself is a response: for instance, bracing). So what we feel is the energy of responding. The more we are in touch with the specific response of the organism, the more we are able to follow that energy (as in the metaphor of the dashboard being more precisely in tune with what is happening).
This is processed information at several levels: (1) There is the intuitive assessment of a threat looming, which unconsciously triggers the response of bracing. (2) Sensing into that physical bracing reaction, your mind unconsciously encodes this as danger. (3) You are now perfectly poised to go into a feedback loop: The sense of danger can make you feel more tense, and your sensors will reflect that increased tension, thereby increasing your sense of danger.
Lisa Feldman Barrett describes this in the following terms, referring to the example of the hypothetical Flint resident feeling ‘bad’:
“It’s important to note that you’ve created that vague feeling of badness. Neuroscience has shown that human brains are not ‘reactive’ organs that merely respond to the world in some predetermined way, such as spiking your blood pressure when you see the word ‘ISIS.’ Rather, your brain regulates your body’s energy needs proactively, spiking your blood pressure in anticipation of what might come next, based on past experience.
“This process is like keeping a budget for your body. And just like a financial budget, a body budget needs to be kept balanced in order to be healthy.
“So in the Flint example, your brain anticipates a threat and your cortisol level spikes, readying your body for action, but a feeling of general badness calls for no specific action. You merely feel awful because your brain has made a needless withdrawal from your body budget. And the next time you’re in a similar situation, your brain goes through the same process. Again you feel lousy and trapped by your circumstances. Over time, a poorly calibrated body budget can pave the road to illness.”
Our ordinary language makes it maddeningly difficult to talk about these things. For instance, one moment I refer to the bracing reaction as ‘intuitive’, and another moment as ‘processed information’. This may seem like a contradiction in terms. So, instead of thinking of ‘intuitive’ as ‘unprocessed’, think of ‘intuitive’ as referring to an implicit process. This implicit process is very useful because it is action-oriented. It gives us very quick results, which is why it has had such a high evolutionary value. But it is not necessarily the best guide to action in many of the circumstances of our more complex lives. Hence the need to complement this high-speed, high-concept response with a more finely tuned process.
I am not referring here to using ‘reason’ as opposed to ‘emotion’. In fact, that old dichotomy exacerbates our tendency to stay at the surface of emotions, instead of tuning into them more finely: If ‘emotion’ is less reliable than ‘reason’, you don’t need to dwell on it, do you? Well, if you don’t stay with it, you deprive yourself of very important information, as we have seen above. In fact, the whole idea is to engage more with the experience of emotion, as opposed to impoverishing it by reducing it to a high-level concept (e.g. ‘I feel bad’). Lisa Feldman Barrett talks about ‘emotional granularity’. Being ‘granular’ means paying attention to the actual texture of things, breaking things down to the fine grain. It is the very opposite of being in ‘high concept’ mode. So it means engaging with the experience, staying with it instead of dismissing it as soon as some sort of meaning emerges.
This is probably very abstract, so I will use a metaphor: that of a connoisseur at a wine tasting. There is a whole ritual involved, including things that happen even before you actually taste the wine: looking at the glass, swirling it, sniffing the wine. Then you’re holding the sip in your mouth, lingering on
it, paying attention to little nuances (the ‘granular’ level). The more you stay with it, the more you can notice, beyond the obvious.
It is important to remember that, while this is an activity that involves the senses, it is also an artificial situation, a process we go into as a way to improve our ability to notice subtleties that we would not ordinarily notice. It is a skill that is developed through training: Over time, as we gain more experience tasting wines, we get better at it; This includes noticing more of the flavors when we drink wine under ordinary circumstances, as opposed to wine tastings.
And, much as our senses of smell and taste are crucial to this process, it does not just involve our senses. You get more able to notice nuances as you develop a conceptual framework to describe this type of experience. It takes a trained palate to describe a Merlot as having flavors of watermelon, strawberry, cherry, plum – – flavors of things that have apparently nothing to do with wine. The words are handles to put around the experience as a way to make it a bit less evanescent.
All of this talk about wine is obviously a metaphor for the ‘how to’ of being more ‘granular’ with our exploration of feelings. To clarify:
– For progress to be made, there has to be a mindful process, a concerted effort to go into a mode that is different from ordinary experience – Wine tasting is not ordinary drinking, and paying attention to emotions at that level requires a similar mind-set.
– It’s not just a one-time thing, but an ongoing process of developing a skill.
– The process is one of engaging – with the wine, or with the feeling. So it is an active process. There is a curiosity, a desire to explore beyond the immediate and obvious first impressions. Curiosity is both channeled and stimulated by having some experience of the field – the same way one’s capacity to enjoy music grows with one’s musical culture.
– While this is an experiential process (as opposed to dealing with simplified, ‘high concept’ stories about the experience), it also involves a back-and-forth between sense information and conceptual handles for this experience. As described above in one of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s quotes, human experience is not pure reaction to stimulus, it is constructed experience. Having conceptual handles to describe the wine, or the emotional experience works in tow ways: (1) It enables us to have more of a grip on the subtleties of the experience. (2) It makes us more aware of the degree to which human experience is constructed. Being more aware of it, we are better able to deconstruct it and go deeper into it.
I realize that this ‘how to’ part may feel a bit daunting. So let’s get back to the metaphor of wine tasting for a moment. If you want to be a great wine taster, it probably makes sense to have help and training. If you simply want to improve your current ability to taste wines, just practicing on your own is going to go a long way. So it goes with emotions: If you have a sense of what they are all about, and this stimulates your curiosity, then make room for moments of exploration, on your own. If you want to develop this ability much further, it’s good to know that there are a variety of avenues, including mindfulness trainings and experiential therapies.
This article was inspired by Lisa Feldman Barrett’s Op Ed in the New York Times June 5 2016 issue: “Are You in Despair? That’s Good”. Lisa Feldman Barrett is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, where she focuses on the study of emotion. She is director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory. Along with James Russell, she is the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Emotion Review.