When people talk about emotional intelligence, they are often referring to someone’s ability to recognize and understand their own emotions. In the academic research of emotional intelligence, this ability is more specifically referred to as self-awareness, and it is the foundation of emotional intelligence. Once we’ve built up our self-awareness, we can then better manage ourselves and our interactions with others. Without it, pretty much everything else under the heading of emotional intelligence is impossible (e.g., conflict resolution, inspiring others, social awareness).
Often, leaders will ask us how they can quickly and effectively grow in self-awareness. Our answer is sometimes stunningly underwhelming—just learn how to name your emotions more precisely. Studies show that people who can label their feelings specifically experience numerous benefits including:
- They are more likely to be flexible in managing their negative emotions.
- They are better at handling fear and anxiety and less likely to have angry outbursts.
- They are less likely to use alcohol as an emotional coping mechanism.
Here are three different strategies that you could use to grow your ability to identify and label emotions.
Start with the Basics
There are seven categories of emotions that show on a person’s face: happiness, anger, sadness, contempt, fear, surprise, and disgust. These seven provide a great starting point to search for inside yourself. It’s been our experience that for intense emotions, just naming them acts as a kind of “pause” button slowing our physical reaction to the feeling and bringing the emotion into the realm of rational thought where we can begin to process what we’re feeling and why. This fundamental step might save you from reacting with anger or fear.
Develop Your Emotional Vocabulary
Here’s the thing about emotions, they don’t just hit on one level. Some are intense, while others barely move our emotional needle, and it is through understanding these subtle varieties that we begin to deeply develop self-awareness. Check out this emotions list from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, which considers words for emotions that only exist in other languages. It’s full of words like “abbiocco,” that sleepy feeling we get after a big meal, or “feierabend,” the festive mood that arrives at the end of a working day, or “tartle,“ that anxious feeling you get before you have to greet or speak to someone whose name you can’t quite remember. By expanding our emotional vocabulary, we’re really getting to know our range of tendencies and triggers. Careful reflection on these emotions tends to be the key to accessing big picture questions about our values, beliefs, and intentions.
Practice on Movies or Sitcoms
This may seem silly to some of us, but it’s just what the emotional doctor would order for others. Our first two strategies are pretty reflective and maybe downright boring to some; at least with this one, you can enjoy your favorite sitcom while upgrading your emotional awareness. As you watch a movie or sitcom, try to focus on the emotions that are captured. When a character shows fear, for example, try to identify and understand what type of fear. Are they “apprehensive?” Are they “terrified?” Apprehension might come from a sense of personal doubt, while “terrified” is much more physical and likely due to an immediate external threat or triggered from past trauma. Don’t worry about finding the correct answer. The focal point is just building your awareness and your ability to interpret emotions as they happen. This exercise will not only help you better identify your own feelings, but it will also help you increase social awareness or your capacity to see and understand the emotions and inclinations of others.
Reflection: If the people who know you best were going to evaluate your self-awareness, what would they say about your ability?