I’m reading Brené Brown’s new book, Atlas of the Heart, in which she describes over 80 different emotions and clusters them in related categories. Why would such a book be useful? While on the surface, it is a simple concept; however, it actually is very educational for most of us, even those of us who are quite aware of our emotions. As Yogi Berra says, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”
This book makes me realize how difficult it can be for us to really know what we are feeling emotionally. Often, people can only name a few emotions when asked to list all the feelings that they know. (Test yourself. List all the emotions you can name in a few minutes.) In our culture, we are taught about thinking and logic, but we are not taught about issues of the heart and emotions.
Having the knowledge and the vocabulary can only help. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “All I know is what I have words for.” Once we have more precise and accurate words for what we are feeling and experiencing, we then have much richer tools for navigating life and relationships, as well as for making good decisions. I often talk to my clients about how helpful our intuition or “gut” is at providing us good information. While there is a condition (alexithymia) where someone has real difficulty knowing what they are feeling emotionally, most of us are just somewhat out of practice.
One way to improve your understanding and awareness of your feelings is to do a 3-Point Check 1-3x/day and to practice getting in touch with your emotions. To do a 3-Point Check, take a few deep breaths and close your eyes if you want. Then ask yourself these 3 questions:
1.What are my thoughts? (What’s going on in your mind? What are you thinking about or paying attention to?)
2.What am I physically feeling in my body? (Are you hot or cold anywhere? Are you in pain? Are you hungry, or are any of your muscles tight?)
3.What am I feeling emotionally? (What is your mood? Where do you feel this in your body? Some people feel their feelings in their stomach, others in their chest. Some feel their feelings in their head. Where do you feel your feelings?)
Taking this pause and checking in with yourself educates you about your heart and gives you a moment to be in the present and to be mindful. It will also help you better understand the differences between your thoughts and your feelings. Often when I have clients do a check in at the beginning of a discussion group, they think they are telling me how they are feeling, but they are actually telling me what they are thinking about. It can be challenging to separate our feelings and thoughts. One clue I often give my clients is that emotions are one word, whereas thoughts are usually a phrase or sentence.
When we practice any skill, we improve over time, so work to improve your self-awareness. Learn to clarify the subtleties between what you are emotionally and physically feeling. I encourage you to try this 3-Point Check 1-3 times/day for the next two weeks. It will anchor you in the moment, and it will help you better color your understanding of your emotions.