What makes you immediately aware of your own emotion?
September 26, 2017 7:58 PM   Subscribe

I think I have rather low emotional self-awareness. Can you help me understand what happens when one is (immediately) aware of their own emotions?

During talk therapy, the therapist and I noticed something about my awareness of my own emotions. Towards the end of the latest session she asked me a question like (paraphrased) "Do you wish to follow the 'other people' in what you believe to be the regular or normal stages of life" and I answered basically "No. I don't think it's my wish 'to follow'. I must approach it on my own terms."

What is pertinent to my question are not the particular ideas in this exchange, but the following "side-channel" observation. She observed that I spoke with emotion when answering, and asked me if I felt that I was displaying emotion. I said (paraphrased) "No, I don't think I showed emotion. I was disagreeing, but that's not emotional. It's just that you asked a 'Do you' question, and I answered 'No' to clarify my attitude."

It is exchanges like this that make me aware of my lack of awareness of my own emotions. I think I can usually identify emotion in other people by the usual cues. And when I read fiction or watch a film I can usually say what kind of emotion a character is showing. Neither do I think I lack the capability of emotion or feelings. In fact, it can at times be extremely intense. Also, I don't think I lack the vocabulary for emotions in either my mother language or English (although English as a foreign language may pose some difficulty). I can and tend to summon "literary" or "poetic" imagery to convey my feelings.

However, other people have observed that I tend to display but also strongly suppress my emotions. And when this happens I usually am not aware of it. If asked, I tend to honestly deny that I am emotional. When I deny, I'm sure it's not active lying with any ill intent. It feels honest. I'm not trying to manipulate or hurt others by the denial.

I can be aware of my own emotions in retrospect, when I am recalling memories. But often it appears that I can't be immediately self-aware in situ.

The question I would like to ask you is this: If you're not like me, how do you achieve the immediate kind of emotional self-awareness? How do you become honestly honest with your own emotions? By asking "you", I mean you the reader rather than a "generic you", and I welcome your own experience or explanation.

Also, sorry for the chattiness, but if you feel like it, would you please describe to me what it feels like when "immediate" emotional self-awareness happens?
posted by runcifex to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: How do you become honestly honest with your own emotions?

Just taking a crack at this one, I think one thing I do is assume that I'm more or less always 'emotional' by counting things like curiosity, equanimity, contentment, boredom, apathy, bemusement, and many more cognitive states as emotions. Also, I probably don't have names for all the feelings my microexpressions reflect, but if I'm making them, there's likely something there.

I'm not sure whether these assumptions are conditioned by some awareness of the anthropology of emotion, e.g. this article where on page 28 the author makes an interesting point about how another researcher was missing the way Indonesian categorizes an 'act of sympathy' separately from a 'sudden access of negative emotion' with no umbrella term to unite them, but for sure I don't think we should take what the term 'emotion' normally covers to be an exhaustive list of what's involved in how we behave.

It sounds like maybe you already have access to that insight via the other language you know, so maybe a different thing to ask is whether something like Brené Brown's talk on vulnerability resonates in some way. For me, at least, it's a minor reason why I wouldn't mind saying that thinking, reasoning, reacting, etc. are generally to some extent emotional. I guess I also spent a lot of time reading Heidegger in grad school, and one of his key points is that thinking always has a mood. His major examples that I can recall are fear, Angst, boredom, and wonder, and I think only one of those would make a short list of what people think of as emotions (though they might all make a long list--I dunno).
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:31 PM on September 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, Wobbuffet, for taking interest in my question. I really appreciate it. <-- [This sentence added just before hitting submit. See?]

For information, the observations I receive (including those from the therapist) are in the native ethnic and cultural setting, so I don't think it was a kind of a linguistic or ethnic-cultural barrier that made me wonder what I was wondering in the question. In brief, I don't lack words for emotions, I don't lack emotions, and I can recognize the presence of emotion... in others, usually. I lack a kind of connection to my own emotion in the immediate setting, and things get clearer when I review them in retrospect. For this reason I'd like you to tell me about the means / steps taken / cognitive skills / etc by which you are connected to your own emotions in situ.
posted by runcifex at 11:12 PM on September 26, 2017

Response by poster: Or, maybe "means" or "skills" are not the right word, but "what prepares you for your immediate connection to your own emotion."

[Sorry about the thread-dwelling.]
posted by runcifex at 11:51 PM on September 26, 2017

Best answer: I tackled this in therapy a bit too, and what for me was the case was that I tend to hide strong emotions from myself out of fear of negative repercussions (e.g. being scared to be sad in case it's a sign of mental illness, being scared to be angry because I don't want to rock the boat). My therapist was able to notice that as a result of this, when I was experiencing an emotion I tended to "exit the room" and became less engaged with the here and now. A very mild form of dissociation I suppose. What she had me do was when she noticed this happening she'd stop me talking and get me to scan my body for any tenseness or pain. Often I'd find that I was holding my breath, clenching my hands, hunching up, or experiencing stomach discomfort. Once I'd paid attention to my body and located a feeling in it, I often found an emotion "located" there too, like: "Oh, I'm clenching my hands and now I notice it, I can tell it's from anger", or not having realised I was anxious until I became aware my stomach was hurting.

I guess this was a form of mindfulness meditation, specifically about being in tune with my body's physical reaction to different emotions. I don't know if everyone experiences strong emotions in this physical way but maybe you do. In situations where I get that dissociation feeling and realise I'm disconnecting, it does help me to take a few breaths and listen to my body to help me recognise what's actually going on with me emotionally.
posted by mymbleth at 12:47 AM on September 27, 2017 [12 favorites]

You should read Daniel Goleman.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:32 AM on September 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you want to understand your emotions better, you can use meditation.

In Real Happiness, Sharon Salzberg includes a 12 minute guided mindfulness meditation track on "Emotions" - where you start with breathing, and then as emotions come up, your "practice" is to name them, observe briefly with interest, and let them go.

If there are emotions you can't "let go" of, you take a moment focus on them and try to tease apart, giving some guided attention to all the aspects (or threads) of the emotion. You'll be surprised what comes up.

When I'm feeling "emotional" and/or overwhelmed I meditate for clarity and to de-mystify my instinctive responses and now I feel like my RANGE of emotion is broader, but also with much more nuance and control.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 3:35 AM on September 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

I also have had a hard time with this, and I have found using a mood tracking app has really helped.

It will prompt you x times a day (you choose how often and when) and then you choose what you are feeling from a list of adjectives. The exercise of looking at a bunch of feelings words often makes me realize I'm feeling something that I hadn't realized, which I find helpful.
posted by ITheCosmos at 4:51 AM on September 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For me, emotional self-awareness comes from having a strong inner voice or meta-narrative that dramatizes and verbalizes my experiences.

I watch my own thoughts and physical sensations the way a talkative moviegoer watches characters in a movie, constantly picking up on nuances and adding commentary. This meta-narrative is a central, if not always healthy, component of my internal life.

For you situation, I like the suggestion of meditation. You might also practice observing your emotions in low-stakes situations, like enjoying food or hobbies or spending time with a friend.
posted by toastedcheese at 6:01 AM on September 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It helped me to stop and ask myself, "What am I feeling right now?" several times a day (a non-tech mood tracker, I guess!). I couldn't always answer, especially at first, but getting in the habit of checking in with myself kind of gave my brain permission to think about it, I guess, and it got much easier over time.

Identifying one's own emotions is a skill, and like any other skill, it requires practice to learn. DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) has a framework for teaching (PDF) that skill, as do a lot of mindfulness practices.
posted by lazuli at 6:17 AM on September 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Emotions usually come paired with certain types of thoughts and physical sensations. Checking in regularly with what you are thinking and feeling in your body may help you approach your emotions from the side. For me, mindfulness is about being something of a kind and brutally honest observer.

Anger, as an example, might be felt in as tightness in the chest or gut; clenching of fists or teeth; mouth tight and jaw coming forward; eyebrows together and down; body in a larger, more open and forward configuration; all depending on the degree of anger. Thoughts might be aligned along the subjects of unfairness, defensiveness, entitlement, etc.

Anxiety might be felt as chest tightness, shallow breathing, close body configuration, self-touching (face, neck, arms), eyebrows together and a bit up at the center, etc. Thought types could be of some sort of danger, large or small (e.g., something bad or unpleasant is going to happen), or of unwanted vulnerableness.

You might be feeling empathy if you are observing somebody else's pain and your eyebrows raise in the center, your hand comes to your face, and your throat feels tight.

If you are amused, you might feel your mouth corners turn up and your eyes crinkle, and your forehead relax. Your body might feel lighter or more relaxed. You could be thinking that something is funny, or cute.

People feel emotions differently in their body, so some of these may be different for you.

To swipe an example, from a mindfulness course I took, of how thoughts and emotions are linked: imagine you see a friend across the street. You wave, but they don't wave back. There are a lot of things you could tell yourself about why they didn't wave back, and the emotion you feel will align with that. They didn't wave because they don't want to talk to you, and they are stuck up? Emotions that follow would probably be hurt and anger. Nobody likes you? Sadness and loneliness. They had their head in the clouds? Amusement.

Pay attention to the stories you tell yourself.
posted by moira at 10:01 AM on September 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I made a long list of emotion words, how they felt in my brain, and how they felt in my body. Turns out I had a disconnect between my intellectual, emotional and physical understandings. I could point each one out, but I didn't associate them with each other! I'd feel angry and think, "Oh, my back hurts." Or I'd say, "I'm upset" but not identify the specific emotion or pair it with a causal factor. "No big deal," I'd say, stuffing them down further.

I ran through the list every day and practiced feeling each facet in turn. Then, when I was out and about, I stopped every so often to note how I felt in each category. What preceded each new emotion? Took about three years but eventually my understanding synced up and the noticing became automatic. Turned out, like you, I was heavily suppressing my emotions. Especially anger. Figures – I come from a bunch of stoic, tight-lipped Catholics! We only hug when someone dies or has a baby.

My emotions were erratic as I brought them to light, sometimes momentous or overwhelming. But it was only from lack of practice. They are fairly steady and thoughtful now. I see them as useful flags, they draw my attention to something I need to change or consider. I can acknowledge and communicate them more easily to others. I don't use them as excuses to lash out at others – losing control was my greatest fear, and the main reason I suppressed so heavily I think.
posted by fritillary at 12:56 PM on September 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for inundating me with information, your own stories, and your interpretations. You're making me feel very special!

I can't reply one-by-one now but I'll look into the meditation practice and literature, a common factor in many of your answers. I'm glad you're informing me about this practice that can be acquired. I'd also like to say I find Wobbuffet's material about Martin Heidegger intriguing because he seemed to stand between German idealism (the word Geworfenkeit has a very Hölderlin feel to it) and Eastern philosophy (I'm "Eastern").

Unfortunately I cannot use a "mind-tracking app" because of my general aversion to technology resembling surveillance. It's just not for me. However I like the idea and I think I can use it without the trappings of an app.

I find the keyword "dissociation" in mymbleth's answer useful. At least now I have a word for this state. I agree it's kinda minor on the scale of dissociation in me, but it was apparently important enough to let the therapist bring it to my attention, so I could start exploring it, for example, by asking the question here. The trap is that the dissociative state, while mild and brief, seems involuntary, and I am not aware of my own dissociative state. Without an external observer, it's unlikely that I could come to the knowledge that I was in it.

There was an earlier episode, in which I was describing a kind of wish or benign vision that was very beautiful and I was close to tears speaking about it. Towards the end she asked me if I acknowledge that I was emotional, and I acked this, no problem. But when she asked if I could remember when, or which topic during the session was associated with the emotive moment, I honestly couldn't say. I couldn't match the emotion to my own speech that I did remember, even if it was a few minutes earlier. Only several hours later could I match the two in hindsight.

She never brought up this jargon. I feel that in general she's not inclined to labelling me with headwords from a medical dictionary, but she notices it in me, more than once, and calls my attention to it. I guess to an external observer those episodes were fairly obvious. So... there's this condition worth understanding. And again, thank you for giving me information and I'm sure it help me approach my psyche from the 'other side' -- the more self-aware side, with a different kind of patterns, where I think I am capable of entering, but largely hidden at this moment.
posted by runcifex at 3:07 AM on September 28, 2017

Best answer: The trap is that the dissociative state, while mild and brief, seems involuntary, and I am not aware of my own dissociative state. Without an external observer, it's unlikely that I could come to the knowledge that I was in it.

Again, this just requires practice. First someone else notices and points it out. Then you get better at noticing it after it's happened, sometimes a long time after it's happened. Then you start to notice it just after it's happened. Then maybe you start noticing it while it's happening. Then you start to recognize the triggers that cause it to happen. Then you start to be able to defuse the triggers before it happens.

It's a learning process, and I've watched many people go through it. It's absolutely possible.
posted by lazuli at 6:00 AM on September 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster:
> First someone else notices and points it out. Then you get better at noticing it after it's happened, sometimes a long time after it's happened.
> It's a learning process, and I've watched many people go through it. It's absolutely possible.
I'm kinda hopeful now. I don't think I'm a bad learner. I don't usually hope (or I do, but then I distance myself from it), but now I do fairly straightly.
posted by runcifex at 7:07 AM on September 28, 2017

Best answer: It helped to see myself in order to know how people saw me, and connect that with their interpretation of what they observed, and then connect that with how it felt for me at the time they made the observation... and then keep up a regular sort of low-key awareness of when people's observations align with my feelings, or not, so I know if I calibrated everything correctly.

For example, for a while when I was younger, people thought I was mad. I didn't feel mad. Now I know that I had some stuff going on, some depression or I was just feeling low, and I dealt with that inner stuff. Simultaneously, I developed awareness of how it feels when I look mad -- my mouth feels heavy, something in my eyelids, something at the top of my nose. My voice sounds different. I hold my body differently. If I'm ever mad these days, at least I know it too.

Along with anger, I now know how my body, face, voice, etc., configure for a lot of different emotions. And I can use that knowledge to go both ways -- to convey an emotion that matches what I feel, and also to discern something that my body knows before my brain does. Like my shoulders hunching up (stress or worry). My face is scrunched up (anger or suspicion). My voice is louder (defensive or happy). My mouth is puckery and my gaze is on the middle distance (sad).

You could try using a mirror, or if someone makes an observation, make an excuse to grab your phone and get a look at yourself through the camera. Watch movies with a variety of emotional tones, and look at your face when something happens.

Do a body scan on yourself -- start at the top and go down, observing what emotions are in your body, and just how you feel generally. Tightness in your throat? Fear in your chest? Where is there passion? Numbness? This is another way to load up your brain with awareness of how emotions feel in your body.

Ask yourself how you feel. Practice articulating your emotions out loud. I got into this practice and still use it sometimes, especially if someone makes an observation that's different than how I actually feel. I'll say in a friendly way, "Oh, actually, I feel ____. What made you think I felt ___?" With people I'm close to, I regularly just tell them, "I feel _____," which is a result of the fact I've practiced that awareness so much in my head. And sometimes they give feedback, like, "Yeah, I noticed you were doing ___ and ___, and I wondered if something was going on," or, "I thought so!" which is also interesting.

In terms of immediate emotional awareness, it's very connected with my body. I feel something in the head, chest, throat, below the ribcage... It might feel like a flower blossoming from inside, spreading throughout my body. Or like a dampening, or a cage pulling my insides closer together.

Sometimes a thing happens and I don't have feelings about it immediately. Especially if it's confusing or surprising. The other day something happened and I could almost count down: "Right now I feel surprised. In 10-15 minutes the implications of this will have come home to me, and I'll feel shock and anger. Within a couple hours it will feel good to cry, but I don't have to cry immediately and so I can plan whether to cry here in public or back at the house. I'll have a day of whirling thoughts and after a few days I'll feel more at peace." I basically know what my natural/neutral pace will be, because I've observed it so many times in the past.

This is awesome work! Good luck!
posted by ramenopres at 12:35 PM on September 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

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