Emotional Literacy – How to Communicate Your Emotions
Emotions are an essential part of who you are, but they can be messy, complicated, and downright confusing sometimes. Knowing how to name them and talk about them — with both yourself and others — is a key part of developing emotional health.
Fortunately, you don’t have to navigate the process of identifying your emotions alone. Paul Ekman, a psychologist and leading researcher on emotions, surveyed more than 100 scientists and used their input to develop what’s known as the Atlas of Emotions.
Breaks down of emotions into five main categories:
Keep in mind that this is just one way of categorizing emotions. For example, a recent study suggests that there are 27 categories of emotion. But Ekman’s concept of five main types of emotion offers a good framework for breaking down the complexity of all the feels.
Here’s a look at what each of these five categories involves.
People generally like to feel happy, calm, and good. You might express these feelings by smiling, laughing, or indulging yourself.
You might feel enjoyment when:
- you feel close and connected to people you care about
- you feel safe and secure
- you’re doing something that triggers sensory pleasure
- you’re absorbed in an activity
- you feel relaxed and at peace
How to talk about it
Some words you can use to describe different kinds of enjoyment include:
If enjoyment and its related feelings feel elusive, try to take a look at other emotions or feelings are getting in the way, such as:
- trouble focusing on what’s happening in the present
- a low or anxious mood
Everyone feels sad from time to time. This emotion might relate to a specific event, such as a loss or rejection. But in other cases, you might have no idea why you feel sad.
How to talk about it
When you’re sad, you might describe yourself as feeling:
Sadness can be hard to shake, but depending on your situation, these tips might help:
- Mourn. Mourning is a normal part of grief. Whether you’re trying to recover from a loss, breakup, change, or failure to achieve a goal, acknowledging your loss can help you accept and work through it. Everyone grieves in their own way, so do what feels right to you. It might help to talk about the pain you’re in, but it also might help to simply sit with your feelings for a while or express them creatively.
- Do something meaningful. Doing something to help others or give back to society can help you feel more connected to other people. If you’ve recently lost someone you cared about, consider finishing a project they cared about or donating your time to a cause they supported.
- Reach out for support. This is easier said than done when you’re in a low point. Try to remember the people in your life who care for you and likely want to help you. The pain of heartache does ease in time, even if you can’t imagine that at the moment.
If your sadness lingers or begins to have a significant impact on daily life and makes it hard to work, go to school, or maintain your relationships, it may help to talk to a therapist.
Fear happens when you sense any type of threat. Depending on that perceived threat, fear can range from mild to severe.
Keep in mind that the level of fear you feel doesn’t always match up with the intensity of the threat. For example, if you live with anxiety, you might feel fear around situations that don’t actually pose much of a threat — though that doesn’t make the fear any less real.
How to talk about it
Fear can make you feel:
Fear is a totally normal emotion — and one that likely kept your ancestors from being eaten alive — but there are things you can do to combat it:
- Confront fear instead of avoiding it. If you’re afraid of something, whether it’s a serious discussion, meeting new people, or driving, it’s natural to want to stay away from the source of your fear. But this can often just make your fear worse. Instead, try to face your fear safely. For example, if you suddenly develop a fear of driving, get back in your car and drive again right away. Stick close to home at first if it helps, but don’t avoid it.
- Distract yourself from your fear. Sometimes fear can become so overwhelming that it’s hard to think about anything else. But ruminating, or letting the same thoughts play out over and over again, can have a negative impact on your emotional state. It can also make fear worse. If you feel yourself fixating on a worry or source of stress, try something distracting. Listen to an audiobook or podcast, cook with a new recipe you have to concentrate on, or go for a walk or jog with some energizing music.
- Consider the fear logically. Take a moment to think about your fear. Is there anything you can do about it? Can it actually harm you? What’s the worst thing that could happen if your fear came true? What would you do in that scenario? Knowing how you would deal with your fear can help you feel less afraid.
Don’t get discouraged if these tips seem impossible or overwhelming — they can be hard to accomplish on your own. Consider working with a therapist, who can help you navigate panic attacks, phobias, anxiety, and other mental health issues around fear.
Anger usually happens when you experience some type of injustice. This experience can make you feel threatened, trapped, and unable to defend yourself. Many people think of anger as a negative thing, but it’s a normal emotion that can help you know when a situation has become toxic.
How to talk about it
Words you might use when you feel angry include:
There are a lot of ways to deal with anger, many of which can cause problems for you and those around you.
The next time you find yourself in a huff, try these tips for managing anger in a more productive way:
- Take a break. When you feel frustrated, putting some distance between yourself and the situation upsetting you can help you avoid in-the-moment reactions or angry outbursts. Try taking a walk or listening to a calming song. While away, take a few minutes to consider what’s causing your anger. Does the situation have another perspective? Can you do anything to make it better?
- Express your anger constructively. You might avoid talking about your anger to help prevent conflict. Internalizing can seem like a safe strategy, but your anger can fester and you may end up nursing a grudge. This can affect your interpersonal relationships as well as your emotional well-being. Instead, take time to cool off if you need it, then try expressing your feelings calmly and respectfully.
- Focus on finding a solution. Anger is often difficult to deal with because it makes you feel helpless. Working to solve the problem that’s causing your anger can help relieve this frustration. You may not be able to fix every situation that makes you angry, but you can usually do something to bring about some improvement. Ask other people involved what they think and work together. You can also try asking your loved ones for their input. Different perspectives can help you consider solutions you may not have seen yourself.
Everyone gets angry from time to time. But if you feel like you have anger issues, a therapist can help you develop effective tools for dealing with these emotions.
You typically experience disgust as a reaction to unpleasant or unwanted situations. Like anger, feelings of disgust can help to protect from things you want to avoid.
It can also pose problems if it leads you to dislike certain people, including yourself, or situations that aren’t necessarily bad for you.
How to talk about it
Disgust might cause you to feel:
Disgust can happen as a natural response to something you dislike. In some situations, you might want to work through or overcome your disgust. These strategies can help:
- Practice compassion. It’s common to feel uncomfortable when facing things you fear or don’t understand. Many people dislike being around sick people, for example. If you feel disturbed when thinking about sick people, try spending some time with an unwell friend or loved one or offering to help them out. It’s important to take steps to protect your own health, so make sure they aren’t contagious first.
- Focus on the behavior, not the person. If someone you care for does something that offends or disgusts you, you may disapprove and react by withdrawing, pushing them away, or getting angry. But instead, you might try talking to that person. For example, if your sister smokes, avoid coughing loudly or making pointed comments about the smell of stale tobacco. Instead, tell her that cigarette smoke makes you feel sick and that you’re concerned for her health. Offer to help her quit or work with her on finding support.
- Expose yourself slowly. Some things may just turn your stomach no matter what. Maybe you can’t stand any type of creepy-crawly creature but wish you could try gardening. To combat disgust over how worms look, you might start by reading about them and looking at pictures of them. If you worry about them getting on your hands, you could try wearing gardening gloves. If you don’t like watching them move, you could try watching short video clips about worms to get used to them before seeing them in real life.
If you feel strong dislike toward a group of people, a specific person, or toward yourself, consider talking to a therapist about your feelings (noticing a theme here?).
Even if you aren’t sure exactly what’s behind your disgust, they can help you work through the emotion and explore positive ways of coping with it.
Putting it all together
Emotions can be complicated. Some might feel intense, while others seem mild in comparison. You might feel conflicting emotions at any given time.
But emotions can serve a purpose, even when they’re negative. Instead of trying to change the emotions you experience, consider how you react to them. It’s usually the reactions that create challenges, not the emotions themselves.