I remember being a kid, reluctant to tell my parents when I was sick.
I’d say I didn’t feel well, and they’d ask the question that annoyed me to no end: How don’t you feel well? Did I have a stomachache? A headache? Sore throat?
But I don’t knooooow, I’d tell them, I just don’t feeeeeel well.
Eventually, they’d get to the bottom of it: It was a sore throat, and so I’d get tested for strep. Or it was a headache, and I’d probably been staring at the computer screen for too long.
As a grown-up, I can appreciate why “I don’t feel well” isn’t especially helpful information when you’re not in someone else’s body. As it turns out though, even when you’re trying to help yourself, you can benefit from more detail.
When I recently met with Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of the new book “Emotional Agility,” she talked about the importance of accurately labeling your emotions.
When she works with clients, and they tell her they’re feeling stressed, for example, she asks them: What are two other options?
As in, what are two other options for what you’re feeling? It’s the emotional and introspective equivalent of asking your kid whether she’s tired or nauseated – am I disappointed? Sad? Only then can you start to work on feeling better.
In the case of saying you feel stressed, David said the problem doesn’t always come down to time-management. Dig deeper, she said: Maybe you’re disappointed in your career choices and that’s why you’re feeling stressed.
David pointed to a growing body of research on the benefits of what psychologists call “emotional granularity,” or getting super-specific about what you’re feeling.
In June 2016, the psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett published an op-ed in The New York Times on emotional granularity, a concept that she and her lab have studied extensively. Barrett’s research suggests that intense negative emotions aren’t inherently bad – as long as you can work to understand exactly what it is that you’re experiencing.
For example, in one study, participants were asked to keep daily diaries about their intense emotional experiences. As it turned out, participants who described their emotions using distinct adjectives and in more detail did a better job of regulating their negative emotions.
Another study found that people who experienced their feelings as more nuanced were less likely to act aggressively against other people.
In The New York Times, Barrett writes that emotional granularity is important because our brain essentially “constructs” our emotional states, partly based on how we describe them. So when you use distinct words to describe different emotional experiences, you give yourself the appropriate tools to handle each difficult situation.
David said this phenomenon is an example of how we have to get to know ourselves if we’re going to be functioning, successful people, especially at work. It’s not just about being good with what she called the “physical world” – managing your time and your inbox and your reports. It’s also about learning how to manage yourself.
“There’s so much focus in our world on the external and productivity and time-management,” David said, “but unless we are actually able to cultivate effectiveness internally with our emotions and thoughts around our emotions, we’re not going to be able to be effective.”
You can start by listening and engaging in that internal dialogue that starts with the two-other-options question.
“How we are with ourselves is the single biggest determinant of our success,” she said.