So, I’ve been spending more and more time feeling into my emotions, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the way I was taught to understand emotions as a younger person was dangerously wrong. You see, I was taught that emotions could be understood on a scale from sad to happy (and that you should really always try to be happy). It looked something like this:
I’m guessing you can already see some problems with this approach. My life is rarely binary, and my emotions are certainly not. I do not operate on a happy to sad scale. This approach didn’t give me a way to communicate or express other feelings, such as guilt, fear, overwhelm, anger or disgust. It also didn’t give me an easy way to communicate complex feelings, where I was having more than one emotion at a time.
Despite the happy to sad scale not working for me, I have found other scales to be much more useful. I managed to get treated for endometriosis after 10 years of symptoms because I rated my pain on a scale compared with a broken arm (it hurt much, much more). I’ve also found pain scales helpful in working out when I should and shouldn’t be doing physiotherapy and exercise. I like taking a moment to turn inwards to question my present experience and rate it, and I’ve increasingly been using scales to monitor my own emotional activation and to make decisions about how to respond to my emotions.
I find the simple 1-10 scale of emotional activation really helpful. I notice my overall emotional activation, irrespective of which emotions I’m feeling, and rate that on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being lowest intensity and 10 being completely overwhelmed. That means just checking in with my body about my current level of emotional activation.
How intense are my emotions in this moment?
This is a really blunt instrument because it isn’t about investigating any particular emotional experience, it is just about noticing the intensity of my feelings. I love that its so simple, because it is just what I need when things are falling apart or really difficult. In those moments when I’m experiencing emotions really intensely, its very difficult for me to pick apart which feelings I’m having. Sometimes it would be impossible say ‘I’m really angry’ or ‘I’m really ashamed’, but its much easier to say ‘my emotions are feeling really activated at the moment’, without necessarily knowing which emotion is the main one. The simple process of noticing where I am on the emotional activation scale helps me to acknowledge my emotional experience, which usually helps me to feel calmer.
The first step in making space for emotions is noticing emotional activation. I call this taking your emotional temperature. I’d invite you to find moments to practice noticing how intense your emotions are each day. Some people do this at the same time each day, others do this most often at times when they are feeling things more intensely. I am in favour of doing whichever comes more naturally to you to start with, before trying other approaches. It can help if you notice what number you’re at, and how it feels to notice that emotional experience. Writing down a line or two might help you to reflect on what the emotion feels like, and how it feels to notice it.
Once you get practised at working your emotional temperature, you can start exploring what you need to do when you hit different activation levels. The next post might help you with this.
One of my favourite ways to work with people is to teach dialectical behaviour therapy skills. You can find out more about why I think they are great, especially for working with marginalised clients on this blog post.