Historically, I wasn’t very good at noticing emotions when they are small. In fact, for the longest time I really only noticed emotions when they became too overwhelming to ignore. This was not an effective strategy. It led to really painful interpersonal conflict and meant I spent a lot of time running away from emotional experiences. These days I’m much more able to identify and name emotions when they are low-level, which helps me to identify my needs and desires and to communicate these more effectively. Much of the credit for this goes to the work I have done in being mindful of my emotions. Here are three exercises that I’ve found helpful:
1. Noticing emotional neutrality
Throughout the day you will most likely have moments when you don’t think that you’re feeling much of anything. These moments are perfect for pausing to notice whether anything more complicated is going on. When you notice this neutrality, shift your body so that you’re just a little bit more comfortable than you were before. Take a slow deep breath in and out. Then ask your body “what am I feeling right now?”. Sit with the question for a minute or two. You may find that you’re distracted by thoughts or sensations or urges. When you notice you’ve been distracted, as yourself the question again. You might notice sensations or thoughts give you the answer to the question. Or maybe you do feel really neutral. Notice what that is like in your body.
2. Parts of emotion
Many of us think of emotions as things that happen just in our heads, or just in our bodies. In fact, neither of these things is true. Emotions are an interesting combination of thoughts, sensations, urges and labels. It is really tricky to notice an urge when it is very weak, or to recognise the emotional content of a thought when the emotion is at a very low level. Nevertheless, practising this on low-level emotions is incredibly helpful at improving your ability to notice these things when emotions are stronger. So, make yourself comfortable, take a breath, and see if you can recognise the thoughts, sensations, urges and labels that go with your emotions. Remember, this isn’t about changing anything, just noticing what is already there. You’ll probably find that you notice one aspect of the emotion first, for me it is usually the urge to do something. Whatever it is, allow yourself to notice that, and then move on to the other aspects of the emotional experience. Make sure you make space for urges, thoughts, sensations and feelings labels. Notice which is the hardest for you to notice, and which is easiest.
3. Pick a feeling
Choose an emotion to work with that you rarely experience strongly. Set time through the week to notice your experience of that emotion. Some people find it useful to meditate, paint, doodle, journal or even tweet about their experience of the emotion. Whatever you do, try to do it several times throughout the week to try to give yourself time in between to get used to noticing the emotion. There really is no one right way to do this, so focus on finding the right way for you.
As usual, take what is useful and works for you and leave the rest. Please feel free to reply if any of these exercises have been useful to you, and/or if you have suggestions for exercises that might be useful to me or others. If you’d like to learn more about working with emotions, why not join one of my DBT skills groups? You can get more information about them here.