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Charting a Course to Emotional Strength

It can be frustrating at times to identify your emotions. But identifying them is key to changing them or having more of the ones you desire. When we are upset or happy, we can usually identify that. However, a limited emotional vocabulary may limit our understanding of our emotions and those of others and inhibit our self awareness.

Knowing what emotions create an experience for us helps us to create with them too. Maybe this seems a little hard to understand, but let's take one emotion happy. What makes up happy for you? Choose the emotions you are hoping to feel more often, you can then ask "What do I have to do to feel more of this?" I use the metaphor of a palette. The artist palette contains the colors he or she creates with. Your emotions are the palette that create your experience. Refer to the mood meter below - it's a bit of an emotional cheat sheet. Your answer will likely be different from someone else. Once you know the ingredients, you can not only understand what you are feeling, but voice it to others and help them do the same.

When people have a better vocabulary and identification tools for emotions, it makes speaking what we feel easier and the language we use can be very helpful in growing our skill in the area of emotional literacy. Often, primary emotions are evident, but not the subtle ones behind it and, in fact, we are generally experiencing many emotions or a cluster of emotions at any one time. Psychologist and author Marc Brackett of Yale University has developed this tool that allows us to accurately map our emotions and make better choices.

How does this work? Using the mood meter, identify where you are on the mood map. Perhaps today you are in the blue zone. Ask yourself what needs to happen for you to get to the yellow zone. You may be surprised to find you have ready answers to these questions. If not, decide on being in another and take actions you believe will get you there. Recognizing where we are is the first step in getting somewhere else

I often ask clients which of the four boxes they spend most of their emotional time in. They usually answer readily and the awareness comes with a desire to change if the emotions they have been most focused on are unpleasant. Where do you spend most of your time? If you are spending too much time in the red or blue quadrant, how do you move towards more pleasant emotions? Ask yourself this question and notice that sometimes the change can result from a shift of focus. And know this, you are often in control of that focus.

Family Therapist Cloe Madanes suggests that emotions do not come to us, but we go to them. Think about that for a minute.

I often have to remind myself of this - emotions do not come to us, we go to them. Is anger a comfortable emotion for you? Does it energize and propel you forward? Does it give you an excuse to stay stuck? A pass for acting like an ass? Does it punish people near you in a passive aggressive fashion? If so, you may use anger as a form of motivation, an expression you are unwilling to speak, or a justification for not doing your best or being kind.

Emotional set points can easily become a habit, especially when there are secondary gains to be had. Secondary gains are those benefits that are not readily apparent, but actually give us a reason to stay stuck in what seems like a bad place. Is it possible that anger confers benefits and excuses and it may explain why you are angry all the time. Does feeling sad pull a blanket over you that keeps you small and hidden and out of life? Is it serving to protect you from life's ups and downs, to stay distant and detached? Were you happy once and then something bad happened? Sometimes we associate an emotion with a negative experience.

A client, Sara, told me that being happy was terrifying to her and she did not deserve it. Sometime ago, just when Sara felt happy, safe and secure, a crushing personal event took place that left her grieving and unable to move forward again for many years. Sara felt she had been punished for being happy and that happiness was a dangerous place that led to loss. Thus Sara assiduously avoided the happiness zone by avoiding any of the emotions there. Sara spent most of her time in the blue and red zone, she had few friends and took few risks.

I asked her if she wanted to stay there. Seeing her emotional GPS on paper lead her to a new conclusion, this was not where she wanted to be. When Sara answered the question "What do you have to do get to the pleasant side more often?" Sara herself knew she needed to let go of the connection between the two - her happiness hadn't caused the tragic event and staying depressed and angry would not prevent future tragedies. Sara is now working her way to a better emotional experience by asking herself good questions and knowing where she wants to be more often - Yellow and Green. As she tells it, faith and gratitude have led the way.

Developing emotional literacy and using a tracker such as the Mood Meter is a great way to develop more competency in this space and strengthen both self awareness and self expression. Give it a try. Have your spouse or partner use it with you. When tempers flare see if you can use it to give more texture to the conversation. Are you feeling just angry or worried about something? Knowing the difference can be helpful to facilitating a deeper more meaningful dialogue and gaining control over what emotional experiences you are choosing.

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