This article in The New York Times introduced me to a new concept – “emotional granularity.” Emotional granularity refers to the ability to feel and differentiate finely tuned emotions. It is the ability to identify that you are feeling melancholy, irritable, or teary rather than simply knowing that you feel bad. According to the article, those who possess emotional granularity have significantly better mental and physical health outcomes. Psychologists explain that being able to identify a range of finely tuned emotions allows us access to a greater repertoire of responses to our distress. While that makes sense to me, I have another thought as well.
Naming is powerful.
When I try to break down what we actually do when we work with someone in analysis, probably 80% boils down to attempting to “feel our way into” their emotional experience, and then translate that into words or images as accurately as we can. Finding words or images that correctly describe the truth of someone’s subtle inner experience is a huge part of how therapy works.
Why? Because language can help contain strong emotions.
I remember the day before I took the oral examinations one must pass in order to become an analyst. I was incredibly anxious about what I was going to face, and I ran into a senior analyst and mentor. When I told her I was there for the exams, she looked at me sympathetically and said, “Oh! You must be scared!” That word “scared” had an immediate calming effect on me. It was much more accurate – and therefore grounding – than the word “anxious.” I was scared – very. And having it put into words instantly calmed and contained.
For language to be containing, it has to be highly accurate. You have to understand the particularity of that emotion.
A process in which I use my intuition will turn up a much subtler and more idiosyncratic description of someone’s emotional experience. I am likely to use metaphors or images. These often present themselves to me in an autonomous fashion.
A neurobiologist would say that when I am using my intuition to read someone’s implicit emotional experience, I am making use of the body’s smart vagal system to understand what is going on. I get images or sensations, and this happens faster than conscious thought. I then translate this up using the language centers of the prefrontal cortex to express the experience in words and make these subtle experiences fully conscious.
For example, I might say something like the following:
“What is coming up for me is an image of someone trapped in a collapsed mine. It’s terrible to be in there alone and in the dark. When you hear someone on the other side scraping away to get to you, that makes an enormous difference. If you felt like your husband understood what you are going through, it would be a huge relief, even though you would still be going through it alone.”
When I get it right, or close to right, the whole feeling tone in the room changes. I often see bodily or facial signs of relief or relaxation happen, or hear a marked change in vocal tone just because I was able to find language or image for a subtle emotional state.
I contend that translating ineffable emotional experiences into image or language is a significant factor in therapy’s effectiveness.
As it turns out, there is neurobiological research that supports this idea that putting feelings into words reduces emotional reactivity and helps us manage negative emotional experiences.
The amygdala is a key component of the limbic system, that part of the mammalian brain that generates emotion, assesses the environment for safety and survival, and regulates approach and avoidance. Our amygdala is constantly taking in information from the five senses and from our bodies and evaluating this information for threats. From our external senses, it picks up someone’s subtle facial expressions, posture, or vocal tone. From our bodies, it receives information from the visceral regions – the heart and the lungs, for example. Using this information, it makes a determination about the safety of our environment in less than 1/10th of a second, much faster than the time it takes our brains to form a conscious thought or feeling.
A recent study found that when people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they have increased activity in the amygdala, which begins to sound a threat alarm. The researchers found a significant amygdala response even when subjects were shown the emotional photographs subliminally, that is, too fast for the photos to be perceived and consciously registered. When study subjects were shown the same images and asked to label the emotion shown on the face with a word such as “scared,” or “angry,” brain imaging analysis showed a marked decrease in amygdala arousal.
“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” said Lieberman, lead author of the study, which appears in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Science.
The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateralprefrontal cortex. We use this region when thinking in words about emotional experiences. It also helps us inhibit behavior and process feelings.
So the study helps us understand better a phenomenon most of us have probably been aware of our whole lives – putting feelings into words helps us regulate and contain strong emotions. And we know from the emotional granularity research that being able to make refined distinctions in how we feel can also give us a greater range of options for managing these emotions.
If a single word like “scared” can be so effective, how much more potent a myth or fairy tale can be.
Fairy tales are a rich storehouse of psychic patterns. They provide us with an inexhaustible supply of images that catalog emotional states and life experiences with endless subtlety. Metaphor provides a powerful bridge between the amygdala and the more conscious parts of brain.
For a woman whose whole life has been characterized by feeling misunderstood, demeaned, or unseen, the words “excluded,” “unappreciated,” or “despairing” have the ability to contain aspects of her experience. But if that same person and I begin to discuss her experience in terms of the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Ugly Duckling,” we suddenly have access to a greatly enriched repertoire of language and image with which to describe her experience. The chicken in the farmhouse disparages and berates the young swan for his love of water, and because the swan has always been cut off from his own kind — his “tribe” — he doesn’t realize that he is being measured by inappropriate standards. Alone and full of despair, he is nearly frozen to death, immobilized in the ice. Many of us have surely had moments where we felt like that.
Images and language can contain strong feelings and allow us better access to our thinking functions to evaluate potential responses. But it also does one other thing.
Being able to put our inner states into complex and accurate language gives us back to ourselves. We can become an observing witness to our process and in this way know that we are having an emotional experience, not being had by one. When we begin to observe our inner weather systems without being overwhelmed by them, we are much better able to regulate and transform them.