Emotions are central to the survival of the human species. Fear, for example, is an important emotional signal that tells us that danger is present, and whether to protect ourselves by fighting or running for our lives. When we enjoy (to be in joy) something — debating an issue, building a bridge, making a cake, figuring out math problems, painting a picture, working on a car, writing an essay, singing a song – that joyful emotion, too, is an important signal that may ultimately lead to a lifelong career, or a passionate avocation or important discovery.
Our emotions are particularly informative, yet much more subtle when we are interacting with others either in a personal or professional capacity. For example, if someone teases us, “You’re so silly sometimes!,” our sensitive emotional detectors can usually determine whether this is simply a playful declaration or a demeaning accusation.
However, we may often find that we have difficulty naming our emotional response which is extremely important in deciding whether this teasing person is malicious or being playfully affectionate. Being able to accurately name and describe your internal response is critical to raising your emotional intelligence and informing your assessment of the interaction, and subsequently your choice of verbal or other action.
For example, if the other person in our “teasing” example has signaled a friendly approach and you can identify that your emotional response is either amused, delighted, glad, or charmed (or all of those feelings at once) your verbal response might be, “I know! I love being silly sometimes, and it’s fun being silly with you!” On the other hand, if your internal signals register a sarcastic tone and you feel demeaned, put down, offended or insulted (or, again, all of the above) then your verbal response might be, “That sounds like an insult. Is there a problem?”
If you are not certain about the exchange then you could simply ask, “I’m not sure if that was a put-down or whether you are just being playful.” If the other person responds with a reassuring warmth of tone and body language, clarifying that no put-down was intended, then you can feel emotionally safe around him or her. If, however, the response is a sarcastic “What’s the matter, can’t you take a joke!?” then you certainly want to carefully reassess whether you want this person in your life, because that retort is meant to embarrass and humiliate you. If this person is a co-worker and you must be in his company frequently then an effective reply might be, “Yes, I can take a joke when I hear one. Your comment was meant to be demeaning, and I don’t appreciate it. Don’t do it again.”
These are just some simple examples of how great an impact our emotions can have on our relationships and lives. If you find that you have trouble identifying exactly what you are feeling — a common problem especially for those who learned to numb their feelings in order to survive emotionally or physically when growing up — I am sharing below a list of emotions in various categories that was developed by the secondary education team of Ruth Perlstein and Gloria Thrall of West Virginia. Here are a few examples from their “FeelingWords” list.
Anger: aggravated, disgusted, frustrated, cranky, annoyed, bitter,offended.
Happiness: amused, delighted, ecstatic, proud, fortunate, tickled, gratified.
Hurt: ignored, deprived, isolated, diminished, deserted, devalued, cheated.
Inadequacy: helpless, inferior, useless, powerless, unworthy, mediocre, incompetent
Embarrassment: absurd, conspicuous, disgraced, humiliated, mortified, uncomfortable, foolish.
Sadness: anguished, despondent, disappointed, empty, lost, rejected, moody.
Confusion: addled, rattled, baffled, flabbergasted, perplexed, puzzled.
Fear: cornered, terrified, overwhelmed, fearful, threatened, uneasy, nervous.
These are only a few of the words that express the feeling in each category. Explore and add your own words. As you can see, emotions have many subtle shades. Learn to listen to and identify your emotional signals. In human relations, your feelings will most often guide you in the right direction.
Based in Rockport, psychotherapist and life coach Susan Britt, M.Ed., a former university director of counseling and career services, teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, clarify and achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments may be addressed to her at email@example.com or 978-546-9431.