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Emotion Differentiation and the strengths of specificity

“I have learned now that while those who speak about one’s miseries usually hurt, those who keep silence hurt more.” – C.S. Lewis

The last post covered a metaphor to encourage people to embrace their emotions. More research is showing there is power in calling them by name.

lisafeldmanbarrett

Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University.

“Emotion differentiation” is the ability to say what one feels. It’s a central focus for emotional-intelligence researchers such as Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern U. and Todd B. Kashdan at George Mason U. They’ve found that the people best able to regulate their feelings are the ones who can say they feel more regret than remorse, less guilt than shame or more miffed than peeved¹. Compared with those who only report feeling, “fine,” or “bad,” those with a fine-grained view of their emotions respond more resiliently to rejection². While they are more likely to employ many strategies to cope with unhappiness, they’re less likely to cope via alcohol abuse³ or violence⁴.

ToddKashdanAustraliasized

Todd B. Kashdan, PhD, professor of clinical psychology at George Mason University.

Trouble with emotion differentiation seems to appear in different emotional health issues. Demiralp and Thompson⁵ found that people with depression had, “less-differentiated negative emotional experiences”; i.e., they could distinguish more specific positive feelings than negative ones. Kashdan and Farmer found similar findings for those with Social Phobia⁶.

Kashdan, Barrett and McKnight suggest knowing exactly what you’re feeling makes it easier to get those emotions’ message. That information connects us with other knowledge about what to expect and what to do. It also makes it easier to regulate the feelings, because they’re now classified either as motivation or as irrelevant. With less energy devoted to controlling one’s emotions, there’s more to put towards the things you want to achieve⁷.

Poor emotional differentiation in action.

Poor emotional differentiation in action.

They also point to evidence that emotion differentiation is a skill that can be taught⁷. This includes findings that emotionally-differentiating children behave and perform better in school⁹.One study found naming emotions helped arachnophobes tolerate exposure therapy better than distraction or cognitive reframing¹⁰.

For therapists working in community mental health, these findings can be a selling point. Live in a tough neighborhood? Need to keep up a strong front? You want to know what you feel so you can recover more quickly. If a client only values logic, emotion differentiation can be a way of getting them to look at their feelings; Ciarrochi,  Caputi and Mayer⁸ found that those who can identify specific emotions make decisions with less emotional bias.

howidealwithmyfeelings

Clients can get confused when we ask them to identify negative feelings. They come to us to feel better. Why are we asking them to feel worse?  The assumption that it is safest to suppress your emotions is a spin on the post hoc fallacy: “I feel vulnerable when I pay attention to my feelings, so  if I ignore them, I’ll be less vulnerable.” We may be able to tell our clients, “Emotions are only a vulnerability if you treat them that way. Treat them like information and they become a strength.”

All this gives us one more reason to pull out our emotion-word sheets and encourage clients  to name their feelings.  I’ve asked clients rate the intensity of their distress before and after identifying emotions. More often than not, they’re surprised to find their stress level has dropped.

Two examples to motivate clients to practice identifying feelings at home:

1. The tale of Rumplestiltskin. At the end of the story, the wicked little man had to give up his claim on the princess’ child. Why? Because she found out his name.

2. Tribal societies around the world, where members have a public name for common use, and a secret name kept private among family members. Why? Because knowing something’s name gives you power over it.

n.b.: Dr. Barrett responded to this post, and she suggested these for further reading:

Lindquist, K., & Barrett, L. F. (2008).  Emotional complexity. Chapter in M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, and L.F. Barrett (Eds.), The handbook of emotion, 3rd Edition (p. 513-530). New York: Guilford.

Barrett, L. F., Wilson-Mendenhall, C. D., & Barsalou, L. W.  (2015).  The conceptual act theory: A road map.  Chapter in L. F. Barrett and J. A. Russell (Eds.), The psychological construction of emotion(p. 83-110).  New York: Guilford. — this explains one theory for how to become more emotionally granular

Citations:

(1) LF Barrett, J Gross, TC Christensen, M Benvenuto.  “Knowing what you’re feeling and knowing what to do about it: Mapping the relation between emotion differentiation and emotion regulation” Cognition & Emotion 15 (6), 713-724

(2) Kashdan, T.B., *DeWall, C.N., Masten, C.L., Pond, R.S., Jr., Powell, C., Combs, D., Schurtz, D.R., & †Farmer, A.S. (2014). Who is most vulnerable to social rejection? The toxic combination of low self-esteem and lack of emotion differentiation on neural responses to rejection. PLoS ONE 9(3): e90651. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090651

(3) Kashdan, T.B., †Ferssizidis, P., Collins, R.L., & Muraven, M. (2010). Emotion differentiation as resilience against excessive alcohol use: An ecological momentary assessment in underage social drinkers. Psychological Science, 21, 1341-1347.

(4)  Pond, R.S., Kashdan, T.B., Dewall, C.N., †Savostyanova, A. A., Lambert, N.M., & Fincham, F.D. (2012). Emotion differentiation buffers aggressive behavior in angered people: A daily diary analysis.-7- Emotion, 12, 326-337.

(5) Demiralp E1, Thompson RJ, Mata J, Jaeggi SM, Buschkuehl M, Barrett LF, Ellsworth PC, Demiralp M, Hernandez-Garcia L, Deldin PJ, Gotlib IH, Jonides J. Feeling blue or turquoise? Emotional differentiation in major depressive disorder. Psychol Sci. 2012;23(11):1410-6. doi: 10.1177/0956797612444903. Epub 2012 Oct 15.

(6) Kashdan, T. B., & Farmer, A. S. (2014, February 10). Differentiating Emotions Across Contexts: Comparing Adults With and Without Social Anxiety Disorder Using Random, Social Interaction, and Daily Experience Sampling. Emotion. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0035796

(7) Kashdan, T.B., Barrett. L.F., & McKnight, P. E. (in press). Unpacking emotion differentiation: Transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving distinctions in negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

(8) Ciarrochi, J., Caputi, P., Mayer, JD . The distinctiveness and utility of a measure of trait emotional awareness. Personality and Individual Differences 34 (8), 1477-1490

(9) Brackett, M. A., Rivers, S. E., Reyes, M. R., & Salovey, P. (2012). Enhancing academic performance and social and emotional competence with the RULER feeling words curriculum. Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 218-224. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2010.10.002

(10) K. Kircanski, M. D. Lieberman, M. G. Craske. Feelings Into Words: Contributions of Language to Exposure Therapy. Psychological Science, 2012; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612443830

 @ 2015 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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