how to get what you really need

tuning into your emotions takes practice for most of us, but it's worth the effort

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December 6, 2023

Picture yourself in this situation:

You’ve been working for a demanding boss. You’ve both been working remotely, so you haven’t seen her face-to-face recently.

You believe you’re under-paid: you’re loyal, thorough, accurate and creative. Your boss doesn’t agree - she says you’re at the top of the pay scale for your job category, which is technically correct.

Recently, your boss has started communicating with you in an unfriendly tone that’s distinctly different from how she speaks to your colleagues. She’s also been complaining to you about recent and past mistakes, and you’re convinced she wants you to quit. You find this very unfair because the mistakes were not your fault.

How do you feel?

It’s a deceptively simple question, with a multitude of possible answers. How well you’re able to tease out those answers will influence how skillfully you deal with the situation, and how much stress it causes you.

Based on what we know about emotional awareness, there’s a good chance your answer falls into one of these broad categories:

  1. Somatic sensations: you felt a sensation like heat or tension, but didn’t put words to it.
  2. Action tendencies: you identified actions you’d want to take (“I’d want to quit!”, “I’d confront the boss”). You might have anticipated feeling globally “bad.”
  3. Individual feelings: you identified a discrete and specific state, like “I’d feel angry.”
  4. Blends of feelings: you identified feelings that are clearly different from each other, or even opposing, like “I’d feel angry but also afraid.”
  5. Blends of blends of feelings: you identified the complexity in what was going on for you and for your boss, something like, “I’d feel angry and afraid, but I wonder if the boss is feeling isolated and under pressure too?”

not just touchy-feely feelings stuff

The level you’re working at makes a difference. There’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that higher levels of emotional awareness make it easier to self-regulate, improve your ability to navigate complex social situations, and strengthen both physical and mental health. Self-regulation, positive social interactions, and good overall health are all important in limiting stress, both in the moment and by helping you identify and address its causes.

In the opening scenario, identifying your own emotional responses, forming ideas about the boss’ feelings, anticipating what might happen if you tackle the situation in different ways - these all require emotional awareness. Addressing the situation skillfully to alter it, or accepting it so that you’re no longer distressed by it, both depend on relatively high levels of emotional awareness to be successful.

levelling up

If you most often find yourself closer to the top of the awareness list than the bottom - more tense, less descriptive - don’t despair. It’s true that emotional awareness is easiest to develop in childhood, but adults can develop it with practice.

That practice can be fun. Think of it as a little like wine-tasting, but without the price tag: you get to create a whole new vocabulary, and the more you use it, the easier it gets.

Getting better at naming what’s going on in your interior world is a core anti-burnout skill. Emotions are your best signals about what you need. Over the long term, managing them skillfully is the best way to get those needs met.

Further Reading
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