Identifying Emotions

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Sydtomcat, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What exactly are emotions? Well, there’s no easy answer to that; it depends on who you ask and what their theoretical perspective is. But regardless of how we define them, how do we describe them? That can be easier said than done. There’s even a psychiatric term, alexithymia, for difficulty identifying and articulating emotions.

Several researchers have suggested that there are basic universal human emotions that remain consistent across cultures. Psychologist Paul Ekman identified anger, disgust, fear, sadness, happiness, and surprise. I like the emotion wheel diagram above because it takes these basic emotions and further subdivides them into more detailed descriptors.

Labelling emotions and mood tracking

When I’m feeling quite low, I tend to have a number of emotions going on at the same time.  When that happens, I can usually identify the basic emotions I’m experiencing, but to really get into detail it’s helpful to have a list. I’ve never found rating my mood from 1-10 to be all that useful. Unlike individual matters, mood is like a local weather pattern of emotions, rather than in-the-moment experiences. It makes no sense to me to give that a number rather than describing it in words.

What I do like to keep track of is the mix of emotions that I’m experiencing most prominently. I came up with this colour-coded list in my bullet journal, so each day I record a mood rating plus the coloured letters to represent each emotion that I’m feeling (get my bullet journalling how-to guide from the [email protected] Download Centre).

I think that by glancing through the list each time I’m doing an entry, I’m identifying the more subtle emotions as well as the ones that stand out the most obviously. Sometimes I’m able to identify where these emotions are coming from, and other times it’s harder. I may think I’m feeling a certain emotion in relation to a certain event, but with more reflection I may realize that I’m actually reacting to something entirely different. Journalling has helped a lot with identifying that kind of thing.

One thing that stands out to me with my emotion list is the lack of positive emotions. I guess it’s just been so long that there hasn’t been an occasion that prompted me to add positive emotions to the list.

Emotions and bodily sensations

I typically don’t feel a strong connection between emotions and bodily sensations. I’m not sure if this is me not being in touch with my body, or if it’s just how I tend to experience emotion. The most notable exception to this is anxiety, which I’m more likely to feel in a physical sense (e.g. chest tightness, heart pounding) than an emotional one.

Stress can manifest itself in tension in the shoulders, back, and jaw, but I get regular massages so that’s kept from getting out of control. I do have physical symptoms with my depression sometimes, like psychomotor retardation (slowing of movements) and GI disturbance, but it seems to be more connected with the illness in general rather than reflecting any specific emotion.

Trauma memories are highly emotion-based, and trauma is held deeply in the body (Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score goes into this in depth). Trauma therapy often works on understanding these connections and listening to what the body is telling you about what’s happening in the mind.

Facial expressions

Then there’s the matter of facial expression of emotions.  Mental illness can sometimes have a significant effect on this. My expression (or “affect” to use the psychiatric term) gets very flat when my depression is causing a lot of physical/mental slowing. I remember times when I’ve stared at myself in the mirror, trying to contort my face into a smile, and simply couldn’t do it. Aside from the ultra-slow movement, this is a pretty obvious sign to those who know me that I’m not well. By contrast, when I am well, I smile a lot.

Resting bitch face is a very unscientific term for neutral facial expressions that have a hint of emotions, particularly contempt, that our minds tend to pick up on and blow out of proportion. These aren’t expressions of actual emotions; they’re just small variations like downturned or tightened lips.

All emotions are OK

Some emotions are more difficult than others. Feelings like anger, jealousy, and shame aren’t pleasant to experience, but they serve a purpose. If one of your pets died, would you rather feel grief or happiness? Grief seems far more appropriate for the situation.

Toxic positivity messaging says that being positive is the only way that’s acceptable. But why should only certain emotions be valid? A whole array of emotions is a natural part of the human experience; you don’t need to be positive. Trying to suppress emotions that feel uncomfortable is likely trying to deny a real part of your experience. Emotions are naturally transient, and if you stop fighting it, it will go away on its own much faster than if you focus on trying to make it go away.

Another element of toxic positivity is the idea that happiness is a choice. Except emotions aren’t choices—even less so when mental illness is involved. Emotions come from our mind and body reacting to what’s present for us in the moment. Perhaps we’re better served by developing greater awareness of our emotions rather than trying to exert control over them.


Do you try to pay close attention to the emotions you’re experiencing? Does it come easily to you, or are there certain strategies you use to help you?

Emotion lists

Emotion lists are available from:

More feeling wheels

Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, Wikipedia
Variation of Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, Plutchik, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Hourglass of emotions, ECYS, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What Is… an Emotion (Insights into Psychology)

Meta-Feelings: How Do You Feel About Feeling Good?

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