Stained glass with colorful square pattern

The third key to emotional genius

Each emotion arises at many different levels of intensity 

Working with emotions empathically means learning how they work and how to work with them respectfully.

One very important key to developing emotional skills is to learn how to identify emotions at many different levels. 

This is especially important if you only become aware of your emotions when they’re very intense. Learning about their nuanced states can help you develop skills with your emotions before they move to an intensity level you can’t manage!

The third key: Understanding emotional nuance

Cover of The Language of Emotions bookEmotions arise in many different intensities and gradations, but in many cases, our emotional training doesn’t help us identify or understand emotional nuance.

Understanding nuance is a critical part of understanding emotions, but we don’t tend to have much training in it – especially if we’re taught that emotions should be valenced into rigid positive or negative categories.

For instance: There’s an idea that all anger is intense, negative, and anti-social; therefore, you should repress and avoid all of it!

Or all happiness is soft, positive, pro-social; therefore, you should express happiness all of the time in every possible situation, yay!

But emotions don’t work that way

Emotions arise in many different intensities, from the most subtly nuanced behaviors – to obvious medium states – to the most intense outward expressions. Identifying emotions when they’re at their medium or intense levels can be quite easy; however, if you only focus on those two intensities of emotion, you can overlook tremendous amounts of emotional information.

Emotions are essential aspects of everything you think and everything you do, and they bring you very specific gifts and skills that you can identify even when your emotions are not obvious.

In fact, you can tell right away if you’re good with anger, fear, sadness, or a dozen other emotions simply by asking yourself questions about your everyday social skills.

I wrote a short inventory to help people gauge their current relationship with their emotions. I’m sharing a few of the questions below.

An emotions quiz

Take a look at these questions, and even if you can already identify which emotion-based gifts and skills they relate to, try to answer them honestly.

    1. I feel heard and respected in my interpersonal relationships.
    2. I’m comfortable speaking up for myself, even during conflicts.
    3. I tend to remain calm and focused in emergencies.
    4. I tend to trust my own instincts about what’s right for me, and I act on them.
    5. I can relax and calm myself down, and I have reliable self-soothing skills.
    6. I can move on from situations that aren’t healthy or aren’t working. 

Questions 1 and 2: The Gifts of Anger. If you don’t understand that emotions can be reliably identified as everyday skills and capacities, you might not even connect questions 1 and 2 to the gifts of anger – which help you set and maintain effective boundaries.

At its most subtle level, anger helps you uphold mutual respect and keep open the lines of communication in your relationships. Sadly, most of us can only identify anger when it gets to a level of intensity – and since most of us were never taught how to take effective actions with our anger, we misidentify this emotion as a problem.

Questions 3 and 4: The Gifts of Fear. If you have no understanding of emotional nuance, you might think that the gifts in questions 3 and 4 relate to being focused and intuitive – and you’d be right! However, you’d miss the fact those are the gifts of fear – which help you orient effectively to your environment.

If you and your fear are working nicely together, you’ll calmly and instinctively know what’s going on – but you may have no idea that you’re working with fear, because you won’t feel obviously afraid. However, all emotions exist at this subtle level, and identifying them at this soft and flowing state makes working with their more intense variations much easier.

Questions 5 and 6: The Gifts of Sadness. These questions may seem to relate to calmness, self-soothing behaviors, and flexibility, but they’re actually the gifts of sadness – which help you identify things that aren’t working anyway so that you can let go and make room for things that do work.

It’s interesting to note that all relaxation techniques (and many meditation practices) intentionally evoke the relaxing and softening gifts of sadness – completely without realizing it. I laugh when I see heavily valenced, repressive, and emotion-pathologizing techniques that teach you to breathe away pesky emotions (including sadness) by intentionally relaxing yourself with the gifts of sadness. Hah!

Emotions contain essential gifts, skills, and intelligence

All emotions bring you specific gifts, and all emotions exist on a continuum of differing intensities. As the questions in my short emotion quiz suggest, all of your emotions actually contribute vital skills that support your basic ability to function.

If you can learn to identify the very subtle presentations of your emotions, their skills will available to you in every waking moment. You won’t have to wait until a mood overtakes you.

It’s important to develop an awareness of emotions at many different and subtle levels so that you can become more skilled with these basic tools of your intelligence and awareness.

In our free Emotional Vocabulary List, I provide many vocabulary words for specific emotions at three different levels of intensity.

In this list, I refer to the subtle, gift-level presentation of emotions as their soft states. I call their more obvious presentations medium states, and when they’re highly activated, I call that their intense states. Learning more about them can help you develop your own brand of emotional genius.

Vocabulary and nuance are vital to your ability to work with your emotions!


2 Responses

  1. Desiree
    | Reply

    I am having a little trouble with naming my more subtle emotions. I try to ask myself, “What are you feeling right now?” but, a lot of the time, it is just neutral. I’ve been making an effort to track my moods and become a little more in tune with my own emotions but I’m really struggling with this. I have a lot of calm, contemplative, and peaceful but I’m not exactly sure that encompasses my baseline emotions. I might be thinking way too much into this.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Desiree!

      First, everyone feels emotions in unique ways, and some people have a quieter experience of emotions.

      We organized the emotions into the 4 families to make it easier for people to identify the overall category.

      So you may be somewhere in the happiness family or the sadness family — you may be feeling soft sadness, which is the emotion that helps us release and relax at its softest level.

      Or in soft contentment, which in its softest level of activation can feel like being calm and satisfied with the world.

      Of course, your own emotions may be saying something different, but the 4 families is a good place to start.

      We’ve also got a good course at Empathy Academy that covers all of them: Emotional Genius

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