Hazy photo of colors circles of light

Bringing nuance to your emotional life

The Wonderful World of Emotional Nuance!

As we study emotions empathically, I’m starting out by focusing on four ideas that are widely shared, completely accepted — and absolutely problematic. These four commonly accepted ideas actually prevent you from being able to approach your emotions — or anyone else’s — intelligently. They are:

  1. The problem with valencing (imagining that there are positive or negative emotions, or pro-social or anti-social emotions)
  2. The problem with expression and repression (having only two options for working with your emotions, both of which can be unhelpful)
  3. The problem of nuance (not understanding that emotions arise in a multitude of intensities, and are present in your every waking moment)
  4. The problem of quantity (not realizing that it is completely normal for emotions to arise in pairs, groups, and clusters)

In this excerpt from my new book The Art of Empathy, let’s look at the problem of not being able to identify emotions at varying levels of intensity.

Understanding and identifying emotional nuance

Emotions 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 very rigid good/bad categories.

For instance: There’s an idea that all anger is negative and anti-social; therefore, you should repress and avoid all of it! Or all happiness is positive and 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 moods – to the most fervent outward expressions. Identifying emotions when they’re at the mood level or the very intense level can be quite easy; however, if you only focus on those two intensities of emotion, you can overlook tremendous amounts of vital emotional information.

Emotions are action-requiring neurological programs, and they bring you very specific gifts and skills that you can identify even when you’re not in an obvious mood state. Emotions are intrinsic aspects of your cognitive abilities and your intelligence, and you can tell right away if you’re good with anger, fear, shame, or a dozen other emotions just by asking yourself questions about your everyday social skills.

I wrote a short quiz to help people gauge their current relationship with their own emotions (the full quiz is in my interactive online course, Emotional Flow: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Emotions).

Take a look at these eight questions, and even if you can already identify which emotion-based gifts and skills I’m looking for, 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 know when new situations and new relationships are going to work out.
  5. I can relax and calm myself down, and I have reliable self-soothing skills.
  6. I’m able to change my mind when I discover better information and ideas.
  7. I’m good at asking for what I want – in regard to money, possessions, and recognition.
  8. I have good time-management skills and I follow through on my plans and commitments.

Questions 1 and 2: The Gifts of Anger. If you don’t understand that emotions can be reliably identified as everyday skills and capacities that underlie your more obvious mood states, you might not even connect questions 1 and 2 to the gifts of anger – which help you set and maintain effective interpersonal 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 the level of a mood – and since most of us were never taught how to take effective actions with our anger, we fail to utilize the skills and gifts it brings us.

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 change, novelty, or possible physical hazards. If you and your fear are working nicely together, you’ll calmly and instinctively identify hazards and safety – 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 gift-and-skill level, and identifying them at this soft and flowing stage 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!

Question 7: The Gifts of Envy. This question may seem to relate to your capacity for self-preservation and material and social viability – and it does – but these are also the gifts of envy, which help you create and maintain stable connections to security, material and financial resources, and appropriate social recognition. Envy is related to the emotion of jealousy, but the two have distinct differences: envy helps you function effectively in the area of security, resources, and recognition – while jealousy helps you create and maintain stable connections to loyalty, mate retention, and love.

These two emotions are possibly the most hated emotions in the entire emotional realm, but they are absolutely crucial to your social survival. As we explore relationship skills in Chapter 7, childhood rivalries in Chapter 8, and workplace relationships in Chapter 9, we’ll look at the ways that healthy envy and healthy jealousy can help you become more effective in all of your relationships.

Question 8: The Gifts of Anxiety. This question may seem to relate to being a good planner, and it does – and that’s one of the gifts anxiety brings to you. People are often very surprised to learn that anxiety contains specific gifts, because anxiety is usually described in terms of disorder or disease. However, at its subtle gift level, anxiety (which is related to fear) helps you plan for the future and complete important tasks.

I also call anxiety your “procrastination alert system,” and a bonus with anxiety is that, if you’re feeling it, it means that there’s very little to fear in the present moment. If there’s a problem in your immediate environment, fear will help you orient to change, novelty, or possible hazard. But if you’re feeling anxiety – it relates to the future, and its presence often means that things in the present moment are pretty stable.

As we all know, anxiety can become problematic if it isn’t attended to, and it can become uncomfortably repetitive. Here’s a specific practice for anxiety.

Emotions contain distinct gifts, skills, and intelligence

rainbow waveAll 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 social functioning. 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 social intelligence and empathic 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 mood states, and when they’re highly activated, I call that their intense states.

To help you understand what I mean, I’ll put anxiety into the mix and run it through the three states.

Soft Anxiety

In its soft state, anxiety will simply help you be aware of (for instance) what you need to bring for an upcoming trip. You won’t feel obviously anxious; you’ll just be connected to anxiety’s capacity to help you prepare yourself for the future and intelligently complete your tasks.

Mood-State Anxiety

In its mood state, your anxiety will be more insistent. You’ll feel more of a sense of a time-crunch, and you might feel some intense focus and energy. You might start orienting all around yourself and bringing a great deal of laser focus to what you need to do – you might even ignore things in the room that are not related to the tasks you need to complete.

You’ll feel more activated in this mood state, and you might be a bit snappy if anyone gets in your way. This is a very task-oriented emotion, and it has things to do! In this mood state, you’ll feel a little riled up, but not uncomfortably so – and you’ll be able to identify that you’re working with the gifts of anxiety. In their mood states, your emotions are usually obvious to you and to others.

Intense Anxiety

In its intense state, your anxiety will be in a kind of feedback loop, which could be initiated by many things. Internally, it could be generated by an increase in adrenaline, cortisol, heart rate, or other physical conditions unrelated to task completion, but you’d feel those ramped-up intensities and think: “Oh, I’ve got a ton of work to do – on a tight deadline!!” Externally, this intense level of anxiety could be initiated by a sudden and overwhelmingly close deadline, or by a flurry of things that need to be handled, but are actually impossible for one person to do.

In situations like this, your anxiety might set itself into a tizzy of activation. It might spin out and take you from room to room completing three tasks badly and four not at all. You may orient so strongly to one thing that you miss other things in the room, and trip, or walk into a wall. Or your focus may get so overwhelmed that you can’t see or find that check you just put down on the table, dagnabbit!! At this point, Conscious Questioning will be invaluable.

Yet notice that all three levels of activation involve the exact same emotion – anxiety – but also notice that when we talk about anxiety, we usually only talk about its intense state, and we usually only think of anxiety as a negative thing. That’s understandable, because if you only know anxiety in that one intense form, then the act of valencing is actually sort of logical: An emotion that walks you into walls and makes you lose checks – that’s not helpful! It’s negative! But that’s not all that anxiety does, and it’s important to remember this:

All emotions exist at many different levels of activation and nuance, and all emotions are necessary.

Increasing your emotional vocabulary and extending your emotional awareness to include nuance will help you become more articulate, more knowledgeable, and more empathic about emotions – in yourself and in others. These skills will also help you increase your Empathic Accuracy, Emotion Regulation, and Perspective-Taking capacities (See the Six Essential Aspects of Empathy). Simply put, increasing your emotional awareness increases your empathic awareness.

In the next post: Understanding multiple 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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *