A question for most of us: “What do my emotions tell me? How can I better understand what I feel? What helps me to adequately handle my emotions in different situations”. In her seminal book “How Emotions Are Made” the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett from Northwester University in the US gives answers to these questions.
The essence of her theory of constructed emotions in a nutshell is:
“Emotions are built (by us) and not built in (as a fixed concept in our brain). We are the architects of our emotions. An emotion is your brain’s creation of what bodily sensations mean in relation to what is going on around you in the world. They are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input. You are an active constructor of your emotions”.
This is good news to increase our emotional intelligence. Since our brain essentially constructs our emotions, we can teach it to label them more precisely and use this detailed information to take the most appropriate action - or none. With the following three exercises the author shows ways to really be the architect of our emotions.
1) Enrich your command of emotional words
Imagine you would only use “Feeling Bad” for characterizing unpleasant situations. This would not be very emotionally intelligent. However if we could find finer meanings within “Feeling Bad” – like angry, alarmed, afraid, uneasy, stressed … – your brain would have more options for perceiving and predicting emotions.
So learn new words; read books of different areas; go to the theater. And use your vocabulary of different languages. This will provide your brain with alternatives for responding more adequately in different situations.
2) Categorize your emotional concepts
Imagine you got a critical feedback from your boss and are unclear what he wanted from you. You feel unjustly treated and hurt. Your spontaneous reaction is to defend yourself and proof that he was wrong. Instead you could first look at your feelings. Are you afraid to loose your boss’s support, are you angry of having been treated unfair, are you concerned about your position in the company? Or are you just longing for coming to a more trustful relationship with your boss? By reflecting your feelings and categorizing your emotional concepts you will be more empathic to others, improve your skills negotiating conflicts and better get along with others.
3) Reframe your emotions
Our body and our emotions are closely connected. We feel miserable when we experience unpleasant physical sensations. For instance you go to a presentation at a client or a job interview, you might feel your heart racing and fear that you are not good enough. A way of reframing could be that you convert your anxiety into excitement. Instead of having the picture “Oh god, I am lost” to a helpful anticipation “great I am ready to go for it”. Or you are exercising in your fitness-club just towards exhaustion. You might reframe your cry, “that is killing me” into the motto of the US Marine Corps “pain is weakness leaving the body” and overcome your exhaustion.