use your words

the power of naming what we feel


emotion wheel
emotion wheel, credit robert plutchik


do you ever have an experience where a word or phrase just keeps coming up and up and up, almost like the universe is tapping you on the shoulder? do you find that if you brush off these little synchronicities, they just get louder and louder? the tap becomes a shoulder punch...


over the past several months, the phrase "emotional granularity" has continued popping up for me. this phrase (which as a word-nerd i appreciate for the satisfying way it feels to say it. gran-u-LAYR-ih-teeeeeee), refers to our ability to distinguish between emotions, especially between closely-related and highly-specific emotions.


granularity. when you think of something that's "granular", think of the word "grain" or of a small particle. a cup of sugar has a higher granularity than a cup of water, meaning that you can look at it closely and distinguish between scads of smaller pieces. 10 pounds of rice has a higher granularity than 10 pounds of bowling balls. more intricacy, more component pieces, more detail. a whole made of more individual parts.


emotions, or more accurately emotional descriptor words, can be rice, or they can be bowling balls. here's what i mean.


take a peek at the image at the top of this post, robert plutchik's "emotion wheel". find the center section (sad, happy, surprised, etc.) this layer of the wheel demonstrates LOW granularity, that is, it makes little fine distinction between emotions. it paints with broad strokes. here there be bowling balls. if you asked an average person what emotions they experience over the course of the week, they'd likely give you a list that looks something like this. low granularity, while it does indeed express generalities, does little justice to the range of what we actually experience as humans.


now take a moment to really explore the wheel from the inside out. choose one of the bowling balls, and follow it all the way out to the edge. for instance, i might start with "happy" and then move to "powerful" as a variation of "happy". then i go on to note that "powerful" can be broken down further into "courageous" and "creative". the further i move out into the wheel, the more i'm talking rice, and the less i'm talking bowling balls. the further out i go, the more "granular" the emotion words become. they're increasing in specificity, pointing to more and more specific feelings the further out you go.


take a moment to dig in and explore. know that this is only one right approach to dividing and specifying and that you might have better/different ideas about how this could or should look.


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so a little bit more about emotional granularity, and another visual for you. the phrase was coined by psychology professor lisa feldman barrett in the aughts, and she uses an X/Y axis type chart to map emotions in terms of what's known as "valence" (X axis, from pleasure to displeasure) and "arousal" (Y axis, high arousal to low arousal). here's an activity to illustrate the point.

  • grab something to write with and something to write on.

  • draw intersecting X (side to side) and Y (up and down) axes (you've created 4 "quadrants" and it looks like a plus sign)

  • label the left of the X line "displeasure"--everthing to the left of center is displeasurable

  • label the right of the X line "pleasure"--everything to the right of center is pleasurable

  • label the top of the Y line "high arousal"--everything to the top of center is high-energy

  • label the bottom of the Y line "low arousal"--everything to the bottom of center is low-energy.

  • now take a moment to plot the following emotions where you think they might go: angry, bored, relaxed, astonished.

  • now check your work! angry should be top left quadrant, bored should be bottom left, relaxed should be bottom right, and astonished should be top right.


how'd you do? now pick 4 more emotions of your own, being as specific or "granular" as you can, and see if you can place them on the graph where they fit. make sure to place them thoughtfully in reference to what's already there (for instance, if i added "pleased" to the upper right quadrant, i might place it a bit lower and a bit further to the right than "astonished"--the nuance can be up to personal interpretation!)


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essentially, the higher the number of emotions that you can name, feel like you understand, and can accurately place on something like a wheel or a valence/arousal graph, the higher your perception and experience of emotional granularity. as you can see, granularity is determined by a great number of factors, including language, experience, and personal/cultural understanding of nuanced differences.


for instance, could you describe the difference between sympathy and empathy?


how about a sense of belonging versus a sense of fitting in?


envy versus jealousy?


stressed versus overwhelmed?


and why does it matter? well, according to Barrett, the better you are at distinguishing between emotions, the better your ability, when needed, to cope with what you're feeling and/or integrate that knowledge into your own sense of self.


here's a very personal example from my life as a point of comparison. i had a miscarriage at 7 weeks in 2018. it was my second, and those have been my only two confirmed pregnancies so far in my journey with infertility. how did that make me feel?


bowling ball version: sad.


what do i do with sad? how do i meet it? what do i need from others to help me with my experience of it? how do i heal it or integrate it? it's a good start, and it's true, but there's not a lot of nuanced guidance from a bowling ball like "sad".


rice version: stressed, afraid, disappointed, discouraged, anguished, grieving, heartbroken, bittersweet. all of them. all at once.


this list is something else entirely. for me, stress can be mitigated with mind and body medicine, fear can be at least partially dissipated by gathering more information, disappointment soothes a bit through repeated story telling, discouragement needs to read other people's success stories, anguish needs an ugly-cry, grief needs witnessing and ritual, heartbreak needs to be held, and bittersweetness calls for art.


do you see the POWER in granularity? where there's nuance, there's understanding, there's more comfort, there's validation, there's more acceptance, there's a plan. i don't need to get rid of the emotions, but i know now how to start caring for each of them. i know my role (ish), and i know how i might need help from others to meet my own needs (ish). i can communicate those needs more specifically (ish), because a friend might have better medicine for "discouragement" than for "sad".


mind. blown.


as i dove into an exploration of axes and wheels, i came across a resource that has been incredibly helpful, and i wanted to share it with you. i have a subscription to audible, and since i spend a great deal of time in my car on long drives for midwifery home-visiting, i consume a lot of (what i will always and forever despite its egregious anachronism call) books on tape. (i know, but hey, you still say "dialing a phone number" and "hanging up a call", yes? think about it.)


i get one credit a month for a new book, and because the frequency with which i can actually download material is so low, my wishlist gets ridiculously long. i'd added brené brown's atlas of the heart to my list about 6 months before its release date and had long since forgotten about it. in all honestly, i've also been working to branch out and away from reading anything personal-growth related written by folks with piles of privilege status (in this case, a married, able-bodied, cis, wealthy, white, christian academic), so it had been demoted and de-prioritized quite a bit.


still, the whole emotional granularity tap-tap on the shoulder continued, and atlas reared its head once more to give me a POKE. i bit.


whoa buddy, i'm glad i did. part of the reason i'm so behind on writing is that i've listened to it three times through already. if you're interested in (one version of) an extremely thorough journey through the emotion wheel, atlas offers science, history, etymology, personal story, real world examples, beautiful illustrations (even with the audio version!) and rich, accessible, granular terminology for identifying, thinking about, and talking about how we feel, and more importantly, it makes solid points for why increasing our emotional granularity is crucial to our personal and collective wellbeing.


atlas digs into the concepts of "near enemies" (sympathy/empathy) and "far enemies" (schadenfreude/freudenfreude), it encourages exploration of first versus second order emotions (is your anger actually worry, frustration, or hurt in disguise?), it suggests useful strategies for integrating and moving with/through/past negative emotions, and it shows how doing this seemingly very personal work ultimately facilitates deeper and more meaningful connections between each of us.


if you're interested, here's your homework:


head to your local library and check out a copy of atlas of the heart. grab a pen and a notebook, and get to work. let me know what you think. let me know what you discover. let me know where you disagree. let me know what you would add. see if, after a read, you can more clearly identify the enormous breadth of what you actually experience as a human, both alone and in the world. see what changes when you know both how to give yourself what you need and how to ask for what you need from others based on what you're actually feeling.


bowling balls to rice, y'all. time to get granular.


be well, keep growing, keep going.


abby hall luca

the hearth chaplain



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