In this blog post I want to talk about a concept called “emotion differentiation” (ED). I have recently begun reading about this area of research and I find the ideas both exciting and very relevant to the kind of psychotherapy I practice.
ED is the degree to which people experience and/or label their emotions in a subtle and nuanced way. So when people with high ED have a intense or notable emotional experiences they will, depending on the particular experience, describe their experience from within a broad palette of both “positive” emotions words (such as happy, joyful, enthusiastic, and amused) and “negative” emotion words (such as nervous, angry, sad, ashamed and guilty). People with low ED, on the other hand, use a restricted range of emotion words (such as only angry, sad, and happy) and also so often rely on generic terms like “bad” or “good”.
Research into ED is only about 10 years old, but the early studies strongly suggest that having high ED ability is good for your psychological health, physical health, and relationships. For example, various studies have shown that, relative to people with low ED, people with higher ED: use a wider variety of emotion regulation strategies when under stress; abuse alcohol less; and have fewer problems with aggression.
How could having stronger ED ability, simply knowing and describing what you are feeling in a more detailed way, provide these kinds of diverse benefits?
I would suggest that there are likely two basic paths through which ED provides benefit.
The first is that people with higher ED can create a clearer and more nuanced understanding of what is going on inside of them. This allows them to “make sense to themselves more” and therefore to be less prone to feeling confused, weird, or even “defective”.
To illustrate this idea, let me give the example of a woman named Jill. Imagine that one workday morning Jill looks on Facebook and finds out that her best friend has decided to spend the next weekend on a camping trip with a new friend. Later that morning Jill begins to feel down and this continues throughout the afternoon.
If Jill has low ED she will likely experience this drop in mood as an undifferentiated ball of just feeling “bad”. In this case, it is possible that Jill will go through her day without ever connecting her drop in mood to seeing the news about her friend. Now she will not only feel down but she will likely also feel confused and frustrated with herself about feeling down (e.g., “I felt fine this morning, what is wrong with me?”). This response will likely create self judgement that will deepen her negative mood.
On the other hand, imagine that Jill had high ED. Soon after getting the news she will likely notice the drop in her mood. She will then be able to tune into these feelings. Rather then just knowing she feels “bad”, she will be able to recognize distinct feelings emerging from within herself. She could, for example, discover that she feeling: jealous about her best friend starting to become so close with another friend; and anxious that her friend will lose interest in her and pull away from the friendship. Once she understands this, she may recognize that the reason she is prone to feeling jealous and anxious in this situation is because she moved a lot as a kid and always ended up losing her friends, which was very painful for her. With that awareness she might understand that, even if they aren't “helpful”, her jealousy and anxiety make perfect sense given her life experience. This kind of “making sense to ourself” often brings self compassion in situations where we logically know our reaction is out of whack. Now that “high ED Jill” understands what is actually going on inside of her, and she has arrived at some self compassion about it, she will be much less likely to spiral into additional confusion and self criticism.
The second main pathway through which ED can provide benefit is this: when we know what specific emotions we are feeling we are in a much better position to respond skillfully.
“Low ED Jill” would simply not have the information she needs to address her situation in the way that is likely to make her feel better.
Alternately, “high ED Jill” would now be able to act in responsive, self supporting way. For example, in the case of jealousy/anxiety, she might: work to self soothe this vulnerable, jealous part of herself by remembering how strong her friendship with her best friend actually is, or by calling someone else she is close to.
As a further illustration of this pathway, imagine instead that Jill came to the understanding that what she was feeling was not jealousy/anxiety but disappointment and anger. Disappointment and anger, not because her best friend was going to go camping with a new friend, but because her friend had promised to help Jill move this coming weekend. Understanding what she was feeling, Jill might use these feelings to guide her to speak to her friend and to express that she will need to her friend to honor her promises more faithfully in the future if Jill is to continue feeling valued by her.
Ok, so how do you develop this kind of ED? One of the most powerful means of doing this is to spend time tuning into the body during the experience of emotion. This approach is so useful because all emotions arise as sensations in the body, and each physically feels slightly different. The heaviness of sadness, for example, is subtly different the more intense intense and painful quality of grief. Once you can reliably “taste” the quality of these different emotions, it becomes much easier to identify what feeling (or feelings) we are experiencing.
It is possible to develop this kind of “emotional mindfulness” on your own. But it is often much easier to do this with an experienced guide to help. This is where experiential psychotherapy of the kind I practice comes in. Therapy becomes a place where you get to spend time practicing this skill, so that you can take it back into your life and harness the power of ED.
In fact, if you ended up coming to see me for therapy, spending time developing this kind of ED ability or “emotional mindfulness” could well become one of the most important things that we would work on together.