Feeling more, hurting less

You may have heard the concept that healing is about better feeling, not feeling better. Whilst that has a nice ring to it, it is only partly true, or at least requires further elaboration, as we are of course inherently motivated to seek to feel better rather than worse. Figuring out what makes us feel better is a worthy pursuit! It is not our natural preference for feeling better that is the problem, but our attachment to it and aversion to feeling uncomfortable. Our reactivity to how we feel, not our preference for feeling better, causes us suffering.

If we habitually reject anything that doesn't immediately feel good we limit ourselves in various ways. We can prevent ourselves from healing past traumas, responding effectively to triggering situations, working towards important goals that require some struggle, discipline or effort and generally from really feeling as alive as we can. We effectively limit ourselves to repeat the same old patterns in life.

At a more subtle but profound level we also prevent ourselves from discovering some of the deeper realisations that are available to us if we discipline our minds and genuinely open to the truth behind our subjective experience of life. This is not something immediately obvious to most of us, but it has been repeatedly observed and can be demonstrated relatively quickly to those that are willing to really look at what is going on in their minds.

The words we use to describe our emotions can become an important aspect of this because our labels provide contextual information about what we are feeling and what we think it means. If we broaden the range of feeling words we use, we simultaneously broaden the range of potential meanings of what we are feeling. In order to do this we must become willing to open to the experience of each feeling as it arises so that we can actually identify it specifically and according to a broad range of options, rather than simplistically labelling the feeling according to a limited range of words, such as “good or bad” or “happy or unhappy” for example, or of turning to a rationalised story about why we are feeling something. The very attempt to understand what a feeling is, where it is coming from and what it means, in the absence of a story about it, implies a willingness to feel it and investigate it enough to have that level of self-awareness and specificity. It turns out this is a very good thing!

The linked article refers to this ability to specifically label our feelings as "emotional granularity". The more emotions we can reliably differentiate as we experience them the higher our emotional granularity. Developing emotional granularity appears to have a positive impact on life. Higher emotional granularity has been associated with being more resilient, recovering more easily from stress, drinking less alcohol, and even higher academic success!

The work the article summarises was inspired when the author started compiling emotional words from other languages that had no direct English equivalent. Their existence implies a fluency in those other languages and cultures with expressing emotions in ways that English speakers may not have, as there are no readily available words to do so. Have you ever wanted to say you feel “gigil”, a Tagalog word to describe the urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished? This is a very particular description of a feeling, that must be clearly differentiated from other feelings in a very specific way, to have any honest meaning. If such a word is used within a culture, then the assumption is that people in that culture are generally aware when they feel this way, and willing to communicate it without further elaboration. The specific label itself, without story or justification, is sufficient to explain it.

It’s a fun idea to explore, and to think about how we might all become more aware of what we are feeling so we can enjoy the benefits of “better feeling” through increasing our emotional granularity. Even if you don’t go so far as to start learning foreign words for emotions or felt senses, it is worth considering how willing and able you are to feel and identify the emotions you experience on a day to day basis as they arise. To me this general willingness to feel all our emotions is an important psychological principle. It is much trickier to consistently apply than it might at first seem, but the goal, however lofty, is highly worthwhile.