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  • Writer's pictureJim Cartwright

Cultivating Emotional Granularity and Emotional Intelligence

Cultivating Emotional Granularity and Emotional Intelligence

by Jim Cartwright

“Language is our portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning, and self-awareness. Having access to the right words can open up entire universes…Without accurate language, we struggle to get the help we need, we don’t always regulate or manage our emotions and experiences in a way that allows us to move through them productively, and our self-awareness is diminished. Language shows us that naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power; it gives us the power of understanding and meaning."

-Brené Brown Atlas of the Heart pg xxi

When I was growing up as a child in Michigan in the 1960s-1980s, the notion of emotional intelligence was unheard of. The North American cliche that so many lived by, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” only acknowledged the value of happiness. All other emotions were seen as undesirable. Since I became an adult, cultivating emotional intelligence and seeing the value of all emotions has become increasingly recognized in the USA. However, schools still don’t generally teach children about their emotions. Many of us struggle with emotional granularity, which simply means the ability to name and recognize our emotions. We have not cultivated the habit of allowing ourselves to feel our emotions, name them, sit with them, and then question and learn from them. I believe that cultivating skills involving emotional granularity and emotional intelligence are important for my own well-being and essential to pass on to younger people and future generations.

As we are by nature interdependent animals, in our need to feel we belong, many of us become people pleasers and feel that we must “put on a happy face” in order to be accepted. Even our simple greeting, “How are you?” is generally loaded with the expectation that the answer will be “fine,” regardless of how the person is actually feeling. I remember when I first went to a therapist in my 20s, she asked me, “How are you feeling?” My response was, “I don’t know. You tell me how you want me to feel, and I’ll try to feel it.”. She then introduced me to the reality that this is not how our emotional lives function.

From very young ages, children can learn to be aware of and accept all of their feelings. One program I admire that helps children cultivate a positive relationship with their feelings is Kimochis. According to their website, "On the surface, we’re (Kimochis) a family of cuddly critters and a big bowl of emotions. Underneath, we’re a proven system for helping kids grow and transform by dealing skillfully with their feelings.”  Kimochis are like stuffed animals in the form of butterflies, birds, etc., with accompanying stuffed mini-creatures, each one of which represents a different emotion. They are accompanied by many teaching materials and books that facilitate cultivating emotional granularity and intelligence in children and within their family systems.

Once we reach teen and adult years, we can take a deeper dive into our emotions and how they impact our communication skills. Three resources that have been inspirational for me in doing this work are the work of Brené Brown, especially her book Atlas of the Heart, Karla McLaren’s work with the EmpathyAcademy,  especially her book The Language of Emotions, as well as the work of the Conscious Leadership Group.  Much of the content in the rest of this blog is synthesized from these resources.  

One framework for looking at emotions is to group them into four families of emotions: the happiness family, the sadness family, the fear family, and the anger family. Although the happiness family may be the most pleasant of the four, all of our emotions are necessary parts of being human. When we look into each family, we can become more aware of the nuances of the different emotions that comprise these families.

I believe that we can see all emotions as gifts that have messages for us. What are they telling us?  A core question we can ask when any emotion is present is, “How is this emotion for me?”(which could also be stated as “How is this emotion here to serve me?” or “What can I learn from this emotion?”) Here are some questions we can ask ourselves when different emotional families are present. 

Anger: What boundary needs to be set? What is out of alignment with my values? What needs to be protected and restored? What is not of service to me or no longer of service? The following three questions go together: What do I feel right about? What belief is behind my anger? Is this a belief I want to continue to be right about or a belief I want to let go of?

Sadness: What needs to be let go of? What or who do I need to say goodbye to? (Grief:- a deeper form of sadness. What needs to be mourned? How do I best honor what or who was lost?)

Fear: What am I sensing? What needs to be faced and dealt with? What action might need to be taken? What new thing is trying to come through me that my present-day self is resisting because it is outside my comfort zone, and how can I expand my comfort zone?

Happiness/Joy: What needs to be celebrated? What wants to be appreciated? What wants to be laughed at? How have my deepest values been honored? What brings me deep connection and infinite expansion?

Beyond grouping emotions into four main families, we can also look at how different and sometimes seemingly contradictory emotions can be present in us at the same time. For me, low-grade anger and frustration are common emotions. When I look into my anger, I often see other emotions under the surface. It seems that anger is attempting to protect more vulnerable parts of myself that feel fearful or sad. Sometimes anger, fear, and sadness appear simultaneously in my psyche, like a pack of wolves. At a funeral, a person might feel both grief and joy at the same time. Grief for having lost a loved one and joy in the memories of good times they shared. Bittersweet is two different emotions at the same time: happiness and sadness. People often feel bittersweet when they graduate from school, watch their kids go off to college, or leave a job they love when they know that it is time to move on to something new.


We can also go deeper into emotions by comparing different nuanced emotions from the same family (e.g., momentary happiness based on getting what we want vs. joy that springs up spontaneously vs. contentment that comes from being satisfied with what we are doing with our lives). Not all emotions fit neatly into these four categories, and some are combinations of other emotions (e.g., jealousy often contains a mixture of anger, sadness, and fear; the fear of losing a valued relationship or part of a relationship that we already have). 

Let’s look at guilt and shame. Different people define these emotions in different ways. For me, guilt is feeling bad about something I have done. Shame is feeling bad about who I am. It’s the feeling that something is wrong with me, or in the words of Alan Downs in The Velvet Rage, it’s “the fear of being unlovable.” Here are some questions we can ask to explore these emotions.

Guilt: What have I done that disrespected my own ethics and values? What must be made right? What do I commit to not doing again in the future? 

Note:  Even though guilt is an unpleasant emotion, it can be very helpful in that it can lead us to atone for behavior that violates our own value system, ask for forgiveness, and make amends.

Shame: What do I believe about myself that no longer serves me?  What parts of myself am I judging and perceiving as negative? What about myself am I afraid may make me unlovable? What messages have I internalized that block my access to fully accepting and celebrating myself? Am I allowing myself to be vulnerable with others, talking about myself and asking for what I need? In what way am I not allowing others to feel empathy and compassion for me by withholding my truth?

Note: Working with shame is quite different than working with guilt, as it doesn’t have to do with what we have done but rather who we are. Part of this work is recognizing and letting go of limiting beliefs we have about our own innate worthiness. We live in a society that thrives on shaming messages and uses them to undermine our self-esteem and control us so that we buy products we don’t need, become workaholics to earn our worth, etc. Working with shame is a deep internal process. The benefits of doing this work can be discovering our inherent sense of self-worth and belonging that could be our birthright, but that has been denied to us because of toxic messages fed to us through our social conditioning. 

Brené Brown points out that “the antidote to shame is empathy” (although instead of empathy, I would say compassion. For me, compassion means feeling empathy plus taking action to relieve another person’s or our own suffering. This can be as simple as listening to another person). If we share our shame experience with someone who responds with compassion, our shame dissipates. Shame gets diffused by allowing itself to be seen and embraced by lovingkindness. It cannot live in the darkness. Additionally, cultivating self-compassion for ourselves is a worthwhile lifelong practice. It’s a shame diffusing quality makes the effort of cultivating it well worth the benefits. Although the emotion of shame leads us to feel very alone and believe that we don’t belong, it’s helpful to realize that shame is an almost universal human experience that most people grapple with, either consciously or unconsciously. Shame is a self-involved emotion that draws us inward. When we are in shame, we do not feel empathy for others; we are concerned with ourselves. Cultivating empathy and compassion for other people’s emotions and needs can also counteract our feelings of shame.

When we don’t have the opportunity to express our feelings and hold them inside us, they can turn into poisons rather than energy forces we can learn from and move through. It’s also worth looking at the connection between the thoughts we think, the stories we tell ourselves about what we believe is true about ourselves and life, and the emotions these loops reinforce. While it holds true that all emotions are valuable messengers, some emotions, such as fear and anger, transmit their emotions rather quickly. Once we have received and acted upon their messages, it may be wisest to let them move through us and move on. It appears that all animals have the fight, flight and freeze response, but humans can get stuck in this by reinforcing the same messages over and over via cognitive-emotional loops, to the detriment of our own well-being. If we reinforce fear, thinking worrying thoughts about what may go wrong in the future, it often turns into chronic anxiety and dread. Our egos are very attracted to stories that generate anger toward others. It’s the nature of the ego to believe “I am your right and you are wrong," but if we get addicted to self-righteous anger, it can sabotage our connections with other people.

An important practice in cultivating emotional awareness, aside from being able to name and recognize feelings, is noticing where they show up in our bodies. This is different for each person, but some common experiences include feelings of contraction and tightness when we are angry, and pain in our throats, heaviness behind the eyes, and teary eyes when we are sad. 

One practice is to allow ourselves to feel whatever we feel and spontaneously match our emotions with sound and or/movement. This may take place on an instinctual, somatic level before we have actually named the emotion we are feeling. Once we do that, we can bring our emotional awareness into the verbal centers of the brain.

One aspect of cultivating emotional intelligence involves gathering practices that help us soothe and regulate our nervous systems. What constitutes “best practice” in this work looks different for each person. One of the most common ones involves deep, slow breathing. For me, dancing every day is essential. However, if we jump immediately into self-soothing without allowing ourselves to be present with our emotions, we can miss the information they offer us and create what is referred to as a “spiritual bypass.” This term, coined by John Welwood, refers to the tendency to use practices, such as meditation and spiritual ideas, to avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks. 

I believe that cultivating emotional intelligence involves a dance between 1) accepting and being fully present with our emotions and 2) learning how to self-soothe and interrupt cognitive-emotional loops (e.g., the thoughts we think and the stories we tell ourselves over and over, which generate emotional responses). 

Labeling emotions is an essential skill, and it helps to bring clarity. However, our emotional experiences involve a far more fluid and dynamic process that goes way beyond labeling them. One practice, once we feel clear that we can name the emotions we are feeling, is to connect the emotions with specific images, sounds, movements, stories, or songs. This allows them to weave into the whole of our lives in dynamic, organic ways. Emotions don’t take place in isolation and are always connected to experiences in our consciousness and somatic experiences coming to life in our bodies.

One of my projects, which continues to be a work in progress, is to write songs connected to specific emotions. If you would like to hear some of these songs, please visit my updated Singer Songwriter page. Thus far, I’ve written songs addressing anger (Welcome Anger), Fear (I Ride a Wild Horse), Joy (Heart Sing), and sadness/grief (The Lake of Sadness).

I welcome any thoughts or comments you may have regarding this article.


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