Understanding emotions

Understanding emotions

We all experience emotions, but understanding what our emotions mean isn’t always easy. Misinterpreting their cause or ignoring them altogether can lead to communication breakdowns, relationship conflict, prolonged stress and poor health outcomes.

Learning to properly identify what we are feeling is the first step towards working out why we are feeling this way, and it’s a key factor in maintaining healthy relationships – both with ourselves, and with those around us. 

Fortunately, there are a number of simple strategies we can adopt to help us better understand our emotions, beginning with improving our emotional literacy.


Babies learn to communicate basic feelings long before they learn how to speak. A baby’s cry can convey any number of woes, such as hunger, fatigue or discomfort; while a content baby will sleep, babble or smile.

As we grow, we improve our communication skills through speech and text, but for many of us, our emotional literacy – the vocabulary we use to describe feelings – stagnates.

Our ability to develop this vocabulary is hindered by social cues: we’re discouraged from expressing certain emotions, and praised for our capacity to suppress how we feel and ‘just get on with it’. So it’s hardly a surprise that many of us struggle with emotional literacy.

‘At times many of us resemble the child who becomes agitated when they need some food, not realising that hunger is the real source of their irritation.’ The A to Z of feelings by Andrew Fuller

‘Umbrella’ terms

When asked how we feel, it’s not unusual to respond with umbrella terms. These are nuance-lacking, emotional catch-alls, such as angry, happy, sad, or nervous. They’re easy to name, easy to feel and often pretty hard to do anything about.

What’s underneath the umbrella?

Each umbrella term represents a vast and nuanced range of emotions. Something that initially presents as ‘anger’, may in reality actually be powerlessness, rejection, fear, defensiveness, impatience, or vulnerability.

‘Sadness’ is another simplistic label. But through finding a more precise way of describing sadness, we’re better able to identify that what we’re actually feeling, is disappointed by the outcome, or overwhelmed by a task we have to complete, or regret over something we’ve said.

Expanding the vocabulary we use to label emotions provides a specificity that empowers us to identify and target their cause constructively. It gives us something tangible to work with.


We experience emotions on a spectrum of intensity, and determining the depth, strength and urgency of an emotional reaction can provide further clarity and perspective.

Nervousness and terror both fall under the umbrella of ‘fear’, but there’s a world of difference between feeling anxious before giving a presentation, and panic that your life is in danger – although for many of us, public speaking can certainly feel life threatening!

By mindfully questioning the intensity of our emotions, we can gain a better awareness of which feelings are mild that perhaps can be dismissed, and which are immediate and important and should be acted on.


Maintaining a good emotional balance is important for our physical and mental health. Emotions that are stuck, disproportionate or unstable can have serious health implications. Prolonged stress can alter our hormone levels, depress our immune systems, disrupt sleep and cause cardiovascular problems. 

But by developing our emotional literacy, we increase our emotional agility – our ability to successfully navigate interactions without being ruled or derailed by our feelings. 

So, what can we do?

Engage mindfully with emotions. Rather than suppressing or ignoring a feeling, take a moment to label the emotion.

Go deeper. Identify more nuanced words that more accurately describe the feeling.

Consider the intensity. How strong, deep or urgent is the feeling? Is it temporary or ongoing? Harmless or dangerous? Is this something that could be dismissed, or should it be acted on?

Write it down. ‘Freewriting’ is a useful method for processing emotions. The action of writing about emotional experiences can allow us to uncover, externalise and even discard unwanted thoughts, feelings or trauma.

Psychologist Susan David notes that across multiple studies, people who engaged in freewriting about emotionally charged episodes ‘experienced marked improvement in their physical and mental well-being. They were happier, less depressed and less anxious. In the months after the writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships, improved memory, and more success at work.’

To try freewriting, simply grab a pen and paper (or computer, if that’s your preference) and get started. Don’t overthink your words or grammar, instead, dump your thoughts and emotions onto the page in a directed stream of consciousness. You won’t be showing anyone, and in fact, you can discard the pages as soon as you’re done. Aim to write for around twenty minutes, for at least three days in a row. 

Emotional agility is a lifelong journey, but the steps we can take to develop these skills are simple and achievable. When we improve our understanding of emotions, we’re better equipped to identify and navigate life’s roadblocks by responding constructively and effectively to ourselves and the world around us.

A voice that is heard.

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