Emotional Granularity

We often ask others how they are doing. Most often, people remark that they are “fine” or “doing well.” Occasionally, if we know the person a bit better or ask how they are feeling, they may admit to feeling stressed or anxious and share a few details about their challenges.   

How do you typically respond when others ask about you? Even if you answer with the habitual “I’m fine,” are you aware of feeling anything else? What comes up for you when you stop to ask yourself how you are feeling?  

Researchers have been exploring the ability to translate feelings into specific words and increasingly precise descriptions or what is referred to as emotional granularity (Kashdan, Feldman Barrett, & McKnight, 2015). Essentially, emotional granularity is the ability to break down our emotions into smaller distinguishable parts.    

There is compelling evidence that the ability to apply emotional granularity to negative emotions can be adaptive. Specifically, the ability to put negative feelings into words with greater precision is associated with more positive daily actives and better coping skills. In contrast, low negative emotional granularity, or difficulty labeling negative emotions with a high degree of specificity, has been associated with stronger reactivity to negative affect and lower psychological wellness (Starr R., Hershenberg R., Li. I, & Shaw, A., 2017). In summary, the better we are able to articulate our emotions, the better we are able to understand ourselves and take positive steps to cope.     


The goal of emotional granularity is to be able to accurately articulate what you are feeling using a detailed description.

Instead of thinking, “I’m stressed and tired,” whenever you feel down, take a moment to pause and understand what might be going on beyond feeling stressed and tired. For example, “I don’t feel supported,” or “I’m sad about my friend moving away,” or “I’m unhappy with my job and feel underappreciated.”  

Being more specific about how we feel helps us to get in touch with the underlying causes of our emotions and puts us in a better position to act or work on acceptance and other coping skills. It also allows us to shape experiences of emotions that are richer and more diverse. 

Ultimately, we are less likely to be controlled by our emotions as we increase our ability to notice and label how we feel with greater specificity. Let yourself feel your emotions with compassion and curiosity, even when those emotions are uncomfortable, and take an important step toward greater resilience and satisfaction as you come to understand yourself more fully.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Psychologist

Visit us at lindquistpsych.com

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Kashdan, T. B., Barrett, L.F., & McKnight, P. E. (2015). Unpacking emotion differentiation: Transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving distinctions in negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science 24(1): 10-16.

Starr, L. R., Hershenberg, R., Y. Irina, L., & Shaw, Z. A. (2017). When feelings lack precision: Low positive and negative emotion differentiation and depressive symptoms in daily life. Clinical Psychological Science 5(4): 613-631.

Published by tlindquistpsyd


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