Tiny Revolutions №24: Getting Granular
break it down
Hi, I’m Sara, and this is Tiny Revolutions, a weekly dispatch of personal writing and links about mental and emotional fitness. Reply anytime and let me know what you think!
Last week I wrote about emotional literacy and what that meant. What it meant for me was that all week long I was thinking about how I felt.
And I gotta be honest. It was hard. Feelings are hard for me! Most of what I noticed was how much I didn’t want to feel them. I’m still not exactly psyched about writing about them—ironic, I know, given I have a newsletter about emotions, but then that’s probably exactly why I need to be doing this work.
Anyway, I did this exercise on Thursday morning while in the blackest of moods, and started out being totally resistant. The list was initially “ugh, ugh, and ugh.” And then it was “OK fine, I’m feeling terrible.” And then I forced myself to go deeper and I came up with “anxious, afraid, angry, insecure, and frustrated.” In the tangled knot of “terrible,” those were the ones I could identify (and I’m pretty sure there were more that I couldn’t).
But then once I broke through that crispy top layer of negative emotions, I found I could detect some good ones too. I also felt curious, inspired, and even a tiny bit hopeful—somewhere in there was a creamy center that was all vulnerable and fragile, just hiding under the protective shell of bad.
Which I guess is the point of doing this exercise. To see for yourself over and over than even when you don’t want to because everything seems totally shit (which it has quite a lot lately), your experience is still complex and varied. That while the primary experience may be unpleasant, there’s more at play that makes it worth it to keep going.
Concept: Emotional Granularity
The concept of emotional granularity was coined by neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett. It’s defined as an individual's ability to differentiate between the specificity of their emotions. If you have high emotional granularity, you are able to go beyond broad terms like to “happy” and “sad” and identify fine grained distinctions between different emotions.
According to Barrett’s research, the ability to more precisely define your emotional experience is good for you, even when those experiences are negative:
“Perhaps surprisingly, the benefits of high emotional granularity are not only psychological. People who achieve it are also likely to have longer, healthier lives. They go to the doctor and use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness. Cancer patients, for example, have lower levels of harmful inflammation when they more frequently categorize, label and understand their emotions.”
So yes, it’s work, but it’s worth it. I’m glad I was able to push through on Thursday. Now I guess I just need to keep pushing through, especially on the days I don’t want to.
On a more topical note, there are a lot of great resources floating around about how to have difficult conversations about race. I like this one because it focuses on using compassion and curiosity to help change minds:
“Racism is an interconnected web in which all people are trapped. To extricate ourselves, we must work together to weaken its strands. Lashing out at those who fail to see the magnitude of the problem does nothing to dislodge the misperceptions of whites, nor does it loosen the bonds that hold us in racism’s grip. Fortunately, there’s a better way.”
A Tiny Assignment
Next time you’re in an intense mood—good or bad or whatever—see if you can identify the specific emotions involved. Feel free to comment below or reply with what you notice. I’m curious.
p.s. It ain’t all bad days around here. Here’s Fran modeling hopeful, joyous, and free.
p.p.s. If you liked this post, I’d appreciate it if you shared it with someone else who might too.