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What Is Emotional Granularity and How Can It Help Us?

Kyle Lawell, Licensed Professional Counselor

When I was in the second grade, I vividly remember my teacher telling me to avoid using the word, “thing” in my writing. She told me that there were so many words I could learn and use in place of “thing” and that this word didn’t tell the audience what I was thinking, feeling, or doing. Instead of saying, “can you pick up that thing over there,” I was encouraged to say, “can you pick up that green, shiny pen on the table in the kitchen?” At the time, I found that extra work to be quite frustrating and unnecessary but as an adult, I’ve learned just how valuable this skill is. More times than not, I’m able to communicate what I need or what I’m thinking clearly, and people are able to understand what I need from them. 

What Is Emotional Granularity? 

This same concept of being very specific when communicating about our experiences also applies to our emotions and is known as emotional granularity. Lisa Feldman Barrett and colleagues describe emotional granularity as, “the ability to put feelings into words with a high degree of specificity and precision” (Kashdan, Feldman Barrett, & McKnight, 2015). In other words, the goal of emotional granularity is to learn new words in order to more precisely describe our emotional experiences. This tool is incredibly useful because something that we don’t recognize is how inclined our brains are to predict how experiences like speeches, performance evaluations, or any experience will make us feel and consequently how we should physiologically and behaviorally experience them. Suppose you have two categories of emotions that make up all human emotional experiences, “happy” and “sad” for example. Whenever you categorize an experience as being a happy or sad experience, your brain will predict how to think, feel, behave, and physically respond to that event even before you’ve participated in the event. 

How to Improve Emotional Granularity in Our Lives

What Barrett suggests is for everyone to continuously enhance their emotional vocabulary as well as practice categorizing their experiences with the new emotional vocabulary. For instance, it is easy for me to imagine my upcoming annual evaluation and say, “I’m anxious” but it takes more effort and language for me to notice and describe the nuances of that experience. Incorporating the concept of emotional granularity, a more granular description of this experience could be, “I’m nervous about my annual review because I care deeply about the work that I do. I’m also excited to hear what my supervisor has to say about my work because I value his feedback. Meanwhile, I have a project to complete that’s overwhelming me and I’m afraid that I won’t complete it before the evaluation.”

How Emotional Granularity Can Improve Our Lives

The ability to identify and communicate your emotional experiences in this specific way does more than just help you predict and behave in those situations; it has positive health benefits as well. People who can finely distinguish between their unpleasant feelings are studied to be “more flexible when regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed, and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them” (Barrett, 2018). Additionally, People who can construct finely grained emotional experiences go to the doctor less frequently, use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness” (Barrett, 2018). With these benefits in mind, I believe that improving our emotional granularity is an essential skill that we should strive to improve throughout our lives. 

If the ideas of emotional granularity, emotional maturity, or emotional intelligence interest you and you would like to see how you could improve and incorporate this skill into your life, please feel free to reach out to Symmetry Counseling today. You can explore our counseling services online to see how we can help, and contact our intake specialists to get matched with a therapist

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