February focus: spotting our emotions

Throughout February we will explore our emotions: what they are, how they serve us, and how we can improve our ability to respond to them in a helpful way.

Today we consider how we spot our emotions.

A key life skill

Feelings are powerful and can become overwhelming, so learning how to recognise your emotions and manage them is a key life skill for children and adults alike.

When you struggle with overwhelming feelings and are unable to manage your reactions, you may act in a way that feels out of control – saying things you don’t mean or handling things in a way you regret.

Once you notice how you feel and know how to soothe yourself, you are more likely to build healthy relationships and navigate life with more ease, and with a greater sense of calm.

But the thing is, most people aren’t very good at noticing their emotions…

Emotions are wrapped up in other stuff

As we explored in yesterday’s post, emotions are only one part of the experience of feeling:

We’re in a situation. We’re paying attention to parts of that situation. We interpret what’s going on based on what we’re paying attention to – and our context and biases. This gives rise to the emotion.

It can be challenging to disentangle the emotion from the complex stories we tell ourselves and our experiences. We also often shy away from uncomfortable emotions because we don’t want to acknowledge and experience the pain that goes with them.

By first of all pinpointing the emotions we are feeling, then being kindly curious about what’s happening, we can begin to understand ourselves more. Slowing down our processes means we also increase our ability to respond, rather than react, to what we are experiencing.

How many emotions are there?

Happiness, anger, sadness, fear … how many emotions can you name?

Studies suggest there are 27 emotions that layer with each other. At their core, we experience six basic emotions: happiness, surprise, sadness, fear, anger and disgust. (Anyone seen the Pixar movie, Inside Out?)

The full list includes: admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, craving, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, excitement, fear, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, surprise.

We’ll take a look a specific emotions as we move through the month.

Cultivate your emotional awareness

It takes patience and practice to develop your ‘attention’ muscles. So it’s helpful to take time regularly to explore your emotions and develop your skills. The more attuned you are to what different emotions feel like to you, the easier it will be to bring some friendly curiosity to them and understand what’s happening for you.


Whenever you feel a specific emotion starting to surface, close your eyes, take a breath and bring your attention inside. Take on the role of a kindly observer and explore your emotion. No judgement, no explanations, just be with it. Examine it as if it’s something you’ve never seen before, look at it with fascination. Ask yourself: where do I feel this in my body? have I ever felt this before? how strongly do I feel it?

Whatever the emotion is happiness, surprise, sadness, fear, anger or disgust (or perhaps something from another layer), examine it with detachment.

It can feel uncomfortable to sit with unpleasant emotions like sadness or fear, but it’s important to explore the full range of emotions so you can start spotting patterns, triggers and solutions.

Developing your attention muscles

Cultivating the skills needed to get close to your emotions and examine them requires strong attention muscles. You can build them by practising mindfulness and meditation. (This is also helpful in soothing yourself when experiencing difficult emotions, and to help you create the space between experiencing the emotion and choosing your response – so it’s a great investment in yourself!)

An easy place to start with mindful meditation is by focusing on the breath. When the mind wanders (which is just what it does), notice it doing this, without judgement, and then bring your attention gently back to your breath. You could say to yourself: “I thinking about what’s for dinner – that’s interesting. Let’s go back to my breath.”

With time and practice, you’ll be able to turn this friendly curiosity to your emotions and let go of any tendency to identify with them. “I’m angry” or “I’m impatient” will be accepted without judgement or or permanence. “I’m feeling angry/impatient right now. That’s interesting.”

You will then be in a stronger position to understand what’s sparking these emotions and have a clearer, calmer mind to choose an appropriate response.

Getting started

This week, see which emotions you notice arising. No need to examine them or think about triggers or solutions – just see if you can notice an emotion as it starts to surface.

Daily practice – philanthropy

Create or write five Valentine’s cards and post them to people who will appreciate them. You might want to tell them something that makes them special to you.

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