snowy Edinburgh park with mountain in the background - snow gives me complex emotions
I picked this photo because while I love snow and think it’s beautiful, I also kind of find it annoying a lot of the time.

As I see it, the core purpose of the coaching I do is to help people develop their relationship to their thoughts and feelings. These basic tools can be applied to help our discernment in any situation, whether achieving a desired goal, building or changing habits, unhooking from social conditioning or increasing our confidence in adapting to change.

Neuroscientists call our ability to distinguish between different flavours of emotional experience “emotional granularity.” Emotional granularity varies quite widely between people. Some people have only a limited range of emotional concepts (“happy”, “sad”, “angry”, say) and others distinguish more subtle variations. Like anything we choose to pay attention to, we can expand our emotional granularity if we so desire. In other words, we can get better at naming and distinguishing between different flavours of emotion. And there is some evidence that doing so leads to lives that feel more fulfilled.

I think this is so important because in Western societies our emotional experiences are so politicised. Who gets to experience particular emotions and when is heavily policed, with race, gender, class, disability and age all coming into play. Hands up if you’re socialised as femme and have been told your emotions are “too much”, or you’ve seen headlines that describe Black protestors as “rioters” and white protestors as “patriots”. That’s what I’m talking about. What little we are taught about emotions in school neatly categorises them into “negative” and “positive”, with the latter being implicitly better and more desirable. Likewise, rationality is presented in opposition to emotions, when both rationality and emotions matter. The idea that emotions and rationality are at war is reinforced by the widespread use of triune brain theory, which states that we have an ancient “emotional” part of our brain and a human and more rational one. This assumes that evolution progressed in a linear fashion from “primitive” lizards to clever, rational humans and that we are at the mercy of our emotions, which must be conquered. This is nonsense from both an evolutionary and a neuroscience perspective (if you find this interesting, Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book How Emotions Are Made explains all of this in much more detail). But can we gain anything by taking a different approach to our emotional experience? What are the consequences of going along with societal norms around emotions?

We often go to great lengths to curate our emotional experience in order to fit into or conform to social identities. This is because expressing those emotions fully risks social costs, such as the loss of jobs or relationships. We often believe on a deep level that there will be consequences for opting out of our prescribed range of emotions, and so many people choose to conform – at the cost of cutting ourselves off from our inner emotional life. Either way there is a cost and whatever we choose we are simply choosing our preferred flavour of cost. It is also true that sometimes our preferred flavour of cost equates to survival – there is privilege in being able to walk away and that must be acknowledged and considered.

We have a term for the energy that it costs to manage our emotions to fit into societal norms and other people’s expectations of us: emotional labour. Philosopher Kate Manne talks about emotional labour in terms of women and especially women of colour being seen as “human givers” by others – people socialised as femme learn from a young age to put other people’s emotional (and physical) needs above our own. All of the labour of managing one’s own emotions and those of others by performing care work or other labour to maintain relationships takes energy. It is both emotional work and vital work – and yet it is so often ignored and dismissed. Attempts to disengage are labelled as being “over emotional”. In this way, the emotional experiences of many people are constrained, and we internalise these societal norms and minimise our own emotions in order to fit in.

The other piece of this is that we tend to equate feeling an emotion with acting on an emotion when feeling and acting are two separate things. The truth is that unless we act on our emotions, other people don’t experience them. I can feel angry at you when you don’t do what I want, but unless I tell you I am angry or otherwise act in a way that indicates my anger, you won’t know. Think of an example from your life when you have felt one thing and people have thought you were feeling something completely different. The problem is that if we are socialised to not act on anger, and we think that feeling anger means we will act on it, we may also become afraid of feeling anger, we may begin to judge it as bad (for example).

But emotional experiences don’t just magically disappear if we ignore them. Resisting and repressing emotions takes a lot of energy. Often, we engage in a variety of compulsive behaviours in an attempt to avoid our emotions, or because we think the goal is to have more of the positive ones. We are often scared of our emotions because we fear the consequences of them. We fear rejection or hurting someone we care about. We don’t want to bring “negative” emotions to a situation and “ruin” the mood. We want grief to follow the kind of linear timelines demanded of us by capitalist productivity. We think that feeling joy when other people are suffering makes us selfish. When we think and feel these things, we often tend to add other emotions, like shame, guilt and anxiety into the mix. In other words, we have emotions about emotions, meta emotions, as it were.

Coaching helps people develop a more complicated and nuanced relationship to their thoughts and feelings. We can do this by naming the sensations we feel in our bodies and matching our internal experiences of thoughts and sensations to emotional concepts and to the outward contexts of our lives. Naming and acknowledging our emotions without judgement can be profoundly liberatory. We can look at our emotions as signposts showing us what we need to attend to, what care we need to extend to ourselves in each moment, as signposts to what we dream and desire. As we become more skilful and specific in describing our emotions, we can better appreciate the depth and complexity of our emotional experiences.

We can learn to hold space for emotions that seem initially to be conflicting (it is not a problem to have conflicting emotions about things or for emotional experiences to be complex, but thinking it is a problem causes so much distress). We can be happy about the election of a more progressive politician and worried that they might not be progressive enough. We can be sad about not seeing friends and appreciate that we’re making this choice out of love and care. We can be angry at someone who doesn’t pick up their stuff and still love them and love them deeply and want a relationship with them. We move into a world of emotional spectra, rather than binaries, a world where we are active participants in constructing our emotions. I want to close by suggesting that I think we’re in a world where emotional granularity matters more than ever. The threat of irreversible climate chaos requires emotional concepts we are not yet able to articulate clearly. We cannot avoid the emotional dimensions of the crises facing us. We have to be able to feel terror and panic at the scale of climate chaos and we have to be able to still take action, to still feel hope.