How to practise emotional awareness

Victoria Stokes 6 May 2022

Understanding your own emotions is essential to maintaining good mental health. Here's how to develop your emotional awareness

Imagine a friend has just asked how you’re feeling. “I’m fine,” you protest. You’re clearly distressed but respond with this familiar nugget, unable to articulate how it is you really feel. Try as you might, you can’t quite get a grasp on your emotions, and truth to be told, you’re not sure you really want to. 

In school, we learned the periodic table and were told to recite the alphabet, but nobody forced us to take a class on what emotions are and how they work before we entered the big bad world. And for many of us, that means understanding how we feel and why can be incredibly difficult. 

Yet, research shows that being aware of your emotions is hugely beneficial and people with high emotional awareness have better social and emotional functioning. In layman’s terms that can translate as being able to predict your emotions and develop coping mechanisms in advance, becoming wise to unhealthy behaviour patterns, and even being more in tune with the needs of others

What is emotional awareness? 

“Emotional awareness is being able to identify and make sense of not only our own emotions but those of others,” explains Rachel Vora, psychotherapist and founder of CYP Wellbeing. “It’s absolutely essential in maintaining good mental health. When we are able to identify and reflect on our emotional responses, we can understand how this influences our behaviours and in turn, change the way we respond to challenging situations.” 

"When we are able to identify and reflect on our emotional responses, we can understand how this influences our behaviours and in turn, change the way we respond to challenging situations"

Of course, pinpointing how we feel can often prove difficult. It’s the very reason we turn to general phrases like ‘I feel blue’ or ‘I’m not myself today’. It’s not always easy to put a finger on exactly what’s wrong, without digging a little deeper.   

Vora says this is often because on some level we don’t want to know how we really feel. “We can often try to numb, suppress or avoid emotions because they feel overwhelming or distressing and this can often lead to a lack of emotional awareness as we feel disconnected from ourselves,” she explains. 

Without emotional awareness, we can also develop emotional blind spots: unhealthy thoughts, behaviours and coping mechanisms that are hidden from our view. Perhaps you lash out or withdraw when you feel overwhelmed or go into a tailspin of criticism and self-doubt when you receive negative feedback. 

Unless you take time for introspection, you’ll remain unaware of these habits and continue to repeat the same destructive patterns again and again. 

Vora says tuning into your emotions and honestly reflecting on how you feel is key. “When we do this, we are more able to work with our emotions and put strategies in place to improve our mood,” she points out. “By identifying our emotional blind spots, we can feel more in control of our emotions, and also how we respond in challenging situations.” 

How to cultivate emotional awareness 

If you’ve spent a lifetime masking your real emotions, being honest with yourself for the first time may prove tough. But it gets easier with practice. 

Turn to mindfulness 

Woman meditates in bed

Mindfulness is the process of bringing our attention to the present moment and becoming more aware of our thoughts. It’s a state of calm, non-judgmental reflection.   

There are many ways to be mindful, from practising breathwork to sitting in silence. Where emotional awareness is concerned, Vora recommends meditation which can aid clarity and allow us to view our emotions in a more measured way. 

We can quiet the mental chatter that often accompanies difficult emotions and instead sit with the physical sensation of the emotion in our body. Vora says doing this regularly allows us to be more aware of the source of our emotions and enables us to implement strategies to manage them more effectively.   

Practice daily self-reflection 

Woman writes in a journal

When was the last time you stopped and truly observed how you feel? Vora recommends creating a habit of checking with yourself every day. She says self-reflection cultivates emotional awareness and is key to understanding why you feel the way you do. 

“Activities such as journaling can be really beneficial in learning about your thought processes,” she points out. “It may also help you actively choose healthy coping strategies to manage more challenging emotions.” 

"Activities such as journaling can be really beneficial in learning about your thought processes"

Free-writing, where you write out everything that’s on your mind without judgement, can be used to delve deeper into your thoughts and feelings. Think of it like getting into a car and just driving. Studies show it can help with emotional regulation, so go ahead, and get it all out on paper.    

Name what you’re feeling 

Woman balances emotions

Sometimes what we really struggle with is putting our emotions into words. It can be difficult to feel heard by others if we don’t have the language to describe how we’re feeling. 

Instead of defaulting to basic descriptions like angry, happy, frustrated or sad, consult The Emotion Wheel, developed by Dr Robert Plutchick in 1980. 

It identifies eight primary emotions at the centre of the wheel, with dozens of corresponding emotions of various intensities stemming out from it. It gives you a specific name for what you’re feeling, which is an excellent starting point for working through it.

It's ironic, but by reflecting on the messy, tumultuous and difficult emotions, we can not only find relief from those uncomfortable feelings but bring more joy and fulfilment into our lives too.  

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