top of page

Self-awareness and classifying emotions

Self-awareness gives you the capacity to learn from your mistakes as well as your successes. It enables you to keep growing.” – Lawrence Bossidy

If suppressing your emotions is not a good idea as we discussed last week, what is a better way? Today's blog (#57) we are going to discuss self-awareness. Self-awareness is an ability to objectively identify and classify what you are feeling and investigating as to why.

Why is self-awareness important?

Arousal (in the stimulated sense) is the term used to describe how stimulated you are for the situation. A good analogy for you coffee lovers out there is the impact of caffeine. Hypoarousal is when you suppress your emotions and shut down - much like before you have had your coffee. Optimal arousal is after a good coffee when you are focused and feel suitably energised. Hyperarousal is when you are so stimulated your heart rate is racing, I see that when people are sitting next to the filter machine.

In experiments, people who scored highly on emotional intelligence had a more variable heart rate responding to negative emotions i.e. a meaningful increase in heart rate followed by a swift decrease. This was thought to be consistent with the high EQ group 1) being optimally aroused towards the top of the band and then 2) swiftly coming back down.

The increase in arousal and (heart rate) is caused by the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for "fight or flight" responses) and coming back down is caused by the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for 'rest and digest' responses). These systems are important as they ideally balance each other out to keep you focused but not agitated. Some people have an underdeveloped parasympathetic nervous system (the 'rest and digest' one). This means they find it tougher to calm down in the moment during emotional situations.

Classifying our emotions

Self-awareness is about identifying which emotions you are feeling. There is 1) the physical sensations and 2) the subjective feeling.

The Physical Sensations

Human language has a huge vocabulary for the physical sensations of emotions. Some easy examples are i) getting cold feet (doubt or apprehension), ii) gut-wrenching (anxiety), iii) spine-tingling (fear), iv) head over heels (love) and v) a gut feeling (something is wrong). This is not just a turn of phrase. Your body responds to emotions, sometimes before you have even realised you are feeling it.

The most common examples of physical impacts are facial expressions, change in heart rate, where your blood flows to, stomach churning, pupil dilation, tone of voice, physical stance.

Some researchers (link to research below) looked at bodily sensations related to different emotions. The results are mind-blowing in helping us understand physical effects. Happiness and love tended to be all over body sensations, whereas anger was upper body (hot-headed) and depression was all over numbness.

The subjective feeling

Having an agreed language for emotions increases the chances that you can map your feeling onto a classification. There are quite a few ways of classifying emotions and nothing approaching a standard has emerged. To that end I will quote three important classifiers.

1) Are you feeling good or bad - this is fairly simple

2) Are you feeling a high or low state of arousal

A good 2x2 matrix here

3) Is your emotion directed inwardly (guilt) or outwardly (disgust)

These three classifiers will help you get to language to describe what you are feeling. There are quite a few ways you can slice and dice it, but the simplest system I came across was Paul Ekman's 6 basic emotions of 1) anger, 2) disgust, 3)fear, 4) happiness, 5) sadness and 6) surprise.

A more detailed one, that is useful for the broad array of described emotions is Parrott's emotions by groups below. The key take-away is trying to match your subjective feeling to words will help you understand what you are feeling.

So what?

How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:

1) Self-awareness is an important skill to develop to be emotionally intelligent. People with high EQ are able to stay within optimal bounds in responding to emotions - neither angry nor frozen.

2) There are two key ways to be better aware of your emotional state, your physical sensations and your subjective feelings. The most common examples of physical impacts are facial expressions, heart rate, pupil dilation and physical stance.

3) Interpreting your subjective feeling requires the ability to find language to map your emotion to. This tends to be language that is directed by whether you feel good or bad, low or high arousal and internally or externally focused.

Thank you for joining. Next week - 'Marshmallows and self-management'. Don't forget to sign up to the subscription list.

Other blogs in the emotional intelligence series

Fun papers I recommend


bottom of page