In previous posts I have written about emotions and how they are constructed by us rather than fixed within our brains. This gives us a great deal of freedom and opportunity to construct many different emotions to build a healthy emotional life. To do this we need to have a rich body of conceptual knowledge. This post will look closer at what this means and how we can do this through skill development, so we can start the New Year by giving ourselves the gift of healthy mental health and resilience.
The importance of situation
We experience emotions within context, meaning with each moment of the day we are doing something, with or without another person, at a particular location, for a particular reason. All of this is data is gathered by our brains, alongside the feelings we have about the situation (it’s good or bad), and ends up as an emotion, thought, or behaviour.
We therefore have the potential to have an infinite amount of emotional experiences as each moment is slightly different to the next. These differences may be subtle, but they are different and if we want we can develop the skill of constructing emotions that are specific to each of those moments. This is called ‘emotional granularity’, or the ability to be really specific about the emotion we experience for that particular situation.
Why a skill, isn’t it just what happens?
Even though we all have the ability to experience our emotions very specifically, we are taught to experience them in a more general way. In our culture, we talk about basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, guilt, anger, and so on. These have been socially constructed as part of our culture. Other cultures will have different variations of these.
But these are not innately built into us. These have been taught to us during our development. We can add to these by creating new ones, specific ones that are meaningful to us. Just as we were taught the basic emotions we can teach ourselves more emotions.
Where does ‘conceptual knowledge’ come into it?
A concept describes what the brain does to make sense of what we experience. All the environmental sights, sounds, movements, and our own feelings are collected in each moment and the brain says “what is this, how does this all fit together?” These are abstract experiences because it is lots of pieces of data that has to come together to make something meaningful. This is why two people who see the same thing might describe what they see differently. They are processing the data and coming up with different concepts, such as one thinking it is really interesting, and another thinking it is boring.
With each moment we collect this data, and make sense of it conceptually we store it as a memory. They then become categories. The more experiences we have the more memories are stored into categories. This is our conceptual knowledge. Amongst these are categories that are dedicated to emotions.
Predictions using our conceptual knowledge
So what if we have lots of conceptual knowledge? Why does that matter? To help us make sense of something really quickly we predict what we need to do. We call upon these stored categories (memories) and ask “what has occurred before that is similar? How can that help me decide which emotion to feel right now?” We can then ‘feel’ that emotion and know we have made a good decision to manage that moment. And if it is not quite right we can quickly adjust it and create a whole new category.
So by having lots and lots of conceptual knowledge that include emotional knowledge, we have a far richer source of information to call upon with each moment we experience something. This is far quicker to do than having nothing to go on each moment and having to work it out from scratch.
How to build conceptual knowledge
Tune into your own feelings –
If you aren’t aware of your own feelings then you can’t actively form new concepts. Use mindfulness to get to know your own body. Stop every now and again and really notice those sensations.
Be present within each moment –
Another mindful opportunity here. Match up your renewed learning about how you are feeling with the situation you are in. So when you are sitting in a chair talking to a particular person, notice that moment. Match the feelings with that moment and be aware of what that moment means to you.
Learn new emotion adjectives –
Don’t just rely on the words you have already learned. Add to them, even make them up. There are no rules. Find the right label for that very moment so that your conceptual knowledge can form a category that is very specific to that event. Expand your language by reading, listening to others, learning a new language.
Have new experiences –
New experiences can be very small things such as doing something different, reading a book that you would not normally read, taking up a new hobby. Anything that takes you out of the routine.
Spend time with others –
A difficult one for these times but where possible, even virtually, talk. Talk to people you know, join in with groups that you don’t know. Be curious about your fellow human beings and find out about them. The whole process of interacting will bring you new words, new experiences, and new conceptual knowledge.
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