Focus On EmotionsHealth & Wellness

RyersonSA has the Feels: Identifying Feelings in Yourself and Others

Welcome to Focus On Emotions, an article series that will delve into our emotional depths, getting at one inalienable truth: emotions matter. Our culture generally teaches us that feelings are to be avoided, suppressed, and controlled; that feelings lead to irrationality. But I have learned, and affective neuroscience would suggest, that feelings are central to self-knowledge, self-management, and good decision-making. This series is designed to help us better understand our emotions, how to work with them, and, when needed, how to heal them.


In general, therapists need to help clients find a delicate balance in their emotional expression, so that clients can (1) understand their feelings rather than be overwhelmed by them, (2) harness the energy of their emotions for planning and action rather than be either thoughtlessly driven by it or paralyzed by it, and (3) communicate their emotional experience to others in a way that enhances interpersonal functioning rather than impairs it.
— Kennedy-Moore and Watson, Expressing Emotions: Myths, Realities, and Therapeutic Strategies (1999)

Now reread that quote, and replace the word “therapist” with “SA professional,” and the word “client” with “student.” As I was reading this quote last year, while thoughts for this series were coalescing in my mind, I realized that there is so much we can learn and apply to our SA professional roles from the worlds of emotion theory and psychotherapy.

In this and subsequent articles, I will highlight a few of the specific skills our RyersonSA PD Committee has identified for demonstrating competence in the areas of Empathy and Emotional Intelligence at the beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels. I will focus on some basic tips, drawn from the scientific study of emotions, for identifying your own and others’ emotions, for identifying and managing triggers for stress and anxiety, and for coaching others to do the same.

For those with especially robust mirror neuron networks, accurately perceiving emotions in themselves or others is a skill that may come easily and automatically. In short, mirror neurons are a set of cells in our brains that fire not only when we perform a certain action, like smiling or reaching for a cup of coffee, but also fire when we see others smile or reach for a cup of coffee. Researchers have hypothesized that these cells are instrumental in empathy—allowing us to literally have a sense of what others are feeling.

My son, at age six, a clear super-feeler in his own right, came to refer to these cells (yes, I have explained them to him; occupational hazard!) as his “rear view mirrors”, allowing him to sense what others around him are feeling, and he’s right. Not everyone is a super-feeler, however (more on that next article), nor would we want them to be. Non-super-feelers, and those who didn’t grow up learning the language of feelings, may have to work a bit harder to identify their feelings.

Emotional Awareness 101a: What am I feeling?

If you are in the beginning stages of focusing on your foundational skills in empathy and emotional intelligence, I recommend starting with how to identify emotions, how to tell the difference between your various emotions and feelings, and how to separate out your feelings from the feelings of those around you.

I know what you’re feeling: in over your head and incompetent! You don’t have anything to contribute to this. You’d better scramble to find smart references, excellent illustrations. The only way to demonstrate your worth is through curating the voices of others, and you overcomplicate everything anyway! You have nothing original to add, so don’t bother trying. Better, be sure to hide behind others’ voices!

I have been in practice at Ryerson for 11 years. Yes, 11 years. I have years of professional and personal experience to draw from, and during that time, I have learned a lot about myself and others. I have a rich basis of experience and knowledge to share, as do others, and I have learned from others that they way I explain concepts is approachable and engaging to many. Lay off, internal critic!

Identifying Emotions

In some families, children grow up with rich feeling vocabularies. Their parents may be especially comfortable with and skilled at naming feelings, understanding intentions, and helping children to link their behaviours to their emotional states. In other families, emotions and feelings are taught to be controlled, minimized, or downright avoided. Children growing up in families without emotion coaching from their parents are likely to have more difficulties identifying and understanding their own emotions and feelings. The good news? These skills can absolutely be learned in adulthood. In fact, at the Centre for Student Development and Counselling, Rachel Barreca and I run a group for that: “Take Care of your Feelings: Feel the Music”.

So, how do you go about learning to identify your own feelings? Here are a few simple steps to get you started:

1) Familiarize yourself with words to describe feelings.

Having a basic feeling vocabulary will help open your mind up to the wide array of feeling possibilities. It’s easier to find something when you know what you’re looking for. To expand your knowledge of feeling or emotion words, look online for examples of emotion wheels, read fiction that depicts rich human feelings, or make some popcorn and sit down to watch Inside Out or Home—both great movies depicting emotions! If you want to get into the head of a character from the perspective of a master therapist, alongside rich descriptions of internal human experience, check out novels by Dr. Irving Yalom, who provides readers with fictional glimpses into the hearts and minds of therapists and clients as part of engaging plotlines.

A wheel that shows six emotions in the centre (anger, disgust, sad, happy, surprise, fear), and as you move out the wheel, more specific words to describe an emotion. For example, Anger—Hurt—Devastated, Embarrassed.

2) Identify where in your body you feel your emotions.

Last month, I talked about emotions as physiological changes in your body in response to internal and external stimuli, and feelings as your awareness of these physiological signals. Knowing how to read signals from your body is an important part of building skills in emotional awareness. If this is a completely foreign concept, I like the following exercise, adapted from Babette Rothschild’s work:

Sit down in a chair. Don’t move. Stay perfectly still. Stay still until you feel some sensation arising in your body: an itch, an ache, a restlessness. That sensation is a source of information arising from your body—it tells you that your body needs something and suggests an action tendency or behaviour to address it—scratch an itch, stretch to relieve stiffness, shift positions to relieve a restless feeling. The physical sensations that form the building blocks of our feelings are no different. Changes in your neurochemistry, your hormone levels, your patterns of muscle tension create internal sensations. Patterns in these sensations, along with culturally specific teaching about how to interpret these patterns, are the building blocks of what you know as your feelings.

In understanding signals from your body, it can help to know where specifically to look. A Finnish study has demonstrated that people tend to experience some similarities in where and what they experience in their bodies as they feel their feelings. If it’s easy for you to notice sensations in your body, try the following exercise. (You may want to close your eyes after reading the instructions to make it easier).

Remember the last time you felt something very strongly (you may wish to choose a memory that is tolerable to recall, not one that leaves you feeling overwhelmed). Remember where you were, who you were with, and what you could see and hear. If you were reacting to a person, vividly remember that person’s facial expression and tone of voice, along with the words being said. If you were alone, recreate the scene in your mind: sights, sounds, sensations. Now pause. What are you experiencing in your body right now as you remember? Pay attention to sensations like temperature, “butterflies in the stomach”, and muscle tension. Pay particular attention to your abdomen, chest, and face. Write out the sensations you are experiencing, where in your body they are, and what feeling you believe it to be. Practicing this will help you get better at identifying feelings, included mixtures of different feelings at the same time.

If visualization is hard for you, ask yourself: Have I ever cried or felt elated when listening to a particular song or watching a specific movie? If the answer is yes, do it again—but before you begin, get a sense of your baseline. First, sit still and take one to two minutes to let your attention slowly shift from the top of your head, down to the bottom of your toes, pausing at each area of your body: head, shoulders, torso, upper legs, lower legs, feet, arms, hands. Note every sensation you can identify that you are experiencing inside your body. Write it down. At the point in the song or movie when you become aware that you are reacting emotionally, stop and repeat this process of observation. Note what has changed. Are these tears of joy or sadness? Is tension part of excitement, fear, anger, or something else? Whatever the results, you have just identified some of the sensations that may be indicative of the emotions you are feeling.

If you’re not able to connect with sensations coming from your body, don’t worry. We’ll review different kinds of feelers next month, with some suggestions on how to manage nervous systems that are super-sensitive, and others that are less attuned to feelings.

While you’re working on your skills in identifying your feelings, you can also be working to increase your skills in understanding what others are feeling. Both are important for effective communication, for collaboration, and for making good decisions.

Emotion 101b: What are others feeling?

If you work in student affairs, you likely already understand that it’s important to be able to read people, and to have some idea of what your team members, students, and managers are feeling.

Facial Expressions

One key indicator of others’ emotions are their facial expressions. I recommend taking a few minutes of your time to check out this emotional intelligence quiz posted by Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre. Not only will this quiz help you identify your strengths and weaknesses in reading people’s facial expressions, but it will teach you how to identify differences in muscle tone and facial expression that differentiate one emotion from another. I scored 18/20—we all have room for improvement!

For more tips on reading others, check out Yolanda Wikiel’s blog post “The Secrets to Reading People in Person and Online.” She reviews tips such as using small talk to establish a baseline from which to notice changes in someone’s emotions, common errors in reading “tone” in online communication, and being aware of your own emotional state.

You, Me, and the Feelings Between

Beyond reading others’ emotions, including their facial expressions and body postures, it is important to bring your awareness of your own feelings to the table when you are working to understand what others are feeling. Remember from last month’s article that your emotions prime you to experience the world in a particular way? When Joy is at the controls, you will see and experience the world differently than when Fear is at the helm of your emotional control panel. When faced with ambiguous facial expressions or body posture, you will be prone to interpret another’s state based on your own emotion state. If you are feeling scared, you will be more prone to see others as threatening to you. When angry, you may be more likely to interpret others’ expressions in a less generous light. If you are heading into an important discussion where feelings may run high, check yourself first and know what energy you are bringing into the conversation. Try to subtract this from your own interpretations of other’s emotions, or take some time asking, “Is that what my colleague is really feeling/saying, or am I interpreting it that way because I’m feeling mad/sad/glad/afraid from earlier in the day?”

Nuanced “Feels”

When working to understand others’ emotions, it is also important to remember that, while certain basic emotions are fundamental across cultures, more nuanced “feelings” are culturally determined. In my doctoral dissertation, I developed a model outlining key processes in anger-socialization in men and women.

You’re going to reference your doctoral dissertation?!? You want to bring attention to that? You haven’t been able to bring yourself to look at it in 10 years! There is a reason for that.

When I finished that document, I was exhausted, and looking at it reminded me of a time in my life that was difficult. I worked hard on that document, and it was very well received at that time, and in the years that followed. Be nice!

One of the things that became clear to me is that it’s not just our singular feelings that are important but the blends of feelings we often experience together—like the multi-coloured core memories in Inside Out. It is very different to experience anger and pride together, than to experience anger and shame together. Blends of emotion, and the social rules governing how we express emotions, change with time and across and within culture, in accordance with one’s social location. Two great examples of this include Cancian and Gordon’s 1988 review of 80 years of U.S. magazines, analyzing advice given to women regarding the expression of anger from the 1900s to the 1970s; and Lyn Mikel Brown’s book Raising Their Voices: The Politics of Girls’ Anger

Harper and Cancian documented shifts in advice given to women regarding marital pressures over a span of 80 years. This included shifts from expectations that women actively take responsibility for suppressing everyone’s anger expression within the home for the good of the marriage in the 1920s, to recommending the open venting of anger between partners in the 1960s as necessary for growth of the couple.

Brown’s work is based on her qualitative study exploring the voices of middle-school girls growing up in the northeastern United States. Among the girls she interviewed, middle-class white girls reported experiencing a high degree of pressure to “be nice”, suppressing their anger to maintain access to the social power or privilege implicitly associated with their race and class (another whole blog series could be written on unpacking white privilege and the importance of doing so!) Facing often subtle systemic racism at school, amongst their primarily white and middle-class teachers, girls from racialized backgrounds in the northeastern US were more likely to learn from their mothers to express their anger and to raise their voices in order to survive in systems that often overlooked their potential.

Across cultures, we also see cross-cultural nuances in feelings, or the ways in which we learn to interpret the signals arising from our basic emotions. In her project, “Unspeakableness,” Pei-Ying Lin explores words that describe feeling blends and emotion expression patterns not named in English. Her visuals of feeling-blends not captured in English— and her brief videos blending languages and describing the experience of multilingual speakers when speaking and expressing themselves in different languages—give a lovely starting point for expanding your cultural view of feelings and emotions.

Now that your head is spinning with thoughts of feelings, take a break and give yourself some time to simply notice. Notice your breathing. Notice what’s happening in your own body. Notice what’s happening with others around you. Allow yourself to be open and curious about what you’re feeling, and about what information this is giving to you about what you need in this moment.

In two months we’ll pick up where we left off, jumping into intermediate and advanced skills for empathy and emotional intelligence. In the meantime, join me next month as we seek to answer the question: what kind of feeler are you—a Dandelion or an Orchid?


Focus On Emotions is a year long series, published monthly, written and researched by Sarah Thompson.