Emotional Self Awareness; Unlock the Natural Wisdom of Your Body & Mind

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Emotional self awareness is the cornerstone of developing your emotional intelligence quotient (EQ). That means that you have the ability to notice, interpret, and act resourcefully on emotional information for yourself, and with others.

Emotional self awareness is the most important of the EQ skills, because a strong embodied & cognitive awareness of emotion underpins all the other facets of EQ. 

    PART 1: INTRODUCTION TO EMOTIONAL SELF AWARENESS - DEFINITIONS & OVERVIEW

    Introduction to Emotional Self Awareness

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    Emotional self awareness is the first facet of the broader category 'Self Awareness', which is foundational to emotional intelligence.

    This skill is about your capacity to;

    • notice emotions as they arise in real time
    • categorise & name emotions
    • have awareness of the physiological, cognitive, and narrative elements of emotion

    Emotional self awareness is a measurable and teachable skill, which means that it is a competency you can develop with practice.

    If you would like a refresher on emotional intelligence, take a minute on this side-quest to read The 4 Quadrants of Emotional Intelligence.

    Emotional Self Awareness Definition

    In Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence, he writes;

    "Self-awareness - recognizing a feeling as it happens - is the keystone of emotional intelligence... the ability to monitor feelings from moment to moment is crucial to psychological insight and self-understanding. An inability to notice our true feelings leaves us at their mercy. People with greater certainty about their feelings are better pilots of their lives"

    And so emotional self awareness is simply the capacity to notice and interpret emotions as they arise in our body.

    Emotional Awareness vs Emotional Intelligence

    These terms sound similar and are sometimes used interchangeably, but they mean quite different things.

    Emotional Intelligence is a framework used to describe the set of skills required to understand and use emotions. That is, Emotional Intelligence is a larger container of ideas relating to our embodied, cognitive, and experiential engagement with emotions.

    Within that larger framework, there are four domains, each of which contain specific competencies.

    Those domains are;

    1. Self Awareness
    2. Social Awareness
    3. Self-Management
    4. Relationship Management

    And then as you drill further down into those domains, Self Awareness is made up of three competencies; emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, and self-confidence.

    That means that 'emotional self-awareness' is a smaller part of the domain of 'Self Awareness', which is one of 4 facets of the overarching frame of 'Emotional Intelligence'.

    Note: This is a broad field of research with many similar & related ideas, and also there are variations in how things are categorised. For this blog I'm describing the model created by Daniel Goleman.

    PART 2: EMOTIONAL SELF-AWARENESS ACTIVITIES

    Emotional Self Awareness Step #1 : Interoceptive Awareness of Emotion

    Interoceptive awareness is "the ability to identify, access, understand, and respond appropriately to the patterns of internal signals" ~A.D. Craig

    It is about our capacity to notice the signalling & sensations sent from our internal body. The reason this is so important for emotional self-awareness is because these internal bodily sensations are the basic data of human experience.

    For a quick primer - check out these posts:

    What Are Emotions? A Bonus Compilation of Explainer Break Downs)
    7 Simple Ways to Strengthen Interoception

    Practice #1 : Interoceptive Awareness of Emotion

    To build your skill in emotional self-awareness, the first step is to pay attention to the physiological component of your emotions.

    I've spoken in more detail about developing interoceptive awareness here, this is a very specific application of that awareness to emotional experience.

    It is about shifting your attention from your external sensory experience, or your internal cognitive experience (thoughts & inner voice), and bringing that awareness to your inner landscape.

    For example,  I might notice that within my body my;

    • muscles feel loose & relaxed
    • body temperature is even
    • heart rate is consistent with my immediate physical activity
    • breath is consistent with my immediate physical activity
    • energy is moving through my entire body and feels sparkly

    In contrast, perhaps I notice my;

    • chest feels tight
    • breathing feels constricted
    • heart rate is fast
    • throat feels like tight
    • hands and feet are cold.

    In order to develop your personal skill in this interoceptive component, you could schedule moments in your day to practice checking-in as follows;

    1. Close your eyes, or soften your gaze.
    2. Scan your body, and notice internal feelings or sensations.
    3. Describe the sensation, and be as specific as possible. For example; There is a sensation in my upper abdomen. It feels like a very subtle sensation of pressure, about a 2/10 in intensity. The sensation is moving. As I pay attention to the sensation, it feels like it is becoming more dense around my solar plexus.
    4. You can do this exercise to describe different daily interoceptive messages such as 'hunger', 'thirst', 'bladder fullness' as well as exploring emotions & thoughts.

    Emotional Self Awareness Step #2 : Cognitive Awareness of Emotion

    This part of your emotional self-awareness first takes place in your insula, the part of your brain that connects your body & mind in a bi-directional conversation. The insula combines your physiological data with cognitive interpretation. At this stage, that looks like BAD/GOOD.

    For example,  I might notice that within my body my;

    • chest feels tight
    • breathing feels constricted
    • heart rate is fast
    • throat feels like tight
    • hands and feet are cold.

    My insula may compare that data to other times I've felt those sensations and decide it is "BAD". Perhaps this maps to times I have felt anxious, or maybe even a specific time that I was locked out of my house in the rain. This influences the interpretation we have of a situation, although in essence the physiology of this is just data.

    In contrast, my insula may compare that data to other times I've felt those sensations and decide it is "GOOD". Maybe I love to surf and this physiology is a prelude to the joy & exhilaration of riding a perfect wave. Or perhaps this is how I feel when I am nervous and excited before going on stage, or performing.

    The insula may also become dysregulated which can interferes with our capacity to interpret sensory data. These interpretations are shaped by our lived experience, as well as many other contextual factors, which is why increasing our emotional self-awareness is so crucial to ensuring that the data is heard, as well as interpreted accurately.

    Practice #2 : Cognitive Awareness of Emotion

    To build your skill in emotional self-awareness, the second step is to pay attention to the cognitive component of your emotions.

    It is about bringing your attention now to your internal cognitive experience (thoughts & inner voice).

    • What are you thinking about in this moment?
    • Are there memories that have been activated?
    • What can you see in your inner eye?
    • What can you hear with your inner ear?
    • What are you saying to yourself with your inner voice?

    For example, inside my mind perhaps;

    • the cold prompts a memory of an early morning ski trip
    • I can see an image of the trail sparkling before me
    • I say to myself "I love morning adventures!"

    In contrast, perhaps I notice;

    • I'm saying to myself "this is so awful, I'm going to get sick now for sure"
    • I remember an article I read about anxiety
    • I ask myself "is it getting worse?"

    In order to develop your personal skill in this cognitive component, you can layer this over your scheduled moments of checking-in as follows;

    1. Close your eyes, or soften your gaze.
    2. Scan your body, and notice internal feelings or sensations.
    3. Describe the sensation, and be as specific as possible. For example; There is a sensation in my upper abdomen. It feels like a very subtle sensation of pressure, about a 2/10 in intensity. The sensation is moving. As I pay attention to the sensation, it feels like it is becoming more dense around my solar plexus.
    4. Notice what are the thoughts you are having? What can see in your mind's eye? What can you hear? What are you telling yourself? Are there any memories associated with these feelings or thoughts?

    Emotional Self Awareness Step #3 : Identify Emotions

    This final part of your emotional self-awareness is about interpreting the data. That is, taking your interoceptive sensations, and the cognitive components, and identifying the emotion you are experiencing.

    Some people have a large emotional vocabulary and are able to identify & express many different flavours and nuances of their emotional landscape.

    Others have a more limited range of words to choose from and may struggle to match a name to their experience.

    Wherever you fall on this scale is absolutely fine, and is information for you to begin to understand where you can work on your skills to improve your emotional self-awareness.

    Practice #3 : Identification of Emotion

    To build your skill in emotional self-awareness, the final step is to identify the emotion you are feeling.

    For example,  I might notice that within my body my;

    • chest feels tight
    • breathing feels constricted
    • heart rate is fast
    • throat feels like tight
    • hands and feet are cold.

    And inside my mind;

    • the cold prompts a memory of an early morning ski trip
    • I can see an image of the trail sparkling before me
    • I say to myself "I love morning adventures!"

    And I then ask myself "what emotion is this?"

    I like this interactive wheel of emotions as a reference point, it allows you to begin with a more simple emotional category and then become more & more nuanced as you become more discerning. I invite you to google "wheel of emotions" and choose a reference that feels like a good fit for you.

    In order to develop your personal skill in this identification component, you can layer this over your scheduled moments of checking-in as follows;

    1. Close your eyes, or soften your gaze.
    2. Scan your body, and notice internal feelings or sensations.
    3. Describe the sensation, and be as specific as possible. For example; There is a sensation in my upper abdomen. It feels like a very subtle sensation of pressure, about a 2/10 in intensity. The sensation is moving. As I pay attention to the sensation, it feels like it is becoming more dense around my solar plexus.
    4. Notice what are the thoughts you are having? What can see in your mind's eye? What can you hear? What are you telling yourself? Are there any memories associated with these feelings or thoughts?
    5. Identify the emotion you are feeling. Begin at the inner circle of the wheel of emotions until you feel confident to become more specific.

    Where Do We Go From Here?

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    The development of skil in emotional self-awareness, like any skill, is the work of a lifetime. That means that even if you have an excellent level of skill already, there is always more to learn.

    As you become more discerning you can really tap into your intuition. Over time you may notice that a certain set of sensations arise every time you are with someone who is telling a lie. Or maybe you discover that when you are making a decision there are markers to watch for when you are rushing. And perhaps you discover that before you lose your temper with your partner there are a series of moments where you can change course and do something different.

    My invitation to you is to continue to play with these practices in emotional self-awareness in moments of strong emotion, as well as when you may be experiencing more subtle sensations or thoughts.

    You could even start taking notes, or keeping a journal so that over time you can begin to identify patterns in thoughts, sensations, or feelings that give you important information about your life. Perhaps there are thought loops or recurring memories that let you know there is some processing that needs to be done.

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