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Emotional Maps

Emotions are complex, but invariably, how we feel is telling us something about the way we think and how we're choosing to perceive the world. Having a good understanding of what we're feeling at any specific point can help us get to the nub of an issue more quickly.

People very often associate a physical sensation with different emotions. Our language is riddled with phrases which link emotions to a physical sensation like feeling 'heartbroken', 'having butterflies' or getting 'shivers down our spine'.

(Picture from the original research by Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari K. Hietanen: Published by PNAS)

The above study invited over 700 people across Europe and East Asia to cite where they experienced specific emotions. The results generated 'heat maps' of experience, as shown in the image, which had a surprising degree of cross cultural application. The yellow and red areas represented 'activations' and the blue areas 'deactivations'. In a cluster analysis, it was demonstrated the positive emotions formed one cluster (happiness, love and pride) and our negative emotions formed four distinct clusters:

  • Anger and Fear

  • Anxiety and Shame

  • Sadness and Depression

  • Disgust, Contempt and Envy

This would suggest that our somatosensory experience is more sophisticated and nuanced for negative emotions which in many ways makes evolutionary sense. Our emotional experience is often derived from physical changes in the body (changes in heart rate, muscle tension, blood flow and breathing for example) all of which prepare us to deal with environmental threats. Threats might be running away from a dangerous predator, avoiding putrid meat or feeling compelled to share resources following the experience of shame and exclusion. Each emotional experience drove a different behaviour that was necessary for our survival and hence they became evolutionarily hard-wired.

Most of us these days don't face such existential threats, but our emotional and somatosensory systems still guide our behaviour. Being more aware of the emotion we're experiencing can give us insights on what we might need in order to move back to a neutral or more positive frame of mind.

Prof. Manos Tsakiris, a psychologist at Royal Holloway, University of London has spoken about how important our skill of interoception (sensing the signals from our internal organs) may be in shaping our wellbeing. Just knowing how we're feeling helps us to regulate our emotional response. Clinicians have demonstrated that an improved conscious interoceptive awareness can reduce disordered anxiety for example.

So, what does this mean for coaching and our own professional development? In coaching, we talk about 'coaching the person and not the problem'. A transformational coaching experience will look beyond the behaviour and into our emotions, beliefs and assumptions and how making small changes to these core building blocks can have a fundamental change in how we perceive and respond to the world around us. This may start with just noticing how we're feeling about something. How specific can we get in describing our emotional response to something? Does noticing where we feel the emotion in our body help us to understand which emotions are at play? Building our emotional vocabulary helps us to notice nuance and that fundamentally equips us with more data to help us understand our mental model for the world. Updating how we think about things will often change how we feel about them.

One of my favourite coaching questions is: do you want to feel this way? Whether that's anxious before a presentation, intimidated by senior colleagues, uncomfortable before difficult conversations, overwhelm or imposter syndrome in a new role, in the main, the answer is a resounding 'no'! When we want to feel differently, there's normally a coachable opportunity. Understanding how and why we feel a certain way is the first step in making change.

Coaching is about helping us all to have the most ambitious mindset to help us to achieve our own personal potential, understanding emotions is one way to get there.

As is always the case, thanks for stopping by and reading...

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