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A Life-enhancing Tool for Increasing Emotional Self-awareness

©Steve Whiteford 2023

The “Mood Meter” originated from the work of James A. Russell and his Circumplex model of “Affect” which mapped the interplay of Valence (pleasure/displeasure) and Arousal (intensity/alertness). Versions associated with Emotional Intelligence were popularized by Caruso and Salovey, and Mark Bracket at Yale University. These represent the same factors with blocks of color, which is meant to help people interpret their emotional states with less judgment and more social safety than using emotional terms. In our culture reporting anything other than neutral or positive states is frowned on.

The graphic is a typical four-square model based on the intersection of Valence and Arousal (Pleasantness/Intensity).

Based on the intersection of the valences you might say “I’m in the (red, yellow, green, or blue) zone.” This helps you identify and communicate your mood without the baggage of a specific label. This is initially good because we are so judgmental of emotions in our society. Especially at work, where generally, only the right side of the graph is considered acceptable. What quadrant might fit your current mood?

Adding a few emotional descriptors helps clarify the associated emotions for the color:

After you’ve spent some time tracking your mood with color, the next step is to begin to expand your vocabulary for each category of feelings/emotions. Neuroscientific studies have proven that people with larger vocabularies for their emotional states do better socially, have stronger relationships, and are often more successful. We have approximately 2000 words that describe emotions in the English language.  50% describe red and blue emotions, 30% describe yellow and green, and 20% are considered neutral. There are many categorized emotional word lists available online, and numerous are found in books. It’s helpful to reference these. Having precision in identifying feelings can give you more clarity and self-assurance.

When we’re precise about the emotion we experience the accuracy of the actions we take increases.

A useful simplification of the left versus right sides of the graph is that our affect (experience/feeling) is unpleasant when WE DON’T GET WHAT WE WANT, and pleasant when we do. Especially in a society in which getting what you want is success, and success is what we’re constantly expected and taunted to achieve. We are judged as winners or losers. This is what our emotions pivot on. Societal judgment is integral to how we judge ourselves.

This begins in our infancy and is integral to our success. Getting what we want, or need is pivotal to our growth and survival. And the skill with which we learn to exchange with our caregivers, and the attitude of their responses can set the tone of our emotional lives.

Big statement: The Purpose of Life is Life – To Live. To maintain and promote life inside and outside of our organism. Antonio Damasio suggests this in his book Feeling & Knowing. The purpose of feelings is to guide and inform us in that maintenance. The emotions that feelings produce motivate actions that sustain life. This is exactly why we should learn to accept and interpret our feelings and emotions instead of denying or controlling them. They are designed to inform and guide life-enhancing decisions and actions. When we reject uncomfortable feelings and emotions, we deprive ourselves of biologically informed wisdom.

We tend to frown on the idea of acceptance. Accepting that it’s OK to feel anger and not aggressively seek what we want is interpreted as passive, loser behavior. Our less comfortable emotions, anger, disappointment, fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, etc., are thought to steal our comfort and happiness. Why shouldn’t we refuse them? Because aggression against them is not necessary. Acceptance means receiving the message of the emotion, experiencing it in our body with self-empathy, and determining a life-enhancing action.

We reject our less comfortable emotions out of societal shaming through the belief that we should only be experiencing and displaying positive emotions. This is Toxic Positivity. That shame produces another layer of uncomfortable feeling, known as “second suffering” or “meta emotion (an emotion about an emotion) which magnifies the original emotion and often leads to aggression or depression.

Experiencing and accepting emotion with self-empathy validates our natural system of perception. That vulnerability creates both grounding and ease. Attention and self-empathy build a connection with the situation; a bridge of empathy and clear seeing into the event or relationship. This is life-affirming.

Using the model to become familiar with emotion is a first step in legitimizing and befriending it. Here are several quick and fun ways to use it.

  • When you notice an uncomfortable (or comfortable) feeling – or thought perception – check into your body and experience it. Decide which mood quadrant fits the feeling. Experience it and dismiss any negative judgment of it. It’s just information. Be curious.
  • Begin to make the distinction of “where you are” in the quadrant based on energy and feeling.
  • After you experience it and “get the message” consider if it would be helpful for you to shift to a different quadrant. Imagine what you might do to get there and try it.
  • Introduce The Meter as a method to check in with the family at home, or with your team at work. It can be both fun and meaningful.
  • Start adding emotional vocabulary to the quadrants. Develop precision in identifying emotions.
  • Start noticing other people’s moods and imagine what quadrant they’re in.

As you become familiar with the Mood Meter you can begin to consider what moods might be best to generate for tasks and situations throughout the day. You can also increase communication and leadership skills by noting how people are most likely to react to decisions, changes, and directions. Being able to predict and work with expected reactions is life-affirming. It’s generating appropriate empathy and keeping things human.

It’s also fun to apply the Mood Meter to history. We can think about emotional tone across decades and centuries. We can also apply it to social stratifications, and events during those times. Some examples:

  • The Industrial Revolution – blue (labor) and green stability into growthThe Roaring 20’s – red and yellow
  • The Great Depression – blue
  • Wartimes – red, aggression – blue, loss – yellow, pride
  • The 50’s – Green
  • The 60’s & 70’’s – Red, Blue, and Yellow – lots of upheavals and fear, sadness from social unrest and assassinations, and people seeking communal relief and joy
  • 80’s – Green – “Fireside Chats” and focus on conservatism for economic growth

Consider how Presidential terms may match or contrast.

Of course, the above are my opinions. You may see it differently. What are your opinions?

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