Center for Shared Insight, PC

Identifying Your Emotional Thermometer

February 20, 2019
Posted By: Kristen Hick, Psy.D.
Emotional anger relationship

If you have ever overreacted or “blown up” in a conversation with a loved one, co-worker, parent, or even child, then the practice of tuning into your emotional thermometer would likely be a helpful one. The process of understanding your emotional continuum is especially critical if you have a tendency to spiral out of control during heated discussions and are working on ways to better manage your feelings and keep conversations with others productive during times of intensity.

It’s often a natural tendency to react to an emotionally charged situation versus respond calmly and thoughtfully. Here are steps to take that can help you identify your emotional thermometer based on insight from our Denver-based therapists, and how to apply this awareness around your emotional limits.

Name your feelings

In this busy world, it’s rare to take a moment to reflect on the specifics of your feelings. If you are experiencing an increase in the intensity of your feelings, especially during a heated discussion with a loved one or colleague. Take a moment to breathe and identify your feeling(s). Are you anxious, angry, sad, or disappointed? Getting very specific about what you feel helps define your emotional thermometer. Oftentimes, it’s helpful to ask yourself what feeling is beneath what feels like a “default feeling”. For instance, if you tend to get angry on the surface, with further reflection, it’s not uncommon to discover that your anger is actually secondary to the underlying primary feeling of insecurity, sadness, hurt, fear, or uncertainty.

Determine the intensity, behaviors, and bodily signals

Awareness about the specifics of what you are feeling doesn’t stop with the type of emotion. The ability to determine the intensity is equally important. Different visualizations work for different people. You might use a color spectrum to identify the intensity of your emotions, moving from blue (low intensity) to red (high intensity). Or, a number scale might help you understand your range of feelings, with “one” representing low intensity and “ten” being similar to “red”. You could use a grading system, or even visualize a rising thermometer to help you get clear on where along the emotional spectrum the intensity of your feelings lie.

Once you’ve identified the intensity, think about how you behave when you feel a “one,” or a “ten.” Do you start to raise your voice, walk away from your partner, shut down, or feel like crying? Also consider what happens to you somatically, in your body. Do you start to tense up your hands, does your breathing get shallow, does your stomach start to ache, or do you feel a lump in your throat?

Now, let’s put it all together. For example, you might feel like you want to start crying and get a lump in your throat when you getting to a “six”. Think about each intensity point and write down what you feel, how you behave and what you notice in your body. This will help you have awareness of your emotional state, which is key to taking the next step.

Express how you feel

Once you can consistently identify both the type of emotion and intensity, as well as the behavioral and somatic indications of them, the next step is communicating that feeling. This can sometimes be the most difficult step as it requires vulnerability, as well as the ability to be honest with yourself. Like mentioned earlier, sometimes, what might have previously come off to others as anger, might truly be fear, and admitting that both to yourself, and others, can be uneasy. When you share how you feel, keep your statements brief, claim accountability, and be sincere. “I” statements can be particularly helpful for communicating feelings in this way, such as “I felt this way when x  happened.” Others will also be more honest if they sense your vulnerability.

Know your limits

Once you get better at naming your feelings, their intensity, and then communicating that information honestly, you’ll start to understand your limits of productive conversation. If you are using the one to ten scale, you might begin to see a pattern that any emotions that register over a seven are likely not going to lead to a productive environment for conversation. This is what we call “the point of no return” (PONR) in which all that occurs afterward will not be pretty. Everyone’s PONR is different (for some its a 6 while others its an 8) so it’s important to figure it out ahead of time. When you can recognize that point, you can set boundaries for yourself around this to make sure you get to a lower point through self-care (walking away, breathing, calling a friend, journal, taking a walk, etc.)

For instance, if you and your partner are in an argument and you identify your emotions registering at an eight, that’s the awareness you need to tell your partner that you’ve reached your emotional threshold and you need a break from the conversation until you can come back in a less-heightened emotional state. Identifying and communicating with others in your life in this way by being clear when you are in a place where no productive conversation can be had with a partner, can result in much healthier relationships. Learning how to intervene in a situation as your emotional temperature rises with an “action plan” for coping can help arguments from spiraling out of control.

At Center for Shared Insight, based in Denver, Colorado, we believe that improving relationships with everyone in your life in small ways can have a ripple effect and result in a more fulfilling life overall. We often coach clients through strategies and approaches to managing their most intense emotions and we can also help you identify your emotional thermometer and the action plan you need to overcome any reactive tendencies. Our work starts with a free consultation in our Denver, Colorado office, to help you understand if therapy is right for you. Contact us to schedule yours today.

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