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On Working With Emotions

If you're a teacher or parent, you may be familiar with Leah Kuypers' Zone of Regulation(TM). A quick search reveals scores of variations, frequently including emoji-style faces that describe the various zones. I've also seen the zones as the characters from Inside Out.

My work with children and adults---with individuals--has led me to recommend more of a do-it-yourself program. You do you, as they say.

What does that mean?

I'm not a fan of naming other people's emotions for them, and research supports that (see the work of UCLA's MattLieberman about affect labelling). When kids are little, I understand that it's a matter of vocabulary and normalizing and helping them understand what they are experiencing. It should be said that depending on your culture of birth, your identified emotions might be different, as culture shapes emotions.

But once they're beyond little, they can do the job themselves. My daughter, who is nearly 10, recently told me she was "sangry," which is sad and angry. It's gray, it has a specific footprint of bodily sensations, and it tends to arise with a combination of relational events.

Get Granular About Your Emotions

I encourge broadening vocabulary about emotions via lists like The Hoffman Institute's Feelings List. Deficits in emotional clarity--the ability to distinguish between and name emotions--have been associated with multiple problems with emotional regulation (see Vine and Aldao). In the MIndfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, we spend a lot of time identifying the unique fingerprint that each of our emotions has. And because we all have our own way with language and our own comfort with certain languaging, it's best to have participants describe their experiences in their own words (or with words that resonate with them).

Similarly, we all have ways that we have learned, from experience, to change the state of our nervous systems (i.e., to increase excitement or nervous system activation or decrease it and decrease arousal). Again, you do you. Breathing helps some people, but it's not helpful for others. Some kids' systems are quickly shifted with the help of lighting or a certain type of food (or the chewing of it), and other kids--not so much.

Through the practice of mindfulness, we get to know our own minds and bodies and what's good for them. Rather than talking about how one expert says there are only four basic emotions and another says there are six, I say:

  • What about you?

  • What are your emotions?

  • What do you call them?

  • Where do you experience them?

  • What color are they/would they be?

  • How big are they?

  • Describe the sensations.

What's the context of your emotions?

By this, I mean pick one and ask:

  • Does this show up frequently?

  • Is there a pattern? Is this a habitual response?

  • What's the context?

  • What is my part?

  • Where was my choice point?

  • What was my choice?

And then, learn from your experience!

In other words, sure you can use one of the ready-made charts. But you can also make your own chart for your emotions, including what you call them, what they feel like in your body, and what you might do to either set up their recurrence or shift your nervous system away from them (see below). Do can do the same with your kids, using their words and descriptions, and asking them to notice when they are having emotions and what was happening at the time (in the moment, this kind of discussion helps with emotional regulation--again see Matt Lieberman). I whipped this one up this morning:

The caveat.

I'd be remiss if I didn't say that MBSR is not a self-help program. The point is not to change who you are. Rather, it's to wake up to the actual experience of who you are--of what your life is, from moment to moment. The notion of "good" and "bad" or "positive" and "negative" emotional states is misleading, as you will see if you take the course. If you want more info, sign up for an Intro or for the next course, beginning in June. And if you have any questions or comments, email me -


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