Emotion Differentiation

Emotional Differentiation
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Emotion Differentiation also known as emotion granularity is the process of putting feelings into words with a high degree of complexity. Feeling affects are bodily reaction to inner and outer environments. Experience arouses our system, drawing attention to pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Feeling affects draw conscious attention to the feeling incident and we interpret the feeling, giving emotion labels that categorize and characterize the experience with greater granularity. 

The Power of Naming Feeling Experiences

Laurence Heller Ph.D. and Aline LaPierre Psy.D. wrote in their fascinating book Healing Developmental Trauma that “naming an experience brings sensations and emotions into consciousness” (2012, location 4060). Lisa Feldman Barrett would argue that naming an experience is the process of creating emotion from the sensation.

The process of naming is more than identifying an emotion. Feeling affects are a simple construction of valence (pleasant or unpleasantness) and level of arousal. The complexity of felt experience is born from the marriage of feeling affects with cognitive evaluations. Only afterward, we bring in experience, context, and culture. Heller and LaPierre warn that “without words to mentalize physical experience, unnamed, overwhelming emotions and sensations remain lodged in the body and its organs and are expressed as psychosomatic symptoms—a somatic encapsulation of unarticulated states” (location 4056).

Complexity and Emotion Differentiation

Complexity is not synonymous with complicated. Both complexity and complicated refer to a system of moving parts. However, complexity operates in harmony. The array of different parts are integrated into a smooth operating system. When we call something complicated we suggest that it is hard to figure out, unpredictable, or confusing. ‎Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that difficult, unpredictable and confusing are “traits of something that is differentiated but not well integrated—hence, that lacks complexity” (1994).

Differentiation and Integration

Two key elements of complexity are differentiation and integration.  Daniel Siegel explains that “when differentiation is blocked, integration cannot occur. Without the movement toward integration, the entire system moves away from complexity—away from harmony—and into rigidity” (2009, location 1264). With emotions, differentiation has a powerful positive effect. When this skill is properly integrated, we make meaning from the differentiated emotions, enhancing our understanding of self, environment, and appropriate action. Csikszentmihalyi wrote that “more complex physiology or behavioral repertoire tends to have the advantage” (1994, location 2889).

Emotion Differentiation is a Skill

Feeling affects are a biological process. Our organisms interact with environments. Feeling reactions to threats and opportunities is basic survival instincts. We even differ in the sensitivity of our systems to events, also highly biological. A small percent of people around the world suffer from a naturally impoverished conceptual system for emotion, a condition called alexithymia.

People inflicted with alexithymia have difficulty experiencing emotion. “In a situation where a person with a working conceptual system might experience anger, people with alexithymia are more likely to experience a stomachache. They complain of physical symptoms and report feelings of affect but fail to experience them as emotional” (2018, Barrett).

However, for a vast percentage of humanity, children develop emotional concepts for feeling experiences. They begin to label, name, and utilize memories of incidents of emotion to predict their own behaviors and behaviors of others. We learn this process.

Barrett expounds on the childhood learning of emotional concepts, explaining that “when we, as adults, speak a word to a child, an act of great significance takes place without fanfare. In that moment, we offer the child a tool to expand reality—a similarity that is purely mental—and she incorporates it into the patterns that are being laid down inside her own brain for future use” (p. 99, 2018).

Does Emotion Differentiation Contribute to Wellness?

Barrett pointedly teaches that “conceptual combination plus words equals the power to create reality” (p. 106). When we identify emotions, we can create a healthy narrative around those emotions. Significantly, we can construct a reality that motivates action for fulfilling goals.

​Barrett explains that high emotional granularity has neural advantages by constructing  more precise emotional experiences leads to more behavioral efficiency (p. 121). Precise appraisals of situations and emotions allows for drawing on similar experiences from the past to fine tune responses in the present. Accordingly, we make sense of vague all encompassing emotions. In psychology, we refer to this as emodiversity.

​Barrett writes, “the more finely grained your vocabulary, the more precisely your predicting brain can calibrate your budget to your body’s needs. In fact, people who exhibit higher emotional granularity go to the doctor less frequently, use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness” (page 182). Those who experience emotions with more granularity are less likely to resort to maladaptive regulating techniques (Kashdan, 2015). High emotional granularity or differentiation is an effective regulation strategy. Emotional differentiation creates a narrative that manages, calms and soothes arousal. 

A Few Words from Flourishing Life Society

Emotional differentiation is foundational to emotional intelligence. As we develop greater granularity of our emotional experience, we create graspable concepts to both understand and utilize our emotions. We can expand our concepts of emotion and that expansion will strengthen our ability to manage feeling experiences.


Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2018) How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books; Illustrated edition.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1994) The Evolving Self: Psychology for the Third Millennium.‎ Harper Perennial

Heller, L., LaPierre A. (2012) Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition

Kashdan, T., Barrett, L., & McKnight, P. (2015). Unpacking Emotion Differentiation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(1), 10-16.

Siegel, D. J. (2009). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Bantam.​

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