You wake up and, after you go from some dreaming thing to your actual self, something feels off. Some sort of cloud surrounds your thoughts. You feel …off. You get up, walk to the bathroom, and stare at yourself in the mirror. You run through the checklist in your head. Did I drink or eat anything weird yesterday? No, just the usual. Did I get enough sleep? Well, sorta, about the same I usually get. Am I getting sick? No fever, no sore spots in my throat, nothing swollen, probably not getting sick.
You shrug and accept something is off but you can’t figure it out. You start getting ready for work. You wash up, get dressed, make coffee and a little something to eat, and head out for the day. During your commute, the weird feeling sits on top of the podcast, overlays the traffic and people. It feels like you’re wearing sunglasses and earplugs. You finally get to the office and get to your desk. You fire up your email and review the new ones that came in.
And there it is. Your boss’s response to your request for time off. A response they sent last night. A response they sent at almost midnight.
That cloud suddenly turns into a lead weight that drops straight through your head into your gut. You don’t want to read it. You’re sure it’s a no. You know it’s a no. Why would you be able to take any time for yourself, right? Why would you expect them to see how hard you’re pushing yourself? No one ever notices!
The lead weight starts to heat up and move around, churning the coffee into some sort of battery acid. Heart pounding in your temples, you click the email.
Approved?! It was approved?! You read on and your boss tells you how impressed they are about your work and how you really deserve the time off, and how you’re a valued member of the team, and now there’s a lead weight in your gut and a balloon in your heart and you don’t know how to feel!
Now, stop. Take a second. What just happened? What changed?
Your emotions just went from untethered to tethered.
What we call emotions are a result of our interpretation of the chemical stack in our brains. A study done back in 1962 by Schachter and Singer showed that the we label our chemical state according to the information we have available. If you were given a shot of adrenalin and told, “This chemical will make you angry,” you will feel angry. If you were told, “This will make you euphoric,” you will feel euphoric. Basically, the feeling of euphoria and anger are chemically similar.
So, what we call our current chemical state is important. How you feel about yourself when you are angry is completely different than how you feel about yourself when you are happy. How you deal with your sadness is different than how you deal with your frustration. By giving the chemical state a name, we tie it to a set of behaviors.
We tether it.
The more names we have for our feelings, the more points we have to tether our feelings. This is called emotional granularity and there are some benefits to knowing the difference between being frustrated and being just angry. In the first case, you can deal with your frustration. In the second, well, you just rage.
Those weird, unnamed global feelings that something is off is what happens when you have an untethered emotion. There is a chemical stew fermenting in your brain but you haven’t given it a name yet. In the story above, the cloud was actually a combination of frustration and exhaustion, from working too much and not being appreciated enough. Until it was connected to the email for a vacation, it only existed as a weird, unnamed sense that something was off.
But what would have happened if you’d tethered sooner?
You would have woken up knowing you are tired and frustrated from overworking. You might spend your morning commute thinking about how to spread the work out, or how to slow down a little to catch your breath. You might see your boss responded to your request, but you wouldn’t feel the lead weight. You would see the positive notes and praise and feel happy, and without that weight, it would just be happiness.
And that is the power of tethering your untethered emotions. It lets you feel your feelings and it keeps them from suddenly showing up and complicating your day.
Finding your tethers and increasing your emotional granularity is actually pretty easy. Take the time to put yourself in weird situations, the kind that make you feel new feelings. Read more books about the way people feel and learning new words for those feelings. Immerse yourself in other cultures until you find perspectives that are unique and learn the words for those perspectives.
You know that feeling you get when you are with someone you really love? That irresistible urge to just give them a little pinch and just hug the absolute hell out of them? In Tagalog, that is called, gigil.
That way, when things get really bad, and you keep moving forward, you’ll know if you are feeling sisu, sumud, or sitzfleisch.
Update: Here’s a study that points in the same direction https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-06-teens-negative-emotions-stave-depression.html