A Top Neuroscientist’s Tools for Self-Awareness

In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role.

If you’re interested in how emotions work, I recommend Lisa Feldman Barrett’s “thought-provoking journey into emotion science.” as the Wall Street Journal describes this book. It’s an introduction to the author’s provocative new theory of ‘constructed’ emotions. 

According to Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., who is listed among the top 1% most cited scientists in the world for her revolutionary research in psychology and neuroscience, emotions don’t happen to you, arising from some internal trigger. Instead, they’re constructed by you.

They’re derived from a combination of your past experience, cultural context, present physical state, and sensory input. And they operate based on predictions drawn from these signals.

And the hitch is, We’re innately biased toward safety and connection, and our interpretations of the internal signals we receive reflect that bias. So negative experiences stick like Velcro to the brain, and positive ones are like Teflon, prone to slipping away with barely a trace, as neuroscientist Rick Hanson likes to say.

Say, for example, we met at the gym, I invited you to join me for coffee and you politely declined, my emotional response to the idea of asking again will reflect my interpretation of why you responded that way, made worse if I’m hungry or tired. So even if you legitimately had a meeting already scheduled, and I really want to meet you for coffee, I’m less likely to reach out again.

And maybe my standoffishness will be apparent to you when you see me at the gym, so you’ll assume I’m really not that friendly and be glad you didn’t say yes to coffee. There goes the end of what could have been a great friendship before it ever got off the ground. 

As a result our past experience, the one we subconsciously reference with every new situation, is geared to remember the bad parts first. No wonder we’re anxious about making decisions or major life changes.

Fortunately, Feldman Barrett has some approachable answers.

First, build up your body budget as a way to prime your physical state for a thought-out response instead of a reaction. Emotional regulation requires energy. So prioritize sleep, a healthy diet, and regular movement. No news there, but it’s nice to be reminded!

Second, focus on increasing self-awareness. Since 50% of our behavior is habit driven, we’re often halfway down the rabbit hole before realizing we opened our mouths. Ugh, I’ve been there. Thoughts, beliefs, and reactions are all habits, and what we notice, we can change.

Third, get granular. Feldman Barrett agrees with most principles of psychology about the importance of noticing and naming our emotions. Most of us have a limited emotional vocabulary, so expanding what the author calls “emotional granularity” is also widely emphasized.

But the origin of these emotions is where her theories differ. In short, it’s not all in your head. Since constructed emotions rely on sensory input, noticing the mind-body connection is essential. And once we notice and more specifically label these emotions, we’re less likely to filter all negative emotions through the same habitual reactions. We have a chance to examine and, as Feldman Barrett explains, deconstruct these feelings to examine (and correct) the hidden beliefs behind them.

The book covers many more new concepts, but these were my biggest takeaways.

As for approachable answers, let’s start with body budget.

Here are some resources for improving sleep (#1!) and diet. As for movement, choose your favorite form of exercise and commit to doing it daily. Even if it’s just for 10 minutes to start. Build a routine one daily baby step at a time.

Take the top recommendation for habit change, and incorporate a daily mindful self-awareness practice.

Feldman Barrett strongly recommends daily meditation, but I know that’s a hard starting point. So I’ve created this daily 5-step mindful breathing practice to weave into your day as a stepping stone to emotional regulation. You can’t change what you don’t notice.

Finally, a practice for increasing the granularity of your emotional concepts. Every time you catch yourself experiencing a negative emotion, name it as specifically as possible. This chart is a List of Emotions (therapistaid.com). Labeling our emotions helps to shift our perspective by letting us separate ourselves from them. “I’m so stressed” becomes “I’m feeling overwhelmed and also noticing tightness in my chest and my shallow breathing. I’ll use the 5Ps to find some grounding so I can prioritize and more effectively address the problem.”

Our “realities” are determined by how we habitually perceive ourselves and our worlds. When we improve our emotional fluency, it’s easier to notice and label what you’re feeling before habit mode slips in and you’re back in that same old thought loop.

So prioritize self-care, use the 5Ps for optimal breathing, and name those emotions with as much granularity as possible.

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