How to Build Emotional Self-Awareness


A woman with dark hair looking in a mirror and smiling

We’ve all known people who struggle with emotional self-awareness. They can’t seem to get out of their own way and often seem angry and frustrated without understanding where those feelings are coming from. Before you can hope to successfully navigate relationships with others, you must first understand your own emotions.


What is Emotional Self-Awareness?


Emotional self-awareness is “noticing and being able to label your feelings, emotions, ‘gut-level’ instincts or reactions; being able to connect these to their source; recognizing their effects on your mind and your body; using your feelings as a valuable source of insight and information about yourself, others and the situations around you.” (Institute for Social + Emotional Intelligence)


Having emotional self-awareness helps you to accurately name your feelings and understand where those emotions are coming from. When we lack emotional awareness, those feelings can be expressed in physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, and even panic attacks. Not being able to name the feeling causes it to come out in other ways.


Emotional self-awareness also helps us to realize how our feelings impact our actions. It’s one thing to know you are feeling frustrated because of something at work, but it’s another thing to realize that frustration is causing you to snap at your kids or spouse when you’re home.


There is a link between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Emotional self-awareness helps us to make those connections. You must recognize what you are feeling, understand the source of that feeling, and realize how that feeling may be driving your actions.


Why is Emotional Self-Awareness Important?


As mentioned above, unrecognized feelings are often expressed as physical symptoms of anxiety and tension. Our mental and physical health is closely intertwined, which is why it’s so important to take care of yourself in both aspects.


Being able to accurately name the emotions you are feeling is a huge step toward managing the emotions. Earlier this year, we read Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown as part of our book club. In the book, Brown details dozens of different emotions to help us learn how to articulate those feelings. I think she summed up the importance of being able to name our emotions perfectly in the introduction of the book:

“Language is our portal to meaning-making, connection, healing, learning, and self-awareness…When we don’t have the language to talk about what we’re experiencing, our ability to make sense of what’s happening and share it with others is severely limited. Without accurate language, we struggle to get the help we need, we don’t always regulate or manage our emotions and experiences in a way that allows us to move through them productively, and our self-awareness is diminished. Language shows us that naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power, it gives us the power of understanding and meaning.”

Understanding your emotions also allows you to understand why you take the actions you take. For example, someone who lacks emotional self-awareness may not realize that their angry behavior comes from a place of fear and anxiety.


Having emotional self-awareness is a key foundational part of building emotional intelligence. If you cannot recognize and manage your own emotions, how can you expect to do the same for the emotions of others? If you don’t understand that your negative behaviors caused by unacknowledged emotions are making problems for your team, how can you successfully lead?


Whether you want to be a leader or not, becoming more emotionally self-aware will help improve your overall health and bring better balance to your life. Every emotion is a part of life and we shouldn’t seek to get rid of the negative ones completely. Embracing and working through your emotions, good and bad, will bring you peace of mind.


How can you build up your emotional self-awareness?


The first step to increasing your emotional awareness is to take time each day to check in with your emotions. How do you feel when you first wake up in the morning? Are there any signals your body is sending you that might be a clue?


Here is an emotional mood journal as a free download to help you get started. Print it out, make copies, and keep track of your emotions for several days. Look for patterns to see if there are certain times of day or activities that cause the same emotions over and over.


Emotional Mood Journal
.pdf
Download PDF • 204KB

When you do these emotional check-ins, consider what emotion you are truly feeling. Remember, accurately naming the feeling can help you manage it. What initially seems like stress on the surface may really be disappointment or guilt. The nuance between emotions may seem small, but it can make a big difference in how you tackle the root cause of the emotion.


Feelings inventory from Institute for Social + Emotional Intelligence

Often, you’ll find yourself feeling more than one emotion at once. It can be hard to untangle them because many feelings are closely linked. But the more you practice, the easier it will be to pick out the individual threads of emotion.


Once you name the emotions, you can connect them to the thoughts and situations that are causing you to have those feelings. This doesn’t necessarily require you to solve a problem immediately or get rid of that emotion. It’s simply a matter of saying, “I am feeling disappointed. I thought I was going to close that sale, but the client ended up going with another company.”


After you’ve determined the emotion and accepted it, you can being to proceed with any actions necessary to manage it. You won’t always need to take any action. Sometimes you just need to feel it, and often, trying to get rid of a feeling just makes it stronger. But when you are ready to take action, you’re better equipped because now you know what you’re dealing with.


Besides checking in with yourself emotionally, it’s also important to check in with yourself physically. Remember that our bodies often give us signals about how we’re feeling. That’s why many meditation practices start with a scan of how your body is feeling and tell you to note areas of tension or pain.