Your emotional tape measure – scaling


By David Joel Miller

What tool should we be using to measure emotions?

Emotional measures

How do your measure feelings?
Photo courtesy of Flickr (Public Domain Photos)

Most of us know that we can measure a board with a tape measure. There is a big difference between a shelf that is 6 inches long and one that is 72 inches long.

We can check a child’s fever with a thermometer. It matters if your child’s temperature is 98.6 or 106.

You can see if you’re overweight or underweight by standing on a scale. Please fill in the weights as needed.

Does it matter how much of an emotion you are feeling? It may be the difference between ignoring what was said to you and getting into a fight.

What tool do you use to measure the size and shape of your emotions?

Emotions like so many other things in life come in sizes and shapes. We get ourselves into a peck of trouble by equating all emotions as being the same size and importance.

Take anxiety for instance. Most of us are either anxious or we are not anxious. Anxiety is sneaky that way. There is that little kitten size anxiety and there is that big hungry lion size anxiety. It is important to know which is which.

If every time you feel the sound of hissing you run for your life you will be hiding from a lot of kittens. We talked a little about developing a scale of anxiety and learning to adjust the volume in a previous post on “selective desensitization.”  

Anger is a similar creature. Lots of people have only two extremes when it comes to anger, not-angry and violently-angry. People caught in these two extreme modes of feeling anger jump from not angry to furiously angry at the drop of a – well it could be a drop of almost anything.

One method used in anger management is to develop a scale. Say your anger is at zero when you are feeling happy and loved. When you “lose your temper” your anger is at a ten. How might you develop a scale of degrees of anger in-between?

One way of developing this scale or tape measure for your emotions is to find other similar words for your anger and place them on a scale. First let’s scale the anger creature and then our old sometimes-friend anxiety. 

What other words might describe feeling sort of like anger but more or less intense?

How about – annoyance, irritation, fury, rage, antagonism, ire, wrath, dander, exasperation, rile, aggravate, provoke and so on. While these words may not say anger to all of you, you can see that there is a lot of difference between rage and irritation. If you go looking I bet you can find more words that describe feelings similar to anger.  

Take you list and arrange them by intensity from the most awful total feeling to a very mind form of anger.

No comes the challenge. When you find yourself going from not-angry to furiously rage-full how can you turn the volume down on that anger and move from an anger rating of 10 to say a 6 or 5?

Learning to turn the volume up and down on emotions is a skill called emotional regulation. Being able to feel the necessary level of feelings when you need them can make your life a whole lot better.

Now want about anxiety?

Words for you scale might include: nervousness, worry, concern, unease, apprehension, disquiet, fretful, angst, fear, terror, dread, horror, distress, panic, alarm, trepidation and so on.

Again there is a lot of distance between being uneasy and being panicked-in-terror. Work out your own list and then consider – is this anxiety you have right now a 10 or a 9. How might you learn to turn your anxiety volume down?

It is worth noting here that we have talked about two scales, words and numbers. What most people find is that by changing the word they used to describe a feeling it also changes the number they would give it.

So if you are feeling panic but tell yourself well this is not really the worse panic I have ever had so maybe it is really worry, you may find that the anxiety meter 10 turns down to a 5 or even a 4.

Try constructing an emotional tape measure and learning to scale your feelings and see if this does not help you learn to turn the volume down on negative feelings and turn the volume up on those happy positive feelings. 

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at http://www.counselorfresno.com/recommended-books/

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