“I’m dead meat”: How what you know impacts how you feel

‘My boss wants to see me tomorrow. I’m dead meat. I know it’. Chelsea told me, looking despondent (names and identifying details removed).

‘I got back to my desk and there was a handwritten note that just said, “See me – Dani”. I went to her office and she wasn’t there. I have to see her tomorrow. I know it’s bad. I know this is it. I’m dead meat. I need to find another job, but no one will have me’.

The following week it turned out that Chelsea, a well-qualified and highly intelligent finance manager had been called in to be congratulated by her boss Dani, the Finance Director, for Chelsea’s work on creating the following year’s financial plan that had been approved by the Board. How had Chelsea been feeling so bad by what turned out to be good news?

Emotions are thought to be created by combining (Barrett, 2006a, 2006b):

  • Incoming sensory data from the body (what was going on within Chelsea at the time she read the note from her boss, for example feeling hungry and tired) and surroundings (in this case, Chelsea seeing the note that said “See me – Dani”).
  • Learned knowledge. Chelsea was bullied at school and after years of experiencing social rejection expects to be rejected by people.

How we process the emotions we feel is also influential. Recent research suggests what we tell ourselves about the feelings we are having impacts how we feel (Dick and Suvak, 2018). These researchers found those with a wider vocabulary had greater ability to manage their feelings and those who used words more accurately capturing the level of arousal they were experiencing also had greater ability to manage their feelings.

The research looked at what psychologists call, ‘affective instability’, this refers to the extent to which people often experience big and intense changes in their emotions, quickly becoming highly emotional, taking a while to return to their emotional baseline and excessively reacting to sensory data (Koenigsberg, 2010). People with affective instability struggle to regulate their emotions (emotional dysregulation), have greater impulsivity, and this may include greater suicidality. Chelsea was raised by parents who weren’t particularly emotionally expressive and struggled to sooth Chelsea. Her parents would often leave her alone when Chelsea was upset, saying things such as ‘I don’t know what is wrong with you’ or ‘I don’t know what to do to make you feel better’.

Ability to name feelings, helps us make sense of feelings. Greater ability to name feelings known as greater ‘emotional differentiation’ or ‘emotional granularity’, helps us more accurately make sense of feelings. This in turn changes the feelings themselves because by being better understood the feelings are better regulated (Smidt and Suvak, 2015).

Concluding their 2018 research, Dick and Suvak recommended therapists help clients to increase the precision of their emotion labels. How we make sense of what is happening to us, in terms of the words we use to tell ourselves and others, impacts how we feel.

When Chelsea tells me ‘I’m really frightened by this handwritten note’ it allows her to look at what it is that is ‘really frightening’ and make sense of what is going on for her. Unpacking all of the feelings and thoughts enables Chelsea to recognise this is simply a request, albeit a very brief one, for her to see her boss. And she has no idea what her boss wants to say to her. After a little while Chelsea is able to pick out, from amongst her experience, the feeling of ‘curiosity’; an interest in what her boss wants to say to her. This, together with the knowledge that she has survived many difficult times in the past and the self-assurance that ‘whatever it is, I’ll deal with it’, Chelsea felt able to face her boss the next day.

Some of the targets for our work together included:

  • Chelsea taking better care of her physical needs, in terms of sleep, eating, water-intake and so on, because, as Chelsea said, ‘feeling crappy’ risks over-reacting to things that happen, simply because her body budget is out of control
  • Chelsea recognising that because of the bullying she is at risk of evaluating most things that happen to her in terms of her risk of social rejection. Knowing this she is able to take better care of herself and sooth herself with the knowledge that she is socially accepted by her friends, people she works with and most everyone she encounters nowadays. And an event may have nothing to do with ‘social rejection’, she is just at risk of seeing most events this way.
  • Chelsea becoming better able to make sense of what is happening to her emotionally, savouring the physical sensations, picking out the emotion words that best fit this experience helps her understanding and Chelsea’s understanding in turn impacts what she feels.
  • Chelsea making better decisions about what to do based on a refined understanding of what she is experiencing, and these better decisions represent lasting behaviour change. For example, Chelsea no longer felt the need to drink alcohol everyday ‘just to feel better’ and because the alcohol made it harder to balance her body budget she chose to limit her use of alcohol.

By the end of our work together Chelsea’s self-knowledge impacts how she feels.


Note: Names and identifying details removed. Characters based on anonymised constructs of several client experiences.


Selected references:

Barrett, L. F. (2006a). Are emotion natural kinds? Perspectives on Psychological Science1, 28–58.

Barrett, L. F. (2006b). Solving the emotion paradox: Categorization and the experience of emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review10, 20-46.

Dick, A. M., & Suvak, M. K. (2018). Borderline personality disorder affective instability: What you know impacts how you feel. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 9(4), 369-378.

Koenigsberg, H. W. (2010). Affective instability: Toward an integration of neuroscience and psychological perspective. Journal of Personality Disorders, 24, 60-82.

Smidt, K. E., & Suvak, M. K. (2015). A brief, but nuanced, review of emotional granularity and emotion differentiation research. Current Opinion in Psychology, 3, 48-55

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s