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Emotional Granularity

By Dr Kim Hazendonk

Moving beyond ‘sad, mad, glad’

As a Neuropsychologist, my passion for promoting well-being in the workplace comes from my fascination with how the brain works as well as my desire to help people live joyful and fulfilling lives.


Something I have often noticed during hundreds of coaching conversations over the past 20 years is that sometimes we need to go back to basics when it comes to understanding and communicating our emotions.

During my career I have come across patients with alexithymia, which is an inability to identify and describe one’s emotions. It can result from brain injury and is a feature of some psychiatric conditions.

I have worked with many high-performing and intelligent individuals who do not have a wide emotional vocabulary. In her recent book, Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown shares that her team of researchers asked 7,000 people to identify all the emotions they experienced. The average number listed was just 3 – sad, angry and happy. Otherwise known as ‘sad, mad, glad’.

In leadership circles, the ability to put feelings into words with a high degree of specificity is referred to as Emotional Granularity. People with high emotional granularity report better relationships with family and friends, and better mental health. By identifying and correctly labelling your own emotions, you become more aware of the role that emotions play in your day-to-day interactions with others, both professionally and personally.

So instead of saying ‘I am angry’, you would try and describe your emotions in more detail, such as ‘I am frustrated’, ‘I am fearful’, “I am resentful’, ‘I am envious’…etc.

Being able to clearly identify how we are feeling has been shown to reduce the intensity of our experience because it decreases activity in the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system, and engages our prefrontal cortex, allowing us to think (and act) more rationally.

The ability to accurately identify your feelings and communicate those to others is a large part of Emotional Intelligence, a strong predictor of success at work and in life.

Emotional granularity and the limbic system are two topics I speak about in my online masterclass, Rewire your Brain.

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