How emotionally complex are you?

You’ve surely heard of emotional intelligence. What about emotional complexity? There’s no one definition of it — researchers characterize it in different ways and along a number of dimensions. Two of those dimensions are emotional differentiation and emotional dialecticism. Develop these two skills and you’ll be more effective in your emotional life as well as everything that depends on it.

The more emotionally differentiated you are, the better you can distinguish among fine-grained differences in emotions. It’s also sometimes referred to as emotional granularity.

The more emotionally dialectically you experience emotions, the more you can feel both positive and negative emotions at once. People in more interdependent cultures tend to feel more positive and negative emotions at once and hence feel emotions more dialectically.

Here’s one way to help you think about what emotions you’re feeling at a given time. It’s called the “valence-arousal circumplex” — a diagram of emotional experience, plotted in the x-y plane. You might plot your own experience of emotions differently.


You might feel more than one of these at a time if you are in a dialectical space. In her book¬†How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain,¬†researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett discusses the feeling of chiplessness that you might feel when you reach the bottom of a bag of potato chips. You feel relief that you won’t eat any more chips, because you know you shouldn’t (a positive emotion). You feel regret that you can’t have any more chips, because you want more (a negative emotion). You feel some satisfaction that you may not have felt when you started the bag of chips (another positive emotion, presumably). The more you can recognize the full complement of positive and negative emotions that come together as you finish the bag of chips, the higher your emotional complexity.

Barrett uses that particular example to illustrate how to label new emotional experiences to better understand them but it can also help show how emotional complexity works.

Emotional differentiation and emotional dialecticism both can help you better navigate the world. The better you understand your emotions and those of people around you — the more interdependent you are — the better you can act in the world. Developing your emotional complexity can help you with emotional regulation and interpersonal effectiveness. You can start today by being mindful of the positive and negative emotions you experience simultaneously during different situations where before you might have experienced them emotionally as some inchoate blend of undifferentiated emotional stew.

Further Reading

Emotional Complexity is a Good Trait [Rick Nauert / PsychCentral]

The Countries Where People Are the Most Emotionally Complex [Julie Beck / The Atlantic]

Emotional Complexity [PDF / Kristen A. Lindquist & Lisa Feldman Barrett / Handbook of Emotions ]


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