As humans, we have the unique ability to experience a colourful palette of complex, rich emotions: we can be green with envy, sometimes we have the blues, and other times our faces are tinged red with embarrassment or rage. The spectrum of our emotions is vast – there are hundreds of discrete feelings, each subtly different from the other. The intensity of our feelings can saturate our senses. Our mood can shift after one conversation, oscillating up and down like a perpetual yoyo.

However, most of us have never learnt how to use our emotion palette. In other words, we are very limited in our ability to express our emotions. If your friend was clearly upset with you and stopped inviting you out but refused to tell you why, you would probably say it made you feel “bad”, “sad”, or “mad.” If your boss complimented you on your work and told you that you were an asset to the company, you would say you felt “great”, “awesome”, or “super happy.”

But I don’t think this is enough. We need to expand our emotional vocabulary. We need to add more shades to our emotion palette. How did your friend’s lack of communication make you feel? “Hurt”, “lonely”, “inadequate”, “insecure”, “resentful”, “retaliatory”? How did you feel after your boss’ compliment? “Proud”, “accomplished”, “self-assured”, “energized”, “validated”, “motivated”?

Finding the emotional label with the subtle hue that corresponds exactly to that gnawing or burning feeling inside your heart is an incredibly empowering experience. In vent sessions, I have witnessed venters who were able to untangle and isolate the exact feelings they were experiencing. When this happened, their whole demeanour changed. By identifying the words that represented precisely how they felt, they took ownership of those emotions.

Expanding and exploring your emotion palette has other advantages. It can help reality check the thoughts that have been circling around in your head. Using more specific and accurate language offers a clearer understanding of your state of mind. Once you realize the way your friend has been treating you has left you feeling “inadequate” and “insecure”, you can begin to explore these emotions. Why do you feel this way? Did you do something that would make you less valuable? Should your value be defined by the way someone else is acting? After some reflection, you soon realize that the situation has nothing to do with your worth. In reality, the issue is that your friend is not using an appropriate channel to express her frustrations.

Simply paying attention to the emotions you feel in response to different events can help you notice which colour tones you are using from your palette. When under stress, maybe you mainly operate within a single tone, such as red, meaning anger with undertones of impatience, resentment, and exasperation. When the bus is late, you decide this is going to be a terrible day and question why this always happens to you. When your professor gives you feedback on your presentation, you get flustered and focus only on the negative comments. When you see the world through a monochromatic lens, you hone in on details that bring out the same tone. It is important to balance our emotion tones and recognize when we are overusing the same tone to interpret our experiences. In this case, reacting in anger to every setback reduces your ability to learn from stress and cripples your flexibility.

Mastering the art of emotions takes practice, patience, and persistence. It is not something innate, but rather it is a skill that is developed with time. Bolstering our emotion palette not only allows us to express ourselves more effectively to our partner, friends, family members, and colleagues, it also ultimately helps us to understand ourselves.