Becoming an Expert in Emotion
We all know people who are better than others at abilities related to emotion: they are more in tune with their emotions, can better accept or regulate them, can harness them to get things done, and more. These abilities are widely associated with positive outcomes and have clear ties to well-being. People who are 'good at emotion'—emotion experts, you might say—tend to be healthier mentally and physically, accomplish their scholastic and professional goals, and adapt more easily to different personal and social situations.
So, how do you become such an expert in emotion? Based on our recent review of the literature, my colleagues and I suggest that you can bolster your skills in four key ways, each of which corresponds to a defining characteristic of expertise in emotion.
- Increase your knowledge of emotion and range of emotion words. Reading scientific summaries can help, as can picking up some good narrative fiction. Why? Because expertise is supported by extensive and specific knowledge about the domain in question. Experts must know, in detail, about their subject matter. This knowledge allows 'experts' to make better distinctions. Have you ever been around someone who could tell the difference between the colors lime, olive, and chartreuse—while your other friend sees only yellow versus green? This is like how experts can talk and think about their ideas in a fine-grained manner. Similarly, emotion experts have categories for types of emotional experiences that are diverse and nuanced, which they can easily name using specific words—they might feel "disappointed" rather than simply "bad," "ecstatic" more than plain "good."
- Take notice of what's going on in and around you during emotional experiences. How have you been sleeping and eating? Where are you and what are the others around you doing? These pieces of information are the building blocks of emotional experience, and experts have a developed capacity for noticing and analyzing them. Experts don't just know a lot—they know what to do with it. They might see things in a situation that may not be obvious to others, and they use these insights to accomplish their goals. Consider the way a professional tennis player takes in the ball's exact angle, velocity, and more to deliver the perfect return. Emotion experts use information from their body and the world to their benefit. They focus on information that is relevant to the situation at hand, as when a person preparing for a public speech chooses to interpret their heart palpitations as excitement or preparation, rather than as anxiety or failure.
- Put yourself in a variety of emotion-evoking situations. Consider leaving your comfort zone by doing an unfamiliar activity, appreciating art, or talking to somebody new. Expertise is demonstrated by stable, high-level performance. An 'expert' shows their ability or skill reliably and across different occasions; one single display of brilliance is not enough. At the same time, expertise also means that your behavior is sensitive to changing needs. The most adaptive response will vary from moment to moment (think about the tennis game), and experts flexibly update their approach. The same holds for emotion experts. Different situations call for different emotions, and emotion experts are nimble at identifying these needs and switching gears. They can also demonstrate their expertise by communicating their thoughts and feelings in a context-appropriate and sophisticated way: they can walk the walk and talk the talk.
- Reflect on your emotional experiences in ways that make them meaningful. Maybe briefly describe them in a journal entry or discuss them with someone you trust. Exercise your emotions! Expertise is developed through deliberate practice. Experts do a lot of training to get where they are, intentionally working to improve their existing skills and seeking out opportunities to acquire new ones. This requires awareness and sustained attention. Chess masters regularly evaluate themselves, efficiently studying past actions so they can better predict what will happen next. Likewise, emotion experts actively attend to their experiences of emotion and may engage others—friends and family, partners, or therapists—in helping them see things from new perspectives. In this way, emotion experts can become better equipped for future events and challenges.
These ideas are not an exhaustive list. There are a lot of ways—we found over 40!—that you can be 'good at emotion.' You've likely heard of some of these already, such as emotional intelligence. In our review, we distilled the core ways in which these forms of expertise in emotion are similar. These characteristics paint a path forward for how to become an expert yourself. We do not yet know which are more important for health and well-being, and there may also be others. Still, if you want to be 'good at emotion,' the suggestions outlined above are a good place to start. Here's to knowing, adapting, and harnessing your feelings. Here's to becoming an expert in emotion!
For Further Reading
Hoemann, K., Nielson, C., Yuen, A., Gurera, J. W., Quigley, K. S., & Barrett, L. F. (2021). Expertise in emotion: A scoping review and unifying framework for individual differences in the mental representation of emotional experience. Psychological Bulletin, 147(11), 1159-1183. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000327
Bédard, J., & Chi, M. T. H. (1992). Expertise. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1(4), 135–139. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.ep10769799
Ericsson, K. A., Hoffman, R. R., & Kozbelt, A. (2018). The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316480748
Katie Hoemann is a postdoctoral fellow at KU Leuven in Belgium. She studies the role that concepts and language play in how we make meaning of emotion.