My daughter loves to play at being a spy, making up intricate codes that only she and her friends understand. They have great fun sending each other secret messages (on my phone I might add). It looks like gibberish, but when you know how to decipher the code, it holds vital information related to Minecraft, Harry Potter and YouTubers with colourful hair.

Just like any secret code, emotions hold valuable messages that we can put to use if we know how to interpret them. Each emotion is the manifestation of an internal stirring, sending us messages about what is going on in our depths. Understanding our emotional code puts us in control. It provides us with data that we can use in choosing how to respond, and the actions we wish to take.

Your emotional code is unique to you. However, there are human consistencies we can use to help us decipher common messages and themes underlying specific emotions.

Professor Marc Brackett (Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence) identifies some common themes in his book, Permission to Feel. Here’s a list of examples:

AngerInjustice / Unfairness
DisappointmentUnmet expectations
EnvyWanting what someone else has
JealousySomeone you love being taken away from you
JoyAchieving a goal / getting something you want
FearImpending danger
ShameDiminished worth in others eyes
EmbarassmentFeeling that you have violated a social norm
GuiltJudging that you have done something wrong
FrustrationInability to fulfil needs

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. There are many more emotions and many more messages to decode.

In my article ‘Don’t Fall for the Positivity Propaganda’ I emphasise the importance of knowing and feeling our emotions for our mental health and wellbeing. I also introduce my REAL process which puts this into practice using 4 steps; Recognise, Expand, Allow, Let go.

The ‘A’ stage (Allow) can act as a cypher for our emotional codes. Here’s how:

1. Allow yourself to feel exactly what you feel (‘A’ stage). Observe with indifferent curiosity, emotions are by nature neutral – not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This neutral observation is important because if we add a layer of judgement, we add the ‘static’ of emotions about our emotions, or Meta-emotions as Marc Brackett calls them. For example, being ashamed for being afraid, or guilty about being jealous. Whilst these meta-emotions are not inherently ‘bad’, they add another layer of code, making deciphering more complex.

2. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What am I feeling right now?
  • What other situations have I felt this emotion in before?
  • What similarities do I notice about these situations?
  • If this emotion could speak what would it say?
  • If this emotion had a message for me what would it be?

3. Decide:

  • How can I use the message this emotion is sending?
  • What do I choose to do next?

Finally, remember the deciphered message may not be profound. It may be as light and transient as the emotion itself. You may make the decision to do nothing with the insights you gain. You may choose to just feel and let go. Or you may choose to experiment and try something new. Once you’ve cracked the code, the choice is yours.