How to Get Better at Expressing Emotions

Extroverts tend to be better at talking about their feelings, but practice and attention can help those without a natural gift for it.

A crowd of people holding up signs with different emoji faces
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The term emotional intelligence has now reigned for 20 years. Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book of the same name popularized the idea that the capacity to understand and wield emotional information is a crucial skill.

Part of that is expressing emotions, be it through writing, body language, or talking with other people, and researchers are finding that unlatching the cage and letting those emotional birds fly free could have some real health benefits. Some studies have linked the repression of negative emotions to increased stress, and research suggests that writing about feelings is associated with better health outcomes for breast-cancer patients, people with asthma, and people who’ve experienced a traumatic event. And in a study of people who lived to be 100 years old, emotional expression was found to be a common trait, along with a positive attitude toward life, among the long-lived.

So expressing emotions, on the whole, seems to be good for you. But if you’re someone who is used to holding them in, that could be easier said than done. And the solution is not necessarily to just pop the top off that champagne bottle of emotions and watch them spray all over the place. You might not even know what’s in there!

Emotional intelligence is a skill, and some people are better at recognizing and communicating emotions than others. Among the Big Five personality traits—openness, extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism—several studies have found that people high in extroversion tend to have higher emotional expressiveness, while people high in neuroticism tend to be less expressive.

Like other skills, the ability to communicate feelings can be strengthened through practice, and a big part of it is first recognizing the emotions you’re having, as well as what’s causing them.

I spoke with the psychologist David Caruso, who is a co-founder of the Emotional Intelligence Skills Group (not the actor with the sunglasses from CSI: Miami) and who trains organizations and schools on emotional intelligence, about overcoming personal and cultural barriers to expressing emotions.

A lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.

Julie Beck: What are the benefits of being good at expressing your own emotions?

David Caruso: So we like to say that emotions are data, and emotions communicate meaning and intent. It’s critically important to know that I’m either irritated with someone because they’re late for a meeting or I’m concerned because they’re late for a meeting and maybe something’s happened to them. So since emotions are a form of data or information, it's important to accurately convey those to people and in a way that they will also accurately perceive.

Beck: Is there a difference between the benefits of communicating it to other people and just recognizing it in yourself?

Caruso: I think if you don’t know it in yourself to start with, your communications will be somewhat off, a little bit. How do I feel about this situation? And what do I want the other person to learn? Or what’s the message I want to communicate? So it’s got to start with that accurate self-awareness. And certainly the benefits are clarity of communication, [fewer] misunderstandings between people.

To do it all the time can actually be exhausting, if you don’t do this automatically, if you have to really manually kind of process the information. It takes more time; it can be emotionally exhausting as well. So this is not necessary for routine communications. But I think for the more important things it’s absolutely critical.

Beck: Obviously different people are better or worse at this. Are there certain personality traits or factors that are linked to people having more of a natural ability to communicate their emotions?

Caruso: So emotional intelligence is truly an intelligence in our theory and in the way we’ve measured it.

Beck: Who’s we in that?

Caruso: We would be … Emotional intelligence is sort of a Rorschach, it means whatever you want it to mean. So this is the ability model of emotional intelligence that says emotional intelligence is a standard intelligence, emotions are data, emotions can help you think, you can reason about emotions, and also you can reason with emotions. That is a theory first proposed by Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey, and they are two of my closest friends and colleagues. Jack is a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and Peter is a professor of psychology and currently president of Yale University. That’s the we.

Beck: So going back to people who are better or worse at doing this.

Caruso: Yeah, well first of all, people who are more extroverted will talk more. We like people who are emotionally expressive for the most part, especially if they are emotionally expressive around positive emotions. That would be the trait of agreeableness.

Beck: There was a study I was reading yesterday that said being “ambivalent over emotional expression” was linked to feeling badly. “Ambivalent” meant either they wanted to express emotions but they weren’t able to, or they expressed emotions and kind of wished they hadn’t. That inner conflict over whether people should be sharing their feelings, does that affect people a lot?

Caruso: I think that sits within this framework fairly well, because if you’re high in emotional intelligence, what you’re very skilled at is first, of course, knowing how you feel, and knowing how to express those feelings in a way that’s going to be heard. I don’t think there’s ambivalence in that case.

The ambivalence may be because I’m unsure if I should be feeling this way, and then even if I’m sure that these feelings are indeed justified, I’m not actually positive how I can express those in kind of a constructive way. Or will I be judged for that? Or will it come out the wrong way? So if you’re really good at this, you should be confident in your ability to trust that feeling and express it in a constructive, appropriate way.

Beck: What’s the role of culture in all this? Do you think expressing emotions is encouraged in American culture?

Caruso: I prefer to think about cultures. Every organization or every family has a culture and the largest differences around emotions are called cultural-display rules. I think all cultures recognize the basic emotions and they’re all expressed the same way, but those display rules, which are a function of our culture, tell us how do we show those emotions. Say, with anger. Do we yell and scream? Is anger more genteel? How we express these is completely driven by those cultural-display rules. If you don’t know those, and again, culture can be [in] the place you work, you’re seen as an outlier. And maybe as lacking what people would call communication skills. You don’t get these implicit display rules because nobody ever tells you what those are.

Beck: You mentioned earlier, and I’ve seen this around as well, that people are more comfortable with positive emotions being expressed than negative emotions.

Caruso: The other part of your question was about expressivity in American culture. When I do my training on emotional intelligence in the United States, I ask the question, “How are you?” Or even, we began our phone call with, “How are you? Is this still a good time?” Well, it sounds to me that either maybe it’s cold there or you’re coming down with a cold, right? [I do have a cold, actually. –JB] If we actually asked that question “How are you?” and we really meant it, what you might have said is, “I’ve got a lot of deadlines, I’m looking at the clock, I have a call at 10:40, I hope this is not a waste of time, I’m tired, I’m exhausted, I’m not feeling well, Thanksgiving is coming up. So that’s how I feel, David, how are you?” And my answer would have been, “Frankly, I woke up at 2 a.m., work is extremely stressful, and I’m slightly concerned about my daughter so I’m anxious.”

American culture demands that the answer to the question “How are you?” is not just “Good” but sometimes “Great.” Or—this drives folks around the world crazy, who might be based in another country but they work for an American company—we need to be “Awesome.” There’s this relentless drive to mask the expression of our true underlying feelings. It’s almost inappropriate.

Beck: The worst answer you’re allowed to give is “Okay.” And if you’re okay, then everything is terrible.

Caruso: “Okay” means “I’m deeply troubled, and there’s things I want to talk about,” but you’re not actually even asking me that question. It’s more of a greeting. It’s polite. But again, culture drives that. And in the U.S., we say we’re great, when actually we maybe mean, “I’m depressed, I’m really pissed.” So it’s actually a terrible question to ask. I think you have to ask in a way that invites an answer. Or you can say, “What else is going on? What does your day look like? What are you concerned with?” And use a sincere tone.

Beck: That is a thing you will see come up a lot in the descriptions of American culture they sometimes put on university websites for international students. Like, “Just so you know, they don’t want an answer when they say ‘How are you?’”

Caruso: Whereas in other cultures … I’ve done some work in Germany. If you say “Wie geht’s?” you’ll sit down and you’ll have a conversation about life and about philosophy and about what’s going on.

I’ve been to Tokyo a number of times, and there it’s really kind of inappropriate to share those personal feelings. That’s all culturally driven. And you better figure those things out before you get yourself into trouble.

Beck: How do you think that overarching sense of “be positive!” that we have—at least performatively in social situations—is affecting people’s ability to communicate or express their feelings?

Caruso: What you just said, I would 100 percent agree with you, because what it says is we’re not allowing people to be genuine, to be authentic, and to share. And I think it’s going to limit our relationships. Really good quality long-term interpersonal relationships are based on shared experience but also the ability to share how we are feeling at that time. But if you are always expected to say “great,” you’re never going to have that level of intimacy that you need in a really good relationship.

Beck: So it’s just a barrier to get through.

Caruso: It’s a huge barrier. Especially if you’re not this hale, hearty, well-met extroverted type. You don’t have to be that. You don’t have to be a phony. I teach people to simply use emotion words. And that’s extremely easy.

Great example: Someone might say, “How was lunch?” “Oh, it was awful, I really hated it.” Then you stop and say, “Wait a minute, you hated your lunch? You hate your lunch?” “Well, no, I mildly disliked it.” That’s incredibly important because hate is a very powerful feeling. And so you need to be able to differentiate and distinguish between levels of intensity around emotions. And rather than “fine” or “okay,” you could also simply say “I’m somewhat distracted this morning” or “I’m concerned” versus “I have a panicked feeling.” I think people can, in their own quiet, more introverted way—in their own voice, if you will—use more of what we would call feeling words. Of which there are hundreds, if not thousands.

Beck: Do you have other specific, research-based tips to help people recognize their own emotions, by themselves, and then also effectively communicate them to other people?

Caruso: [Pay more attention to] physiological signals. Like tension—I feel my jaw is tense, there’s tension around my eyes. Am I worried, am I anxious, am I angry? So I’m mildly anxious right now, let’s say. The next part is to ask yourself, “And what are the possible causes of that?” And this is really key in terms of not just expressing emotions, but in terms of decision making.

There was a really really great, cool study just published a few years ago around this very issue. People were measured on their level of emotional intelligence, either low or high. The researchers randomly split them into two groups, neutral or anxiety. And everybody was given one of those behavioral-economics surveys, which is, are you willing to bet $1 to win $10? [Whether people were] low in emotional intelligence or high in emotional intelligence, there was no difference in the neutral condition. About half the time, “Yeah, I’ll try it, I’ll go for it.” But in the anxiety-induction condition, the anxiety induction was simply: “Julie, I’m going to videotape you giving a speech; we’re going to show it to all of your colleagues at The Atlantic, and based on that they’re going to evaluate your performance.” It’s meant to induce anxiety. We never videotape you. I simply then say, “Oh you know what, I forgot the video camera, I’ll be right back, I don’t want to waste your time, could you just fill out this survey? I’ll see you in a few minutes.” And that's that risk-taking survey. People who are low in emotional intelligence, who are then made to feel anxious, their willingness to take a chance plummets from like half to about 16 percent. If you’re high in emotional intelligence, there’s absolutely no difference.

So the moral of that story is not just to do that physiological check. Step two is to ask yourself, “Where is it coming from?” and “Is that anxiety related to the communication I’m about to make? A decision I’m about to make? Or an email I’m about to send? Where is that irritation coming from? Where is the anger coming from? Is it a leftover mood because traffic was terrible today? Or damn it, I’m getting a cold again and I can’t afford it?”

If I know that, I’m then able to better manage my emotions and express my feelings in a way that will send a good, accurate message and my decisions are cleaner, clearer, and just a hell of a lot better.

Beck: And then having good communication obviously goes both ways. But a lot of people are uncomfortable having emotional conversations—what are some ways that they can be good at listening as well as sharing?

Caruso: Certainly all the body language, the mirroring of others, nodding of your head. And a real quickie of course is the classic of not repeating what the other person just said, but paraphrasing. So paraphrasing shows, a) I was really listening, and b) I got it. I heard what you said. So that kind of paraphrasing is very, very helpful I think.

Beck: Is there advice you’d have for people who are uncomfortable with those conversations? Can they get better at it? Do they just kind of have to push through it?

Caruso: You have to practice at it. Start with someone you know, a trusted colleague, friend, or something like that. Start at a low level of intensity. Not when you’re truly enraged, but when you’re mildly irritated. I would first practice that.

You can also try that and actually take a video selfie of you expressing those kinds of things, because you may feel you’re getting the message across but you’re listening to your own voice inside your own head, which isn’t really great. I think when people hear themselves and see themselves, they’re sometimes appalled by their facial expressions, their gesticulation and those kinds of things. And then practice those things, using emotion words.

And do all this while also leveraging emotion-management strategies. You may have a valid reason for being angry with someone or a situation, but if you start yelling and screaming at that person, your message is going to get lost, because the other person is just going to become immediately defensive.

There are both preventative and responsive strategies. Preventative: Is this the time and the place to have this conversation? Do we need to have this conversation now? If so, where do we do it? Is it me sitting behind my desk? Do I email or do I text someone? Or does this really require a phone call? So you want to think about that ahead of time.

Then take a deep breath before you start expressing those feelings. In the moment you can do a bit of a timeout. People say count to 10—if you can count to 10 you’re a Jedi master. But, you know, count to two. Pause for a moment. And then the classic, of course, is: Respond to that angry email, but don’t send it.

What I do is I hit reply, I delete the person’s name, I type my reply, I let it sit there for a few minutes. And 100 percent of the time—not sometimes, 100 percent of the time—I make some changes in that email. Because otherwise I would’ve regretted it.

Beck: Was there anything else that you wanted to bring up?

Caruso: One other thing to mention to you: I’ve been doing this work for a really long time and I always would tell people that all emotions have data and are adaptive, including things like anxiety, sadness, and anger. And especially in the United States, no one ever believes me. Because again, there’s this relentless pursuit to always express positive emotions. And my job has gotten so much easier since this summer when Pixar came out with the movie Inside Out.

Beck: I knew you were going to say that.

Caruso: I will now have people tell me, “Oh, David, have you seen Inside Out? Because don’t you know that even sadness and even anger can be [helpful]?” It’s really made my job so much easier.