Last updated on 5th April 2021
The "Emotion colouring In exercise" is a deceptively simple 6-minute writing exercise where we practise identifying and describing our feelings. For important additional information about this process, see the "Initial background for the colouring in exercise: assessment, maps, emotional intelligence & emotion differentiation" and the "Further background for the colouring in exercise: gratitude, expressive writing, emotion processing & taking it forward" blog posts (sadly these latte two posts are still not fully finished).
introduction: Higher emotional intelligence is associated with benefits in at least four personal domains – better psychological and physical health, improved social relationships, and greater occupational effectiveness. There are also significant benefits for couples, for parenting, for friendships, and for groups & organizations. Emotional intelligence can usefully be seen as made up of five competencies, each of which is important both intra- and inter-personally. These emotional competencies are identification, understanding, expression/listening, regulation & utilization. There is good evidence to show that we can learn to increase our emotional intelligence with benefits in the multiple areas described above. The strengths and weaknesses of our emotional intelligence can be helpfully assessed & tracked using questionnaires like the "Short profile of emotional competence" (downloadable here as a Word doc and as a PDF file). The described ‘emotional colouring in’ exercise below is a form of expressive writing that particularly trains emotional identification & expression. Interestingly it can also produce benefits for regulation (‘naming is taming’), and to an extent for understanding & utilization. The linked "Affect dyad" exercise adds benefits for listening & deepening relationships.
exercise instructions: The exercise can be done writing on paper or on a keyboard. The standard instruction is to focus on the last 24 hours. Think of something you experienced that was difficult. Write about it emotionally for about 3 minutes. Briefly note what it is you’re writing about, but try to focus particularly on what you felt. This is an emotional colouring in exercise. What were your feelings? How did you experience this in your body? Really go in deeply. Were there associated thoughts, images or impulses? Feel free to use metaphors. Write as honestly and ‘rawly’ as you can about what you experienced.
After about 3 minutes, switch. Now choose something that you experienced in the last 24 hours that you’re grateful for. Again, briefly describe what you’re writing about but focus mainly on your feelings. How did this affect you? Where in your body did you feel the gratitude, joy, calmness or other welcomed emotions most strongly? How did you sense it physically? What were the emotions like? Were there thoughts, images or impulses associated with them? Again, try to write as colourfully, authentically & deeply as you can.
After this second 3 minutes of writing, stop. Look back over what you’ve written and jot down a rough estimate of how deeply & fully you were able to experience the emotions, using a 1 to 10 scale of extremely low to extremely high emotional differentiation/intensity. You may find that sometimes it feels more accurate to give yourself a couple of scores here ... one for emotional differentiation (how much you were able to perceive & describe the sometimes quite subtle mix of emotions you experienced) and one for intensity (how strongly & 'colourfully' you were able to really feel the emotions).
That’s it … a simple, quick, intense 6-minute exercise. If you take a little longer or shorter than the prescribed 2 x 3 minutes, that’s fine too. Try the exercise daily for a few days or at least for several times in the week. The standard instruction is to write about the last 24 hours, but it’s possible to look further back than this … or even to look forward and deeply describe your ‘predicted’ feelings about events you’re facing in the future (either daunting or looked forward to).
practice record: Keeping a record of your practice is likely to be helpful. Here's a recording sheet that's downloadable both as a Word doc and as a PDF file. The comments on the record sheet state: Please try to write pretty much every day for a couple of weeks. Take approximately 3 minutes for each of the two sections. It’s fine to write for a bit longer if you want to. Write on paper or use a keyboard, whichever is easiest for you. Write assuming that you won’t show what you’ve written to anyone else. You might later choose to share some or all of what you’ve written with a friend, partner or therapist … but it’s entirely up to you. Sometimes sharing can yield additional benefits on top of gains from solo writing. First choose an experience in the last 24 hours that has been somewhat difficult for you. If there are particular personal problem areas that you are working on, then try fairly frequently to choose examples from these themes. These might be times when, for example, you felt depressed, anxious or angry. Then after 3 or so minutes, switch and write for a similar length of time about something you’ve felt grateful for in the previous 24 hours. Remember this is an emotional discrimination training where you also aim to express deeply & intensely what you remember feeling. After doing this practice for a couple of weeks, feel free to continue using the exercise occasionally (maybe once or twice weekly). You can also focus on experiences further back in time, or even imagined experiences in the future that you’re daunted by or are looking forward to. You can also later expand the time given to the writing (for example for particular trauma processing) and you can try as well transferring this solo exercise into a talking/listening ‘Affect dyad’ exercise. The posts "Initial background for the colouring in exercise: assessment, maps, emotional intelligence & emotion differentiation" and the "Further background for the colouring in exercise: gratitude, expressive writing, emotion processing & taking it forward" give more information about all this.