Lego heads showing different expressions of emotion

[4 Minute Read]

When was the last time you paused to check your emotional temperature - to actually practice identifying feelings? In modern culture, it’s common to ignore feelings or believe that how you feel is only what you’re consciously aware of. However, your feelings likely go much deeper than just, “I’m in a bad mood today.” When you dig into your feelings and label them, you can begin the true work of emotional regulation and connecting with your Self. Here’s how it works.

The Significance of Labeling Feelings

At first glance, you might think that labeling feelings isn’t worthwhile. As an adult, it’s easy to assume that you already know how you’re feeling. Yet so many of us struggle with emotional regulation. In many cases, part of the issue is that we’re sweeping emotions under the rug or misunderstanding them completely. We may also allow our emotions to take over, getting lost in a storm of thought and feeling.

However basic it may seem, identifying your feelings is a simple way to connect with yourself and take back control. In fact, fMRI research shows that when we label emotions, activity in our brain’s emotional centers (like the amygdala) decreases. As emotional activity slows, the frontal lobe, which is responsible for thinking and reasoning, takes over to solve the problem. Identifying and labeling feelings literally allows us to stop the flood of emotional neurochemicals and choose how to react.

Identifying feelings can also help you better understand yourself and become less self-critical. Once you have the practice in place, you can learn to cope better and generally feel better overall. You may get along better with others because you’re more able to choose how to act when handling difficult emotions and situations. Labeling your feelings creates empathy, both for yourself and for others, which can improve your relationships.

Why Do We Struggle to Recognize Emotions?

We struggle to identify our feelings and emotions for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s easy to note your emotions, like when you feel fiery anger or painful loss. Some emotions are quieter - more elusive and easier to ignore. Even when you feel this way, your emotions are still there. Or, perhaps you’re avoiding recognizing an emotion because it’s too painful. In this case, the emotion often boils under the surface until it can no longer be ignored, often in an intense outburst.

You may also struggle to recognize your emotions because:

  • The feeling hasn’t yet fully formed. You might feel a physical sensation, like a racing heart, but the emotion isn’t yet completely there.
  • You’re feeling a mixture of feelings. We often feel more than one emotion, and each emotion can create both mental and physical feelings. Jumping between the two feelings can put you into a state of uncertainty, tension, or contradiction, which may make you want to avoid it altogether.
  • It’s a new feeling. If you’ve never experienced a feeling before, it can be hard to describe or understand. This is especially true for teens and young adults.
  • You’re internally censored. Sometimes, our childhood can determine what emotions are safe and which aren’t, which can cause us to learn to avoid certain emotions. For example, if your parents punished you whenever you cried, you may subconsciously forbid yourself from feeling sad.

Simplifying Emotions

There are several schools of thought in the study of emotion. A popular theory comes from Paul Eckman, a psychologist who identified six basic emotions. He suggests that these emotions are universal, existing in all human cultures. Later in his career, he added additional basic emotions to round out the list. Some of the emotions include:

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Pride
  • Excitement
  • Shame
  • Embarrassment

This list could be a good place to begin if you’re just getting started. However, it’s important to remember that each of the above emotions can be a basic version of a more complex emotion. You may also feel a combination of emotions, making it hard to put your finger on how you’re feeling.

Feelings List

Emotional regulation starts with giving yourself a calm, quiet space for identifying feelings. Not sure what you’re feeling? Use the following word bank to help describe your emotions.

Click here for the printable version

125 Word Helpful Feelings List to help label emotions

Labeling feelings is difficult for most of us, so be gentle with yourself. Start small and give yourself room to grow into the practice. Want helpful prompts and guidance on your journey to self-discovery and emotional regulation? See if our Shadow Seeker 2.0 card deck is right for you!

Looking to do more work on emotional regulation and personal development?

Healing therapeutic card decks by Vox Intra

Vox Intra blogs on emotional, mental, spiritual wellness