[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, research shows that when we label emotions, activity in our brain’s emotional centers (like the amygdala) decreases. (Lieberman et al., 2007) 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. In other words, this practice distances you from the intensity of the emotion and unintentionally activates parts of the brain that control emotional regulation (Ochsner et al., 2004).
Identifying feelings can also help you better understand yourself. Practicing self-compassion for yourself while you're in the grip of strong feelings cultivates patience for your experiences. You may get along better with others because you’re more able to slow down and choose how to react when handling difficult emotions and situations.
And while it may feel tempting to analyze the feelings we label, it's also good practice to simply with them - letting them "be" in our bodies (perhaps while moving them, or doing something physically that feels calming or comfortable).
In fact, that's what labeling can help with. Acknowledging, and simply letting the feeling exist.
How Can Labeling Feelings Help Our Relationships?
Labeling feelings can also help you take responsibility for them ("owning" the emotion as your own), while giving you the vocabulary to communicate to others what's going on in your inner world. For instance, you may feel annoyed with a friend over something they did. If you only looked at the surface emotion (anger), you might feel justified in making a snarky remark at them or ignoring them next time they call. If you were to dig deeper and find that the anger was also masking another feeling (like anxiety over whether your friendship is going well), you might be willing to regulate your own emotions in order to give you two a chance to talk out what's really happening.
Labeling your feelings creates empathy, both for yourself and for others, which can improve your relationships.
Finding Safety to Label and Express Emotions
An emotional vocabulary (and the emotional intelligence to go with it) is not always easy to find. If you're here reading this blog, you can probably understand why! It takes practice. When you're learning how to label and soothe your own emotions, the types of relationships you find yourself in can play a big role in your success. Look for people who it feels "safe" to have your emotions with. If this isn't currently happening in your personal relationships, you can always find a safe space within a therapy setting. A counselor can provide the perfect environment for you to safely explore, release, and soothe your emotions.
People who are reactive, critical, dismissive, defensive, or give you the cold shoulder when you're trying to explain how you're feeling are not emotionally safe people to practice this with. You'll likely feel more drained and frustrated after your experiences with them. Instead, set boundaries in your relationships with these individuals. Guard your emotions and save your precious emotional energy for those who are better equipped to show the same kind of emotional depth and patience that you're trying to cultivate.
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.
- Feelings manifest themselves physically Some people may have difficulty identifying the feeling, but may have a headache or stomachache that they can't explain. Practicing mindfulness in these cases is helpful. More on that below.
- 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 or past experiences can determine what emotions are safe and which aren’t, which can cause us to learn to avoid certain emotions. For example, if you were often scolded for crying, you may subconsciously forbid yourself from feeling sad. It may not feel "safe" to have certain feelings.
How can mindfulness help?
Some people may have difficulty expressing the feeling verbally, but may experience physical sensations. Keeping a journal and jotting down notes of bodily sensations as they arise (as well as reflecting on what may cause them) can be helpful in beginning the practice of observing your body's relationship to emotions. A "body scan" can also help you develop emotional awareness. This 5 minute video by Flow Neuroscience on YouTube is a calming, guided body scan that can help. Remember that a trained mental health professional can help you with this if it feels overwhelming.
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:
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.
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.
Labeling feelings is difficult for many 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? See if our personal development card decks are right for you! Or read reviews from others on journeys like yours.