Labelling: how to put your feelings into words

Self-help books tell us to ‘regulate’ our emotions, but what does this mean?  ‘Regulate’ is a synonym for ‘control’, so does this mean we should filter our emotions? Perhaps we should cherry-pick the positive emotions and cast aside the uncomfortable ones?  

Not exactly. If someone is good at ‘emotion regulation’, this means they can identify the full range of emotions. These people are willing to acknowledge, and work through, difficult emotions.

Studies show that when we label our emotions, this helps us to come to terms with them. Finding the right words to express our emotions can be tricky, but it’s a skill we can develop. 

Why should we label our emotions?

Let’s imagine you’re a mechanic and you’ve got a box full of tools.

You’ve got spanners, pliers, hammers etc., but there is one tool you never use. You don’t know the name of this tool and you don’t want to find out. The tool seems difficult to control and you don’t believe it has any use. When chatting with your colleagues, you never mention this tool because you don’t know what it’s called. Over time, you start to feel anxious every time you see this tool in your toolbox. You wish you could throw it away but picking it up scares you. The more you try to ignore this tool, the more it bothers you.

If we deny difficult emotions (such as shame and guilt), they become the ‘unknown’ tools in our toolbox. That’s why it’s so important to label our emotions. When we give a name to these difficult emotions, we begin to see what their function is. It’s also easier to discuss them with the people around us. 

Why we struggle to find the words

In her book Emotional Agility, Dr Susan David says that many of us struggle to acknowledge our emotions. This is because we have a narrow vocabulary for expressing emotions.

We commonly use words such as “happy” “sad” or “angry”. But these are quite broad and vague descriptors. Sometimes, words like “relieved” “disillusioned” or “vulnerable” might be more accurate.

Also, some emotions are judged more positively than others. For example, it’s socially acceptable to feel “stressed” (heroic, even – because it means we are working hard). But it’s not admirable to admit we are feeling “pessimistic” or “jealous”.

So, the fear of judgement prompts us to deny our true emotions and repackage them as something more socially acceptable. 

How to find the right words

Finding the right words to express your emotions is important. As Greenberg – the founder of emotion-focused therapy states – “one cannot leave a place until one has arrived at it”. So, labelling your emotions helps you acknowledge, and then work through your difficult emotions. So, let’s see how this works in practice. Think of a time when you experienced emotional turmoil and follow these steps:

  1. How did you feel? Why did you feel this way? Write down your response in 2-3 sentences. Do not worry about grammar, spelling, or clarity – simply try and express how you felt. 
  2. Read this back and see if you can identify any emotions (i.e. “sad”, “stressed”, “angry”).
  3. Look at this full list of emotions. Do any of these words capture your emotions with more precision? Try to assume that all the words are free from social judgement.
  4. In all likelihood, you felt more than one emotion, so choose all that apply.
  5. Using these emotions, rewrite your experience. Do these new descriptors provide a sense of clarity? Are these new descriptors helpful?

When you first start practising this technique, reflect on past experiences. But once you’ve mastered the technique, you should try it as soon as an issue arises.  

According to Dr Susan David, you should try to say, “I notice I am feeling X emotion” rather than “I feel X emotion”. This enables you to acknowledge your emotions, but still retain some distance from them. 

What happens when we ignore our emotions?

We ignore emotions in the hope that they will disappear. But they rarely do. Suppressed ‘primary’ emotions can cause difficult ‘secondary’ emotions.

According to Greenberg, we have primary and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are our immediate responses to stimuli. Secondary emotions (or meta-emotions) occur in response to our primary emotions.

So, let’s say you meet a friend for lunch, and she starts telling you about her new group of friends. She’s never invited you to hang out with these friends, so you feel jealous, angry, and disappointed (primary emotions). You push these feelings aside and pretend to be happy. But when you get home, you feel shame and rejection (secondary emotions). You decide to avoid social events for a while. 

So, unresolved primary emotions can lead to maladaptive secondary emotions. Shame is a common secondary emotion and it can have a profoundly negative impact on our quality of life.

Why it’s important to identify primary emotions

If we don’t identify our primary emotions, we can become burdened with difficult secondary emotions.

In the above example, it would have been better to say something like “I’m really happy for you. I just feel a bit disappointed that you’ve never asked me to hang out with you and your friends. In truth, I feel a bit jealous”.  This would open up an honest dialogue with your friend, allowing you to work through the problem together.

Primary emotions don’t necessarily have to be verbalised to others. Sometimes, it’s enough to label them in our head, and then use this information to move forward constructively.  

Naming primary and secondary emotions

As mentioned, it’s important to try and identify primary emotions as soon as they arise. So, a couple of times a day, check-in with yourself. As yourself: “What feelings or emotions can I identify?” Use the list of emotions to guide you.

At times, primary and secondary emotions can become entangled. This can leave us feeling overwhelmed. If you are at this stage, try and untangle your primary and secondary emotions. Ask yourself:

  • What event triggered these feelings?
  • What did I feel during and immediately after that event? (primary emotions)
  • What do I feel now? (secondary emotions)
  • Could I have responded better to the initial event?
  • Knowing what I know now, how can I move forward?

Key points to remember when labelling emotions

Dr Susan David says that “emotions are data”. Emotions are difficult to define, but they can help us answer important questions (just like data).

So, if you want to use your emotions to guide self-development, try to think like a scientist and be objective. This means labelling your emotions with as much precision as you can. Here are some tips to remember:

  • Spend a few minutes focusing on your emotional experiences so you can choose the most appropriate label(s). Use the list of emotions for inspiration.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit to socially undesirable emotions. The trade-off is worth it.
  • Say “I notice I am feeling” rather than “I feel”.
  • Try to identify primary emotions at regular intervals throughout the day. This reduces the likelihood of negative secondary emotions.
  • Write about your experiences daily – journaling can help to clarify difficult emotions.

The more you practice, the better you’ll become at ‘emotion regulation’. The aim is not to eradicate difficult emotions. On the contrary, the aim is to label difficult emotions so that you can work through them.

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