The power of naming our emotions (how affect labelling can improve your emotional intelligence)

If I asked you how you are feeling right now, what would you say? Probably ‘fine’ or maybe you could become aware that you aren’t too sure what you are feeling. It can be hard for us to be aware of what we are feeling. We go through our day living in our heads, ignoring the body’s sensations, and looking for the next best thing to pursue. 

We often keep our awareness of ‘how we feel’ set to low, at least until how we feel starts to become quite apparent. Whether this emotion is ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ we generally don’t attend to it until it becomes quite potent. 

Emotional intelligence is the skill of learning what you are feeling and how to work with it – both within yourself and within a relationship. 

And a core foundation of emotional intelligence is EMOTIONAL AWARENESS.  This is where a concept called ‘name it to tame it’, or affect labelling becomes helpful. This is where we are able to name what we are feeling. It is simple but takes practice.  Not only can it help us in our own emotional experiences, but it can also be a skill we teach our children too. 

graphic of person with long hair looking out a window with back to camera. text overlay reads 'the power of naming emotions'

It is a skill we can all learn 

When working with clients I most often use the analogy of relating to our physical symptoms.  Imagine you had some symptoms that were uncomfortable or even getting painful. You weren’t sure what it was from, or what to do about it, or what to expect. You would probably be anxious and looking for answers (or avoiding it altogether).    It would be a very unnerving experience to be unsure of what you were feeling or why or how to handle it. 

Now, take the experience of having a cold. You have had one before, you know how it goes.  Your head hurts, your throat hurts, you are coughing, you are blowing your nose. And you can say to yourself, “I have a cold right now. That is ok, I know what to do with a cold, I take this cold medication or I use the sinus rinse, and I wait it out. I know what to expect, I can handle this”

This is what naming an emotion can do for you. 

When you know what an emotion feels like, you can name it in your body.  It makes sense, it is less overwhelming. You feel capable of handling it, even if you don’t necessarily like it. When you know what emotion you are dealing with you have more information on how to address it (because all emotions have a job, they are all indicators to us).  


Why naming your emotions can be helpful

Categorize the Chaos  Giving a name to our emotions brings clarity. Instead of feeling like a blur of sensations in our body, or a mental tangle, when we name our emotion we can categorize it and it becomes something identifiable, “Ah, that’s frustration knocking on the door.”

Slow Down Emotional Overwhelm We are complex and can experience a mix of emotions, we have emotions ABOUT emotions. This can create a lot of layers that can feel overwhelming. When we stop to name an emotion, we can pause for a minute and disrupt the accumulation of emotions. 

Tapping Into Our Intuition All emotions are there for a reason, they are prompting us to take action. Once we know the emotion we are dealing with, we can turn towards it and look for what it is trying to help us with. We can ask, “Why are you here? What triggered you?” It’s an open invitation to explore the roots of our feelings and what our feelings might be indicating to us. 

Emotional Regulation “Name it to Tame it” is the secret sauce to emotional regulation. By understanding what we’re feeling, we gain the power to respond rather than react impulsively.

Discomfort Tolerance We often have low tolerance for discomfort we don’t understand or know how to handle. When we can name our emotion, we can practice growing our tolerance for experiencing it, and altogether improve our discomfort tolerance (which can be very important to helping us build more rich and meaningful lives)

RELATED: Feeling better or getting better at feeling


Teaching this to our kids

This is one of the core approaches I also take to my own kids’ emotions. (I am a proponent of emotion coaching). I have seen that simply listening and offering some options for what that emotion could be really helps my kids name what they are feeling. When we name, it we feel validated and we feel like all of the turmoil inside actually can fit into a category that makes sense. 


Steps to take to work on naming your own emotions 

1. **Mindful Observation:** Tune into your emotions. When a feeling arises, pause and observe. What’s the dominant emotion at play?

2. **Labeling:** Give your emotion a name. Is it joy, sadness, frustration, or maybe a cocktail of emotions? The more specific, the better. For many of us, we need support with this. You can work with a friend, or counsellor, or practice with an emotions wheel (something I give to many of my clients) 

emotions wheel, showing different levels of emotions by main category

3. **Reflective Inquiry:** Ask yourself what could have triggered this feeling. Explore the thoughts you have had about the situation, and even times you have experienced a similar situation in the past. Understanding our stories about the situation that prompted this emotion can help you better understand your whole experience. 

4. **Expressive Outlets:** Find healthy ways to express your emotions. Whether through movement, music, journaling, art, or conversation with someone you trust.

I hope you can see how this simple concept can actually bring a lot of function and purpose to any emotion. And when we have a purpose with it we can use it rather than repress it or over react to it. =

See all podcast episodes on Emotional Intelligence right here

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