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Labeling Emotions: Why It’s a Learning Curve

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Labeling emotions, what’s that?

One of the hardest things I teach as a counselor is how to just feel. It seems it’s written in some magic rule book somewhere that feelings aren’t okay. Furthermore, the words used to describe feelings are usually very narrow. For example, how many times do you ask someone how they’re doing and they repeat, “Fine,” “all right,” “okay,” or “great?”? Often, this is the first question I ask when I greet a client, and this is the response I get. Then, when we get all comfy in my office, I’ll say, “How are you really feeling?” And the truth comes out.

A lot of people find it difficult to put a name to what they feel, says Psychology Today. It’s a disconnect we experience on a regular basis. For some, though, the problem is much more insurmountable.

Difficulty of labeling emotions

Some people have no words to describe what they feel. In such cases, a person’s difficulty in labeling an emotion—no matter how complex the person feels—can lead to a general inability to regulate those emotions. And truth be told, emotions in the body are felt, whereas the word you attach to them are part of our cognitive process – that’s a different process than emotions. However, when we don’t express how we feel more deeply, over time that lack of emotional labeling can lead to less awareness of what you actually feel. This makes it much more difficult to respond to situations productively, with anger coloring your perception of the event or situation.

Training your emotional responses

When something happens and you’re upset, you can feel the need to lash out. You think this is normal, that there’s absolutely nothing wrong in being honest and upfront, or in expressing what you feel. But words have destructive power, especially in relationships. When you speak the words and you’re coming from a place of anger, there’s nothing you can do to take them back. It’s reminiscent of that line from Jorie Graham: “Nothing is whole/ where it has been. Nothing/ remains unsaid.”

One possible reading is that when you say anything you want with little thought or regard for where the other person is coming from, you destroy the fabric of your relationship wither it’s with a significant other or even your own child. You start an erosion of trust. As I always remind my husband, “I need dialogue.” With continued dialogue and words, true emotions can be felt and seen and almost touched.

How labeling can help regulate your emotions

By labeling emotions, you’re much more aware of what you feel. For instance, you aren’t just unhappy because she didn’t come home on time. You’re unhappy because of problems at work and there was no one you could vent to. And she was there and it was convenient. By knowing where you’re coming from, by being clear about what’s causing the anger and the hurt, the anxiety and worry, you can take steps to calm down, to down regulate your emotions, to lessen the damage.

As a result, instead of lashing out, you can speak calmly, you can moderate your tone and you can forestall or deescalate a potential argument or a disagreement. You can keep the peace. You can express what you feel and go to bed without having brought on more negative emotions to deal with. By the end of the day, being able to simply talk about situations that anger you without letting the emotion rule you can lead to a relationship with better emotional health.

How it affects your relationships

If you’ve ever been in a disagreement with a loved one, you know you’ve been together for a long time when you reach a point that you find yourself saying anything you want. It’s like the blinders come off along with the kid gloves and suddenly, you’re honest and brutal about his short-comings or her failings. But if the relationship isn’t strong enough to handle that kind of brutal honesty, it could lead to lasting damage. It could put an end to your relationship. If you don’t know how to constructively handle your anger, you could find yourself lashing out at the worst possible moment and destroying the trust that your partner has in you.

A book I often recommend is one John Gottman referred to me while I was in one of his classes and sought his guidance on how to teach emotions. It is a simple little read called “Focusing” by Eugene Gendlin. This book teaches you how to slow down your brain so you can begin to understand what is really being felt in your body.

How therapy can help

Professional assistance from an Allen-based therapist can help turn the tide. By talking to your therapist about your inability to name your emotions, you could develop that skill. In addition, you could train your emotional responses in a way that encourages positive discussion and behavior from your partner. That matters. This ability can result in a much happier home life. That’s because people skills are essential. By learning how to regulate your negative emotions, you can find a way to calm down, says the Lifehacker. That’s a valuable skill. When tensions are running high, you can easily prevent conflict by defusing the situation with the right words. You can stop yourself from reaching a point where your anger blinds you to rational thought and common sense. By doing so, you can reach out to and communicate with your partner and your loved ones that much better.

This isn’t something you learn overnight, though. It can take months or years. That’s because emotions need to be handled gradually. Any changes that happen overnight aren’t going to last long. To learn more about how labeling your emotions can help and why it’s a continuous process, talk to an Allen family counselor today.

About the Author:

Jennifer Slingerland Ryan knows a thing or two about kids and families. First, she knows they are joyous, exhilarating, loving and so darn fun. Second, she knows they suck your life dry and make you weep like a baby. By day she’s a psychotherapist; by night she’s a mom and wife. She claims to love therapizing couples, educating parents, reading dystopian fiction and sleeping in her free time (read: she never sleeps). Jennifer has spent over 12 years in private practice working with individuals, couples, and parents who are faced with kid-drama, mamma-drama, and family-drama, and she claims that although some stories make a grown woman cry, she loves it.
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