Labelling of Emotions.

Published by:  Sandra López Aparicio
Key Skills Coach
There is a belief, or at least it is expressed colloquially, that emotions can be controlled or that we “have to” control them. The reality is that emotional responses are not “avoidable”. People who say they can control their emotions probably mean that they do one of two things:

  • Postpone their emotional response (their body reaction is not evident in the moment, but ends up coming out sooner rather than later).
  • They direct the emotional response towards themselves (the body experiences it as some kind of physical pain).

With this, it is evident that this “control” is not such, as the balance has been lost….

So, what can we do?

In addition to recognising that this is a mechanism we have for our survival and adaptation, we can REGULATE emotions, in terms of their intensity and in terms of the type of response we give. The regulation of emotional response is a necessary skill for many social contexts and also extremely useful for our balance and well-being.

Being able to regulate an emotion mainly involves two aspects. We start by identifying it, being aware of it: it implies that we pay attention and get in touch with the physical sensations we experience. We talk about a bodily feeling: where in the body do I feel, and how intensely do I feel it? For example, “I feel a hot stone in the pit of my stomach”. In addition to the physical sensation, we also become aware of the thought that accompanies it. So initially our attention goes to both the body and the thought.

Then we need to name the emotion: it ceases to be something vague, unknown, it loses its power in some way; you can see it and identify it, you can talk about it instead of acting hijacked by it. This is also known as “labelling”: the act of identifying and naming an emotion.

Neuroscience studies have shown that the simple act of recognising and naming an emotion can have a powerful effect in stifling it; because the act of labelling engages our executive brain (prefrontal cortex), transforming the emotion into an object of scrutiny, thus interrupting its intensity. “By putting your emotion into words, you have simultaneously created a new perspective from which you can see the feeling and provided a label for the feeling itself, so you know what you feel. In that moment it is “you” that feels “it”, and “it” is now separate from you. It is not something that you are, but something that “you” are feeling. The act of naming allows you to see yourself as an ‘agent’, experiencing a recognisable feeling, rather than as a passive victim of the feeling” – Leslie Greenberg.

Note that such labelling should be symbolic, and not turn into a long dialogue about the emotion, as the intention is to reduce the intensity of the emotion (not to rekindle the discomfort felt). Labelling a difficult emotional experience allows you to regain “control”, even if only for a moment. A “distance” from the initial event is generated and – in a matter of seconds – we switch on our frontal lobe, which slows down body and mind and makes it easier for us to choose a response.

Practice emotional labelling whenever you can. Healthy expression of emotions takes place when you name them, without judgement and with compassion for yourself. Remember that the main purpose of naming an emotion is to make it visible, to feel it, so that you can make a better determination about what to do with it. The exercise of discovering and expressing emotions causes our self-awareness “muscle” to develop; making it easier and easier to connect both internally (intrapersonally) and externally (interpersonally), by expressing feelings more clearly and directly to others. As we learn to pay more attention to our feelings, to identify them and share them with others, our personal well-being will increase, as will the quality of our relationships.



Body and Emotions

Emotions are closely associated with the body, because each one...