Self-Care: Name It to Tame It

“Naming an emotion begins the process of regulating and reflecting on it. What we can name we can tame; when we give meaning to something, we can tolerate it and even change its impact.” —Dr. Sue Johnson

Research has shown it is difficult for us to name different emotions that we may be feeling. Since 2006, Brene Brown and her team have asked people to write down the names of emotions they can recognize in themselves and others. Interestingly, the mean number of emotions that people can identify is 3: bad, sad, and glad. This finding goes to show that many of us are out of touch with our very own emotions. Perhaps, instead of angry, you feel betrayed; hopeful instead of happy. The emotion wheel above can help you and others start naming specific emotions.

Verbal labeling of emotions, particularly negative ones, can help people recover control over them. UCLA’s Matthew Lieberman refers to this idea as “affect labeling” and his fMRI brain scan research shows that this labeling of emotion appears to decrease activity in the brain’s emotional centers, including the amygdala. This dampening of the emotional brain allows the frontal lobe (reasoning and thinking center) to have greater sway over solving the problem.

So, try to name your feelings. Take time to find the specific words to describe how you are feeling in any given situation. You may find yourself feeling more connected with what you are feeling while at the same time being able to create space from your emotion so you can evaluate it and determine how to respond. This approach is the basis of mindfulness. Doing this can help us disengage from our emotions, especially negative ones. We can see them, and then we can begin to choose how to respond instead of reacting instinctively under the sway of sometimes intoxicating emotions.