By learning how to label our emotions, we can learn how to take better care of ourselves—the simple act of naming our feelings has actually been shown to help us to feel more in control of them. This can be hard, though. Sometimes emotions feel too overwhelming to handle, and when this happens, we might try coping through unhelpful and unhealthy techniques like screaming at our partner or shutting down. This can lead to us feeling even worse. To move through these difficult moments, it's helpful to try to understand what it is that we’re actually feeling.
I’m a firm believer in simplifying things when possible, and one helpful way to start is by using a feelings chart. They’re pretty simple: just a list of emotive words with corresponding emoji-like faces. This visual reminder can be helpful when starting to practice labeling your feelings. Without one, it can be easy to only remember “sad” or “scared” instead of all the other, equally important emotions such as “apathetic,” “eager,” and “inspired.” To get started, you can do a quick Google search for a feelings chart or download the free “Mood app”. (No sponsorship or benefit to me if you download- just a great tool!)
Of course, we often experience multiple emotions simultaneously, and sometimes one emotion leads to another. Our initial feeling of “sadness” may have triggered a second feeling of “shame.” Other times, we experience several unrelated emotions at the same time. We may feel tired and nervous or lonely, frustrated, and anxious. By challenging ourselves to identify as many emotions as we can to describe our current situation, we help empower ourselves to respond in an informed, beneficial way.
Instead of thinking in terms of negative and positive, try to imagine emotions on a spectrum. We experience different levels of emotions at different times. Think back to the last time you felt happy—did that feel the same as every other time you’ve felt happy in your life? I imagine not. There are big happys, medium happys, little happys, and a lot of others in between. A little happy may feel similar to feeling content, while a big happy may feel as though your heart is about to burst with joy. The same is true for many other emotions—start by trying to recall times you experienced different levels of mad, sad, afraid, anxious, and excited and see what names you can give those experiences to describe these differences in intensity.
Challenging moments don’t have to get the better of us. When we practice labeling and naming our emotions, we give ourselves clarity of action. The more familiar we become with this practice, the easier it is to understand and attend to our needs.
Torie Cueto, LMFT is a licensed therapist in San Diego, California. Torie provides in-person therapy in San Diego and online video therapy throughout California.