Working with Emotions: Naming, Experiencing and Sorting Through PART ONE
Our *feelings and emotions give us valid, and valuable clues about some of the key issues that are important to us. Before we can sort out
our feelings (where they are coming from, why, how, when), it is helpful to be able identify, describe and name them.
Naming Your Feelings
Research has shown that our ability to find the right words for what we’re experiencing emotionally increases our emotional intelligence, and clarity and reduces fear. Often we are given advice that encourages us to ignore or actively try to change what we’re feeling before we’ve even had a chance to understand it (do the words “think positive” or “chin up” ring a bell?). When we reject and/or ignore our feelings, we set ourselves up for additional pain and suffering.
In a study at UCLA, participants were asked to approach a tarantula in an open container. They were divided into 4 groups, each with their own specific instructions:
Group 1- instructed to describe and name their emotions (ie: I’m terrified of spiders. I’m feeling very nervous)
Group 2- instructed to use neutral words to actively try to reduce stress. (ie: This spider can’t hurt me. I’m not afraid)
Group 3- instructed to say words that were not related at all to the experience (ie: I have to remember to call Jean for her birthday)
Group 4- instructed not to say anything
Can you guess which group sweat the least and were able to get closest to the spider? Why, yes! It was the folks in group 1 who were asked to describe and name their feelings. You might recognize that group 2 represents the positive thinkers and group 3 was instructed to just ignore what was happening. With our cultural wisdom championing the strategies used in groups 2 and 3, it may come as a surprise that in spite of acknowledging feelings such as “I’m feeling scared” or “I’m so disgusted”, these participants showed significantly lower levels of fear and more courage to take those few extra brave steps. MRI studies have also shown how naming our emotions works in the brain to help reduce emotional reactivity (intense, overwhelming, or seemingly out of control emotional states). When you’re not caught up in reacting, you are better able to respond. Responding to your feelings in any given situation means processing them more clearly and acting from a more thoughtful position.
***Check this out! I absolutely love and am inspired by the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. You can get creative with naming your emotions. “Liberosis” and “Énoument” are two of my favourites. There is also a Youtube channel.
When I work with clients, I help them improve their ability to get specific and name their emotions. It’s important to name the emotion as accurately as possible because the more you’re able to pinpoint the nuances of your emotions, the better you’ll be able to make sense of them. For example: You might say you are feeling sad in your relationship, but if you really sit with the feeling a little more, you realize it’s actually loneliness. Now the picture is much clearer and you can trace its imprint on your life and what that means for you in the present. But how do you know when you’ve got the right name for what you’re feeling? Usually you’ll feel it in your body. It’ll just feel true, like, aha!
Experiencing or “Getting in Touch with” Your Emotions
What if you can’t name what you are feeling? It’s not uncommon to be unaware, or unsure of what you’re feeling. If you haven’t allowed yourself to experience the emotion- if you’re tried to ignore it, or rushed to change it- it might be very difficult for you to figure out what’s going on. Before you can name it accurately, you must allow yourself to acknowledge and experience it. Take a look at the diagram below:
Here, you can see there are several paths connecting your emotional experience. The idea is to look at your experience in a holistic way. An often-overlooked aspect of our emotional experience is how they resonate in our bodies. We don’t realize how much our bodies inform our feelings and vice versa. Maybe it’s a posture, physical discomfort, a particular sensation. Your body has wisdom- give it a chance to speak to you!
Tapping into the various elements that make up emotions takes practice. Even people who are more comfortable with “getting in touch” with their emotions have their share of blind spots. The trick is to not pre-judge whatever it is that comes to mind, as left-field or unrelated as it may seem at first.
At the Arterie, our therapists have additional training and tools that can help you get more authentically connected to your feelings in creative ways.
See if you can use this chart as a guide to help you tune in to what you’re feeling.
Ok, I Realize I’m $&@#*@! Angry. Now What?
Once you are aware of what you are feeling, you’re well on your way to understanding what’s going on. When you have a better understanding of your feelings, you can use that knowledge to guide you in improving your situation.
Stay tuned for Part Two on sorting through your emotions.
*for the purpose of this post, I’ve used feelings and emotions interchangeably, though they are considered to separate but related things.