Does being able to name feelings with precision help us to deal with our emotions?
And are we at a disadvantage when we don’t develop our emotional vocabulary?
The answers are probably yes and yes.
I wrote before about how and why processing our emotions (instead of numbing them out) is an essential life practice.
But before we can even do that, we need to be able to name our emotions. And for many of us, this is a challenge.
Research about the relationship between words and emotions has shown that learning new words for emotions means you’re probably more likely to identify them in your own experience. And the more emotions you can translate from vague things into concrete terms, the easier time you have of it.
Being able to name emotions is also key to being able to have a direct experience of an emotion in your body. This technique of direct experience is a helpful technique for emotional self-regulation.
This post talks about some research about giving language to our emotions, and ends with a few techniques to improve.
Research on ‘affect labeling’
Although the exact mechanisms remain unknown, putting feelings into words (known as ‘affect labeling’) has long been thought to help manage negative emotional experiences. In fact, affect labeling is the basis for talk-based therapy.
Also, affect labeling has been shown to diminish the response of the amygdala (the brain’s anxiety response centre) and other brain regions to negative emotional images. These results suggest that affect labeling may diminish emotional reactivity.
So naming our emotions may help with regulating them.
What else has research shown?
Health benefits have also been associated with expressing our emotions (a habit that comes more naturally to extroverts).
Writing about feelings is associated with better health outcomes for breast-cancer patients, people with asthma, and people who’ve experienced a traumatic event. And in a study of people who lived to be 100 years old, emotional expression was found to be a common trait.
And so expressing emotions seems on the whole to be good for us too.
Cultural influences (and why the Germans can say things nobody else can)
Although we tend to think of our emotions as very personal experiences, they’re actually affected by the culture we are in. Some languages are better than others at crisply naming important sensations.
The Germans, for example, have a whole load of words that elegantly describe emotions that we require clumsy sentences to describe. It is well known that the Greeks have an enormous range of words for love. And as we all know now from Hygge, Finland, Denmark, and Norway all have their own terms for the specific kind of coziness that comes from being warm on a cold day, surrounded by loved ones.
Perhaps the clearest example of the operation of a cultural standard that has affected all of us has been the obsession with happiness. The preoccupation with feeling happy – a relatively recent thing – has caused a selective compassion with our emotions, with a clear bias towards positive ones. The rest generally get hidden from view, even from ourselves.
Our cultural over-value on happiness might be problematic. Unchecked, it can create pressure to feel upbeat and cheerful all the time.
The link between putting feelings into words, and self-awareness
Why exactly does naming an emotion help with self awareness?
Tracking them to stories
Firstly, being able to name an emotion helps with tracking its source.
Emotions do not happen in response to events. They happen in response to thoughts derived from the judging mind, and reactions of the old emotional memory. The process of naming your emotions helps you to distinguish these things.
Using them as information
Emotions can also help to guide our decisions. For example, if we can notice that spending time with a person leaves us feeling unfulfilled, then we may decide to spend less time with them.
Identifying physical sensations
This is a little more subtle. Our emotions are in fact physical sensations. Without being able to follow an emotion through to physical sensations, we are more likely to be caught up in our mind stories. And this results in suffering.
This exercise helps us with things like changing habits. When we can go to the source of a feeling in our body, our self-soothing efforts reflect more intelligence and mindfulness.
Is range better than depth?
Research on the concept of emodiversity suggests that stronger physical and mental health is correlated with experiencing a range of emotions, instead of just being happy or content all the time.
It means allowing yourself to feel sad, angry, irritable, bored, and frustrated.
All the things we’re told we ought not to feel.
Effects of unlabeled emotions on our relationships
Not being able to name our emotions impacts our ability to communicate them. Given that the latter is quite important for building relationships, this is clearly a disadvantage.
Feeling anxious about finding the right words to discuss our emotions makes us unnecessarily nervous about discussing them with our partners. We do not feel confident in our ability to make ourselves understood, which means we are likely to shrink away and withdraw from life.
You don’t need to win any contests. You just need to be in touch with what’s occurring for you, and have the skills to communicate that with compassion. Anyone can do it.
4 things that build ability to put feelings into words
Here are several ways to build your ability to put your feelings into words.
It’s obvious, but your reading habit (or lack thereof) determines the extent of your vocabulary. Also, it can be comforting to read other people’s experiences, that give you insight retrospectively to emotions you felt but couldn’t understand at the time.
Try to develop a more feelings-based vocabulary by choosing specific content. If you don’t usually read books based on human relationships, then give one a try. For a specific book on the topic of emotions, try The Book of Human Emotions.
When you experience an emotion that you don’t understand, try to discover the name for it
Talk more about your feelings with trusted friends
This helps build confidence in communicating your feelings with others.
Attempt to have a direct experience of your emotions
After you have named an emotion, and figured out the story behind it, try bring your attention exclusively to physiological signals. For example, with tension, maybe you can notice ‘I feel my jaw is tense, there’s tension around my eyes’.
You can even experiment with intensifying the physical sensations. This simple technique can help with feeling a sense of control over your emotions.