Saša Zorjan, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts, University of Maribor, Slovenia
If you are like most people, you go through your day without paying too much attention to what emotions you are experiencing because you are busy doing other things. Let us try to change this. Before you continue reading this blog post, stop for a moment and try to answer the following question: how do you feel right now? It does not seem like much, but this simple task can help you feel better and manage your emotions more efficiently. This idea has been used for a long time in psychotherapy, where psychologists teach their clients to be aware of their emotions and label them as they experience them.
The act of putting feelings into words is also known as affect labeling. Even though it has been used for many decades in psychotherapy, research into the mechanisms related to affect labeling is in its’ youth.
Putting your feelings into words is powerful because words are concepts that help us make sense of what is going on within and around us (Lindquist & Gendron, 2013). When clearly labeling emotions, we use concepts to organize our perceptions and experiences, thereby making it easier for us to understand our feelings and know what to do about them (Lindquist et al., 2015). In this sense, labeling emotions can be a form of emotion regulation – a process of changing what emotions we experience, when and how we experience them and express them (you can also read more about different ways of regulating your emotions in a previous blog post “Learn to manage difficult emotions”). Indeed, research has shown that labeling one’s emotional state reduces distress and the overall intensity of the emotions we experience (Torre & Lieberman, 2018).
Even though this seems easy – this is harder than it sounds. For most of us, it is sometimes difficult to express how we feel. If you sometimes find it difficult to label your emotions clearly – do not worry, this can be improved with practice. What can you do to improve this skill?
- Broaden your emotional vocabulary
Next time, when you feel worked up – try to think of more than just one word to describe how you feel. You can also keep a list of different emotion words you think of or write them down when you hear an emotion word in a movie or read about it in a book. That way, you will have a larger pool of emotion words to choose from next time you feel upset. As a consequence, you will also have a better chance of finding the one word that matches your feelings perfectly.
- Be specific
Do not just use general terms, such as “I’m feeling bad” when describing your emotions. Try to be specific – do you feel nervous, perhaps anxious, or excited? Always try to be as specific as possible when you describe your feelings.
- Be patient
As with every skill – learning how to label your emotions in a precise way takes practice. So don’t give up if you don’t find the right words the first few times you pay attention to the labels you use. Be patient and continue to pay attention to how you express and describe how you feel. You will be surprised at how many new ways to express your emotions you’ll find in a few months.
Lindquist, K. A., & Gendron, M. (2013). What’s in a Word? Language Constructs Emotion Perception. Emotion Review, 5(1), 66–71. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073912451351
Lindquist, K. A., Satpute, A. B., & Gendron, M. (2015). Does language do more than communicate emotion? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(2), 99–108. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414553440
Torre, J. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2018). Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation. Emotion Review, 10(2), 116–124. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073917742706