Your self-awareness is only as good as your vocabulary – What we need to know about labeling our emotions
If I say the phrase, “Use your words,” you probably immediately picture a young parent and an upset toddler. I know I said it often when my boys were young, as we tried to empower them to name whatever it was that was troubling them. The rationale is that, putting a label to an emotion accesses rational thinking, which in turn can create calm.
Fast forward a few years, the notion of learning to properly label your feelings was the central topic of our CliffsNotes Book Club discussion last month! However, this time it was a much more nuanced discussion of all the gradations of emotions, in all the Pantone varieties possible.
Atlas of the Heart
Brené Brown’s latest book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, is a resource to help us access the language we need to better understand our feelings. Every feeling. In the book, she pries apart emotions that are sometimes confused such as jealousy and envy, and helps us distinguish and separate the terms.
Whether you’re three or thirty, the words we use every day help us make sense of the world around us. When it comes to naming an emotion, having access to a specific term to name a feeling means having the ability to move through it. What Brown tells us is that, when we don’t notice or appreciate the differences between envy and jealousy, or joy and awe, we miss an opportunity to learn about ourselves and to connect with others.
But What’s Happening in the Brain?
Of course there’s brain science behind it. When you label a feeling, you are accessing the rational side of your brain. Labeling helps you re-gain control. You’re shifting away from the emotional reaction and toward the thinking reaction. This is particularly helpful in times of anguish or anger, but it can be useful to build self-awareness of any situation.
This Mindful.org article by Mitch Abblett speaks to the neuroscience and provides context for the original research. From the article, “Matthew Lieberman refers to this 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.”
A Simple Application
A simple action you can take is to prompt others to help them label their own emotions. If a colleague at work or friend outside of work comes to you with a challenge, try taking a guess at what they might be feeling. You may say, “What you’re describing to me sounds like [insert emotion]. Is that how you would describe it?”
The best part of this strategy is that it does not matter if you’re right or not. By simply offering one possible emotion, you offer a starting point that helps the person clarify what they’re experiencing and helps them get closer to an accurate label for the emotion. They can then talk through what it might be, and that can make all the difference.