Written by Ellen Herbert, LCSW
“How does that make you feel?” If your therapist has asked you this, they’re probably cringing a little on the inside. Sure, it’s a therapy cliché, but sometimes it is the only question that needs to be asked in the moment.
Essentially, identifying emotions forces you to take a pause to observe and describe your experience rather than simply reacting to it. This process has both immediate and long-term benefits to you. But first, some background on emotions.
Author John Bradshaw defines emotions as “Energy in Motion” as all of our emotions are not just an abstract concept but physical experiences in our bodies and minds. That swift gut punch of shame, the flushed cheeks and tightened throat of humiliation, or the warm, tingling sensation of love, you know the reactions. That’s energy activating different responses within our nervous systems and if you remember science class, energy cannot be created or destroyed, only converted. We need to understand the source of the energy in order to know how to manage it and use it wisely.
Immediately, putting a name to your emotions helps put the brakes on emotional reactions which, if you’ve ever had to apologize for those things you said when you were hangry, you’ll agree is a good thing! There’s so much cool neuroscience to geek out on when it comes to understanding the mind-body connection but for the purposes of today, here’s a massive oversimplification. Brain imaging studies have shown that when we experience any type of heightened distressing emotion, activity goes up in the amygdala which is responsible for detecting threats and initiating those survival instincts (tense muscles, pounding heart, quicker reflexes, etc). The same studies of brain images show that putting words to the emotion gets the pre-frontal cortex (or the thinking part) of the brain involved and as activity increases here, activity in the amygdala lessens and people report less intense degrees of those distressing feelings.
This process is so essential, that Dr. Dan Seigel, psychiatrist, author and all-around brain-guru, has coined a term for this phenomenon: “Name It to Tame It.” Once the emotion is named, you’re approaching the experience with your whole brain versus reacting to an unknown potential threat from the most primitive part of your brain. You’ve just enhanced your power within the situation to do what is most helpful, healthy and in line with your personal values.
Over time, the benefits of naming your emotions continue to accumulate. People with larger emotional vocabularies have been proven to have greater social skills, more satisfying relationships and greater success personally and professionally. Researchers have lately even opined that high emotional intelligence is more indicative of professional success than high IQ. Furthermore, labeling and building that capacity to tolerate a range of emotions with equanimity helps you approach all your internal experiences with self-acceptance and compassion rather than piling on secondary emotions like guilt and shame or anger and resentment regarding how you feel. That’s the last thing any of us need.
So, now that you know the facts behind identifying emotions, “how does that make you feel?”
https://drdansiegel.com/ John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You