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Naming Emotions is Hard

As a therapist, I talk about emotions a lot.


Wanna know something I have noticed?


Most people can't actually name what they are feeling. Sure, maybe they can say they are angry, or sad... but beyond that? Crickets.


There are so many layers to emotions. They are complex and deep. Let's think about anger and all the ways someone can feel it: getting stuck in traffic, being turned down for a promotion, feeling unseen by a partner, having too much to do at work, cleaning up after a pet had an accident on the carpet, noticing a co-worker slacking off, the internet not working...


But those examples widely range in intensity and in the nuances of anger. They all fall under the umbrella of anger, yes, but naming them all the same would be a wide disservice to expressing oneself. For instance, traffic might cause frustration, but chronically feeling unheard by a partner might bring up feelings of resentment. That is a huge difference.


Now think about sadness. Feeling disappointed is very different than mourning, which is different than depression, which is different than loneliness. Naming them all "sadness" doesn't give a full picture of the experiencing.


Naming an appropriate emotional state is not only important to understanding the experience, but also helps shape the solution/relief. Joining a support group for grief, for instance, would be inappropriate for someone experiencing isolation due to depression. Knowing what we are feeling helps us understand how to move that feeling forward.


If you are struggling with naming emotions, you are not alone. Most of us were never encouraged to sit in an emotion long enough to evaluate it, and even less of us were taught language for emotions.


If this sounds like you, that's okay. It is not too late to learn.


If you have been to therapy, you might be familiar with the "Emotions Wheel". I see therapy offices adorned with this tool often. (I admit, I used to have it as a pillow in one of my offices!).


You can see it at the top of this week's newsletter, but I have also attached it as a document. Start in the middle and identify the umbrella emotion. When that is recognized, move to the next ring(s). Pick a more specific, nuanced emotion.


Will this be the thing that makes you an expert at communication and emotional intelligence? Nope. But, look, it's a start. Bringing intention to your emotional state, getting curious about your emotional experiences and expanding language for those emotions are all critical steps to personal growth, reflection and insight.


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