Emotional labeling, or the practice of naming emotions, seems simple on the surface but can be incredibly transformative.
Think about it: how often do you barrel through your workday completely unaware of what you’re feeling? If you’re like most people, then you’re probably so busy that you don’t pause to check in with yourself.
Or you might find yourself caught in an ongoing cycle of unwieldy, overwhelming emotions like stress, fear, or doubt that seems amorphous, insurmountable, and out of control. All of which is a recipe for imposter syndrome and burnout.
This is especially true for Sensitive Strivers — high-achievers who are also highly sensitive.
Because of their biology, Sensitive Strivers think and feel everything more deeply. They have complex, intense emotional responses. Sensitive Strivers are able to experience the richness of positive emotions like inspiration and gratitude but also get stuck in unpleasant feelings like annoyance and disappointment more easily and for longer. Sensitive Strivers tend to have so many emotions going on at once that it can lead them to shut down.
That’s where emotional labeling comes in.
What is Emotional Labeling and Why it Matters
Put simply, emotional labeling (or affect labeling) refers to naming emotions with greater specificity and granularity.
In other words, emotional labeling is the practice of cultivating emotional literacy. That is, identifying what you are feeling as you’re experiencing it in order to create distance from your reaction.
Instead of opting for vague surface-level descriptors like, “I’m fine,” “I’m okay,” you lean into the highly complex, nuanced spectrum of emotions available, which allows you to be happier, more effective, and productive.
Research shows that naming emotions is a game-changing skill that reduces the influence of negative feelings like anger or frustration have over you.
- Studies show that naming your emotions immediately releases their grip over you and reduces physiological distress
- Emotional labeling provides emotional clarity, giving you a deeper understanding of what happened, how it affects you and helps you see the possibilities for what to do next
- Simply saying, “I feel ____”, helps bring your reaction under control and move on more quickly versus spiraling
- Acknowledging your feelings — rather than dismissing them — is crucial to lowering emotional reactivity and improving your overall mental well-being.
As Susan David, author of Emotional Agility explains:
…We need a more nuanced vocabulary for emotions, not just for the sake of being more precise, but because incorrectly diagnosing our emotions makes us respond incorrectly. If we think we need to attend to anger, we’ll take a different approach than if we’re handling disappointment or anxiety — or we might not address them at all. (source: HBR)
Emotional Labeling Example
The more specific you can be about your inner experience, the better you’re able to create a plan to resolve or work on issues. For instance, when a client tells me they feel overwhelmed by changing priorities at work, we explore it more. Do they feel disappointed because they think they’re unable to deliver results? Embarrassment because they’re concerned they’re letting their team down?
When you become aware of the intricacies of what you’re feeling and can communicate effectively with those around you, you can regulate your reactions in healthy, productive ways.
Let’s say you come home at the end of a long workday. With low emotional literacy might, you might describe your mood as “bad” or “down”. This ambiguity could leave you feeling helpless. You could stew in the unpleasant emotion, unsure of what to do to make it better. By not being getting in touch with your needs, miscommunication could follow, leading to an evening of arguing with your spouse.
Now, let’s take a look at this same scenario, but with emotional labeling applied. By naming the emotion, you’re able to recognize that you’re feeling worried about the status of a major project. Instead of taking it out on your spouse, you’re able to ask for alone time to decompress and process through the concerns on your mind. Rather than being fused with the emotion (seeing it as part of you), you are able to gain distance and perspective to see the situation more clearly.
Emotional Labeling Toolkit
Now that you understand why labeling your emotions helps you control your stress and feel less anxious, it’s time to begin expanding your vocabulary. After all, you can’t tame what you can’t put into words.
That’s why I have created a list of emotional vocabulary words that will help you identify, articulate, and communicate your feelings more accurately. In doing so, you’ll gain a heightened awareness of your emotions. This means you can master it proactively, rather than falling into self-sabotaging patterns.