How many times have you had an interaction like this?
“Hi, how are you today?”
“Fine / good / not bad / OK / busy / alright.”
Now, this blog post has nothing against social customs or polite transactions. But regular readers here will know that a foundation to excellent self-leadership is emotional intelligence and therefore good self-understanding. When we dull our emotional language to a few ‘stock phrases’ that don’t truly capture how we feel, we are probably doing ourselves an injustice AND missing out on a host of benefits that come from effective emotion labelling.
Put very simply, emotion labelling is about acknowledging the actual feeling we are experiencing in a given moment. Not complicated at all. However, the difficulty of emotion labelling (or affect labelling as it’s known in psychology) is that if we have not practiced naming our emotions then our vocabulary to do so will be sparse.
Psychologist Paul Eckman suggests that there are six major categories of emotion that are experienced universally across all cultures; sadness, disgust, anger, happiness, fear and surprise.
These are just the most basic categories of emotion. Within each there is a rich landscape of language which allows us to describe the size of an emotion (delighted may be a strong form of happiness where peaceful is a milder form of happiness) as well as mixtures of emotions (nostalgia combines fondness for the past with sadness it has gone). Some languages and cultures also have their own specific emotional language. In German, the word schadenfreude describes the pleasure one feels at another person’s misfortune.
Learning to express the nuance of the way you are feeling is a key aspect to emotion labelling – are you really angry? Or irritated? Or frustrated? Or livid? These words all sit within the same ‘family’ of emotions but have different meanings which are important to recognise.
In order to give context to the importance of emotional labelling, lets outline a little bit about how the brain works. Our brains are made up of many different areas responsible for different functions. In this simplistic diagram, three brain areas are highlighted.
Reptilian brain (orange) – controls our most basic instincts and automatic functions such as breathing, feeling hungry, physical balance etc.
Limbic system (red) – controls our perception of threats, fear response, emotional processing, motivation and memory.
Cortex (blue) – the outer most layer of the brain is more recently evolved and sets us apart from many animal species as this is responsible for language reason, imagination, planning, decision making and other higher-level functions.
When we experience emotions, this is handled by amygdala (a part of the limbic system). Because this is in the older part of our brain it can sometimes cut us off from our higher-level functions. What does this mean in real life rather than science speak?
You’ve had a very busy day with lots of demands on your time, student arguments to settle and mounting projects to manage. This creates a cocktail of frustration, pressure and overwhelm. This shuts off our rational decision-making brain and may lead you to snap at a team member when they try to start a conversation with you.
Our limbic system is quite spontaneous and reactive – doing whatever it thinks will make us feel better or alleviate challenges in the moment. However, this isn’t always the best course of action and can lead us into poor decisions. A challenge for us is to connect our emotional brain to our rational thinking brain so that we choose a constructive course of action.
This is where emotional labelling comes in…
Emotional labelling can take as little as 1-10 minutes (depending on the complexity of the situation). Spending the time on emotional labelling reconnects the bridge between the limbic system and the cortex. It reengages the measured and rational thinking part of the brain so that your behaviour is less impulsive.
Scientific research has backed this up;
One study got people to look at faces depicting emotions on a screen whilst their brains were being scanned. Some people just looked at the faces whilst others also named them. The group who named emotions showed lower levels of electrical activity in amygdala (an emotional part of the brain) and increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (decision making part). This suggests that naming emotions reduces the impulsive emotional response and re-engages rational thinking.
Another study repeated this experiment and found the same findings of less brain activity in the amygdala. These researchers also asked participants to rate how they felt during the experience. The people who labelled the emotions felt less distressed by the negative emotions than the people who did no labelling.
What these studies seem to show is that simply taking the time to say how you feel seems to slow down the reactive response and allow people to feel better about their situation. Dan Siegel calls this ‘Name it to tame it.’ 
If you want to create a calm, measured approach to your emotional world then all you need to do is say how you feel! Here are a few additional tips to refine your emotional labelling practice.
We can accidentally say something that we think or believe as if it is a feeling. For example:
In all of these examples someone is saying what they think or believe rather than using an emotional word. Using an emotions word bank can be helpful for making sure you tap into a genuine feeling.
We can fall into a trap of using really vague words to describe how we feel such as good, bad, fine or ok. Even when we use words like sad, there are lots of different types of sad to choose from. Being really specific about what we feel has more chance of connecting both parts of the brain. Again, a word bank can be handy here.
Sometimes we say ‘I am ________’. When we phrase it this way it makes it sound like that feeling is just a part of who we are (I am a sad or happy person). Making sure to say ‘I feel _____’ means that you know that feelings can change over time. You are not the same as your feelings – you experience different feelings in different situations.
You may be tempted to only focus on the positive feelings and label those. If we ignore the difficult feelings then they can build up and encourage us to be more reactive. Make sure to practice labelling all feelings – good and bad.
Sometimes if you only think of an emotional label in your head, it can still feel a bit unclear. Making sure to say the label out loud or write it down forces you to put the feeling into words and is much more effective than just thinking it.
Once you know what the feeling is, you could reflect even more by thinking about where the feeling came from. Understanding why you feel a particular way may help you to make a decision about what to do next.
Putting all of these tips together gives you something really simple:
Although labelling emotions is easy in theory, some people can find it more challenging if they have not developed a wide list of emotional language, not been encouraged to express their feelings or are dealing with situations which are very complex and hard to explain. If working through the process yourself with a word bank isn’t doing the trick then you may benefit from speaking with a coach or therapist (for more childhood / trauma related scenarios) who will be able to break the process down and help you gain clarity in your feelings.
The Self Leadership Initiative provides coaching and training workshops to help you better understand yourself and help you to reach your full potential. Book a free consultation here.
 Ekman, P. (1992) An argument for basic emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 6:3-4, 169-200
 Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H., & Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological science, 18(5), 421–428.
 Burklund, L. J., Creswell, J. D., Irwin, M. R. and Lieberman, M. D. (2014). The common and distinct neural bases of affect labeling and reappraisal in healthy adults. Frontiers in Psychology. 5:221.
 Siegel, D. (2009). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. Oneworld Publications.