Children learn words for things from others, maybe the adults in their lives or older siblings or friends. Mom might point to an animal and say “dog.” The child then points to a horse and says “dog” and Mom says, “No, that’s a horse.”
Children are not born knowing the names of emotions. They learn their emotions in much the same way as they learn the names of animals. When adults are careful and label emotions accurately, the process works smoothly. When the family is not comfortable with emotions, they may mislabel, omit, or refuse to recognize certain emotions and the child doesn’t learn to accurately label his emotions.
Being able to label your emotions is a step in being able to manage them. There are several ways to identify what emotion you are experiencing.
1. Look for the cause. Think back to what you were doing or thinking or what was happening when you first felt the emotion. The cause of the emotion is often a clue to what emotion you are experiencing. If your friend told you she couldn’t make it for your planned movie night, maybe you felt disappointed. If you were turned down for a job, you might feel sad.
Many times people say they don’t remember anything happening. If that is the case, then think about what you were doing, who you were talking with, what you were talking about, etc. at the time you first felt the emotion. Remembering as many details of the way you were spending time before you felt the emotion will often bring back a memory of what triggered the feeling.
If you aren’t sure when you first felt the emotion, go back to when you knew you were not feeling it. Were you feeling this emotion at breakfast? When you went to work? At your lunch break? Then, step by step, look at what you did, what you heard and what you thought since the last time you know you were not feeling the emotion. Remember to consider events that would likely create emotions in others even if you don’t think it did for you.
2. Where do you feel the emotion physically? We experience physical sensations as part of our emotional experience. Fear is often in the belly, anger in the shoulders and back and face, and sadness in the chest and maybe the throat. Pay attention to your body sensations and what happened before you experienced the emotion as that information may help you identify what you are feeling.
3. What action do you want to take? Emotions give us information and there is usually an action associated with the emotion. With fear, we have the urge to fight to defend ourselves or run or we are paralyzed. With shame, we have the urge to hide and avoid eye contact. With anger, we often want to attack. The action you want to take can offer a clue to what you might be feeling.
4. Stop numbing your emotions. It’s difficult to identify what you are feeling if you are using food, other substances or activities (e.g., self-harm, being too busy, excessive shopping, obsessing, excessive exercise) to numb your feelings. Avoid numbing your emotions even if you are able to do so just long enough to recognize the feeling. If you are having a strong urge to engage in some numbing activity, consider what emotion you might be having.
5. What thoughts are you having? Sometimes your thoughts reflect your feelings. If you are thinking how lucky you are, then you are likely to be happy. If you are thinking you don’t want your friend to move, then you are likely to be sad.
6. Consider multiple choice. Using a list of emotions, go through the various options. Sometimes people recognize their emotion when given choices. Instead of using a written list you could have someone guess what emotion you might be feeling. Remember you can experience more than one emotion at a time.
7. Have someone give you feedback as to what emotion it looks like you are experiencing. Body language often communicates emotions, especially facial expressions. You may want to look at your face in the mirror or have others tell you what emotion is being shown on your face. However, sometimes people who have grown up in invalidating families have learned to mask their feelings and do not express their feelings on their face.
8. Ask others what emotions others would experience if they were in your situation. Some situations result in the same emotions for many people. While you may or may not experience the same emotions as others given what happened, knowing how others would react emotionally can be helpful.
Maybe some of these ideas will work some of the time and some of the time you won’t be able to identify what you are feeling. Learning to identify your feelings takes practice.
Note to Readers: Healing Hearts of Families is a Houston conference for those with borderline personality disorder and their families and friends. Please join us on November 10 for informative presentations by experts in the field.
My sincere thanks to everyone who has completed our second survey. If you haven’t participated, please consider answering the survey questions about being emotionally sensitive.