Why is emotion-identification one of the first steps in managing our emotions? It is often easier to know what to do with, or how to react to, something we know, rather than to something we do not know. When we can say “oh, I know what this is!” or “I often have this feeling when …” or “I know where this comes from!”, we can use familiar strategies to deal with it. Also, if we know an emotion by name, or know how to describe it, we can talk about our feelings, or express them in words. Another important aspect of expressing our emotions: research has shown that putting feelings into words in and of itself helps us to regulate our emotions. This can be very valuable when it comes to negative emotions because we experience them with less intensity when we name them.
Being aware of how we feel emotions in our body can help us identify and manage them. If we feel a lump in our throat as we resist the urge to cry, it helps us to identify sadness. A knot in the pit of our stomach might indicate dread, anxiety, or fear. If we “freeze in our tracks” or suddenly become motionless – and maybe hyper-aware—we could suspect surprise or perhaps alarm—or even terror. Being able to identify others’ emotions through their expressions or body language can help us know how to respond appropriately.
As we observe and try to accurately identify our own and others’ emotions, it helps to be aware of some common cover-ups or substitutions. An emotion we observe might be a “secondary” emotion, stemming from a different primary emotion. Sometimes we display anger because it gives us a sense of power or strength, and that feels less painful than fear or sadness. Acknowledging fear or sadness, our primary emotion, is sometimes very hard. We might use anger as a secondary emotion to keep from feeling our sadness. On the other hand, if we don’t know how to express anger appropriately, or believe it’s unacceptable to express anger (as a primary emotion), we may express something else instead.
The variety of emotions that we feel and are capable of feeling, is part of the richness and depth of our human experience. Being able to sense, express, and act appropriately on our emotions is part of being alive – just like being able to respond to the many things that we see or hear.
The process of identifying and reflecting on our emotions allows us to choose the best response – something we will discuss more in the next post.
To learn more about the process of managing emotions (“emotion regulation”), it can be helpful to read about how parents and teachers can help children with emotion regulation:
- Teach Your Children to Identify, Label, and Express Their Emotions
- Emotional Regulation: 10 Tips for Teaching it in the Classroom
- Two Activities to Teach Basics of Emotional Regulation to Kids
A word of caution: Sometimes our emotions can feel too big or too scary for us to deal with. They may overwhelm us, or they may be expressed through bodily sensations, aches, or physical pain. This can be an indication that it is time to seek professional help and support to process our emotions and navigate through the emotional maze.