The Power of Naming Emotions: How Labeling Your Feelings Can Bring Peace

Divorce can feel like one emotional blow after another. First, there’s the pain of realizing that your marriage isn’t going to work. Then come the sorrow and frustration at the reality of deconstructing your married life. There might be anger at your ex-spouse’s behavior during a meeting, on a phone call, with the children. Or you might feel grief at what could have been and what has been lost. You might even feel guilty relief at moving on while your ex or your children are still in pain.

The thing is, although you may be feeling one or several of these difficult emotions, it can be hard to truly understand what you’re feeling in the moment. Sometimes the most you can do is register that you feel bad.

But making an effort to understand your feelings in the heat of the moment is the key to beginning to feel better. Believe it or not, just saying the name of the emotion can give you a boost and help you feel more in control. The tricky part is detaching far enough from the emotion to identify it and name it.

That’s where my guest this week comes in. Joree Rose is here to discuss how mindfulness can help you label intense negative emotions and avoid an emotional melt-down.

Joree Rose is a licensed marriage and family therapist, mindfulness and mediation teacher, author, and speaker who leads mindfulness retreats worldwide. She’s helped thousands of people to live happier and more fulfilling lives by guiding them to shed unhealthy habits, decrease stress and anxiety, and live with greater awareness and compassion. She’s also the host of the podcast, Journey Forward with Joree Rose, and she’s written two mindfulness books: Squirmy Learns to be Mindful and Mindfulness: It’s Elementary.

What it Means to Name Emotions

There’s no magic trick to naming your emotions. It simply requires being aware of what is happening in your mind and body and putting a name to it. As Joree Rose puts it: “When you name [what’s happening], you are observing it rather than having it define you.”

Rose says that when she was going through her divorce and felt strong emotion welling up within her, she would say aloud: “This is what fear feels like,” or “This is anxiety.”

By naming the emotion, she was able to put the feeling at a distance while giving it space to exist. This distance allowed her to offer herself compassion, rather than judging, resisting, or denying what she was feeling. “The ability just to sit with [the emotion] and accept it actually helps make that emotion or challenge a little bit easier,” she says. “It made my emotions not so scary and overwhelming and triggering.”

Science has also found that naming emotions may a dampening effect on the intensity of those emotions. In 2007, UCLA researchers found that “affect labeling” (naming) negative emotions appear to diminish activity in the brain’s emotional centers, particularly the amygdala. The researchers theorized that because labeling somehow made the emotional part of the brain less active, the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that handles reasoning, can take over, allowing you to look at the situation more rationally.

How Mindfulness Helps You Name Emotions

Mindfulness is the key to getting sufficient control of yourself in the middle of a deeply emotional moment to stop and giving your feelings a name. As Joree noted in an earlier post, mindfulness is being aware of what’s arising in your body, mind, and emotions, and having the ability to pause and observe it all without judgment.

The next time you become upset, try being mindfully upset. When a triggering event occurs, observe the feelings you’re experiencing without judgment, and then name those emotions before doing anything else.

For example, let’s say your ex-spouse texts to say that they’re going to be late picking up the kids for the third time in a row. Take the time to notice how your body and mind feel. You might observe that you’re clenching your teeth and your heart is racing. Instead of firing back a nasty text or lashing out another way, take a deep breath and name the emotion you’re feeling. You might say: “This is anger that I’m feeling.” or “My body is showing my frustration.” Slowly repeat the named emotion until you feel distant enough from the feeling to make a productive, rather than reactive, response.

The more you practice this technique, the more effective it will be. Mindfulness is called a practice for a reason!

If you’re considering divorce but would like to try an approach that might mean a brighter future, call my team to schedule a confidential consultation.

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