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1. Ready

What is involved in labelling emotions?

The first two RULER skills – recognizing and understanding – work together to help you label your emotions. It starts with asking, “How am I feeling?” and considering how pleasant or unpleasant you are feeling, as well as your energy level. Then you ask, “Why do I feel this way?”, to uncover what’s fueling the emotion. Once you have a visceral sense of your emotions and you understand what caused it, it’s time to label your feelings.

In his blog post,
"A Word is a World", Brackett, M. (2020). A Word is a World. Marc Brackett.
Dr. Marc Brackett uses anger, frustration., anxiety, and fear to explain how critical the skills of recognizing and understanding emotions are for being able to correctly label emotions. Anger, frustration, anxiety, and fear are all unpleasant, high energy emotions, located in the upper left, red quadrant of the Mood Meter. In fact, emotions such as anger and frustration can even present similarly as facial expressions. So, how do you know if you or someone you know is feeling angry or frustrated? That’s where your Understanding skills come into play. In general, anger is felt in response to injustice, and frustration is felt when you cannot do something that you want to do. Understanding the causes of emotions and inquiring about the events leading up to an emotion, is necessary to be able to correctly label the emotions.

There’s only one small caveat: Our emotional literacy is
woefully insufficient. Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel. Celadon Books.
Up to 3,000 words for emotions have been identified in the English language. How many of those do you recognize? How many of those do you understand? How many of those do you use? Did your list get dramatically smaller? That’s because we don’t tend to differentiate between being sullen, exhausted, desolate, or spent. We clump feeling content, satisfied, grateful, secure, thoughtful, and fulfilled into one word “good”.

Linguists have long acknowledged that words create worlds:
The Linguistic Determinism Hypothesis, Comrie, B. (n.d.). Language and Thought. Linguistic Society of America.
also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (named after a pair of linguists) suggests that language determines and limits your thoughts and worldview. A less dramatic hypothesis,
The Linguistic Determinism Hypothesis, Comrie, B. (n.d.). Language and Thought. Linguistic Society of America.
argues that the language you speak at least influences your thoughts and decisions. Similarly, the words you use to label and describe your emotions can influence or limit your ability to experience and respond to the nuanced characteristics of emotions.

Consider the detailed mood meter below.

Would you be able to distinguish the difference between feeling tranquil and serene? Or the difference between feeling despondent and despairing? Do you even know what those feelings mean?


What’s the benefit in labelling emotions?

Dr. Marc Brackett Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel. Celadon Books.
suggests that labelling emotions with precise words does four main things:

  1. It legitimizes and organizes our experiences
    When we attach a word to a feeling, it gives emotion substance and creates a mental model of the word, which means it can be compared with other feelings we have and also with other people’s feelings.
  2. It helps others to meet our needs
    Once we are able to communicate, with specificity, what we’re feeling, the people in our lives can look beyond our behaviours to understand their causes.
  3. It helps us to meet the needs of others
    Once we know how someone is feeling, it’s easier for us to support them.
  4. It connects us to the rest of the world
    Our emotions become a form of communication, a way to share the experience of being alive. There’s a body of research showing the health benefits of social connectivity, and this is where it begins – in being able to identify with one another. The terminology of emotion allows us to read one another’s lives, almost as we would in a novel. The words give us each a story to tell.
"Labelling emotions is the bridge between the first two RULER skills - Recognizing and Understanding - and the last two RULER skills - Expressing and Regulating. You need to know what you are feeling before you can appropriately express and regulate it."
Interestingly,
research Torre, J., & Lieberman, M. (2018). Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation. Emotion Review, 10(2), 116–124.
has shown that labelling, or putting feelings into words, is itself a form of emotion regulation. Simply labelling our feelings, has shown to significantly increase our ability to modulate emotional output in the experiential, autonomic, neural, and behavioural domains of emotion.

Interestingly, this review article also suggested that it can be beneficial to label other people’s emotions (ex. “That person looks angry”) and that this labelling
can be done through Torre, J., & Lieberman, M. (2018). Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation. Emotion Review, 10(2), 116–124.
“speaking, writing, or even selecting among provided affect labels”.
Brain imaging studies University of California – Los Angeles. (2007, June 22). Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects In The Brain. ScienceDaily.
have supported these therapeutic effects of putting feelings into words. For example, participants who were shown an angry face had, as anticipated, increased activity in the amygdala, an almond-shaped central brain structure that is involved with experiencing many emotions. When participants attached the word “angry” to the face, amygdala activity reliably decreased and there was increased activation of the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (an area associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences and emotion regulation).

Furthermore,
research Barrett, L., Gross, J., Christensen, T., & Benvenuto, M. (2001). Knowing what you’re feeling and knowing what to do about it: Mapping the relation between emotion differentiation and emotion regulation. Cognition and Emotion, 15(6), 713–724.
has shown that people who are able to precisely identify and differentiate between emotions, rather than those who have poor differentiation skills and who clump large groups of emotions into an overarching category, are better able to regulate their emotions.

Overall, emotional literacy is a prerequisite skill to emotional regulation and at the heart of
successful interpersonal interactions. Joseph, G., & Strain, P. (n.d.). Enhancing Emotional Vocabulary in Young Children. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning – University of Colorado at Denver.
In the New York Times articles, “Are You in Despair? That’s Good,”
Lisa Barrett Barrett, L. (2016, June 5). Are You in Despair? That’s Good. New York Times.
introduced the term “emotional granularity”, which, she says, involves precisely and narrowly defining what you feel, even more than words allow.
Lisa claims that “emotion concepts [i.e. labels] are tools for living. The bigger your tool kit, the more flexibly your brain can anticipate and prescribe actions, the better you can cope with life”.

How do I get better at labelling emotions?

In the article, “A Word is a World”,
Dr. Marc Brackett Brackett, M. (2020). A Word is a World. Marc Brackett.
identifies some of the following techniques to improve your emotion labelling skills:

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Talk about emotions
Take time to talk about your own emotional experiences and to discuss a close family member or friends’ emotional experiences. Consider the emotions felt by the characters in a story, movie, or television show and try to understand what events led up to those emotional experiences.
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Be specific
Instead of saying that you are “fine” or “okay” when someone asks you how you are feeling, take a moment to pause, get a visceral sense of your underlying emotional state, and try to map your emotion on the Mood Meter. How pleasant or unpleasant are you feeling? How much energy is behind that feeling? Are you feeling excited? Enthusiastic? Hopeful? Motivated? Fine is not a feeling.
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Look it Up
Use dictionaries and thesauruses to look up definitions and synonyms for feelings that you are not familiar with.
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Read
Reading not only increases your vocabulary, but it also helps you understand another person’s emotions, develop empathy, and consider diverse perspectives.
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Write
Reflect on your experiences and write about them in a journal. Journaling can help you organize your thoughts, understand your emotions, and increase your self-awareness.
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Use the Mood Meter
Emotions are so nuanced, and it can be hard to find the words for how you are feeling. Start by recognizing the degree of pleasantness and energy you are experiencing. Then, use the Mood Meter to help you put words to your feelings. Consider where different feelings fall on the Mood Meter and where they are with respect to each other. Which feeling is higher energy? Which one is lower energy? Is the feeling more or less pleasant? How much? The mood meter is such an incredible, easily accessible tool to help you enhance your emotional literacy and granularity.
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Check-in with yourself
Schedule time throughout your day to really think about how you are feeling and why you are feeling that way. Try to be as specific as possible and to dig deeper than your natural, everyday awareness. Recognizing, understanding, and precisely labelling the feeling can help you move forward with your day in a more productive manner.

Where can I learn more?

Marc Brackett – A Word is a World

Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

RULER

What will students learn?

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to…

  • Recognize the importance of precisely labelling feelings
  • Distinguish between feelings based on their degree of pleasantness and energy
  • Enhance their emotional literacy and granularity by participating in a range of activities that involve using precise emotion words
  • Use the Mood Meter to check-in with themselves about emotional experiences and become more nuanced with labelling (and experiencing) emotions
  • Reflect on their own emotions, organize thoughts and develop self-awareness through journaling
References
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Barrett, L. (2016, June 5). Are You in Despair? That’s Good. New York Times.

Barrett, L., Gross, J., Christensen, T., & Benvenuto, M. (2001). Knowing what you’re feeling and knowing what to do about it: Mapping the relation between emotion differentiation and emotion regulation. Cognition and Emotion, 15(6), 713–724.

Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel. Celadon Books.

Brackett, M. (2020). A Word is a World. Marc Brackett.

Comrie, B. (n.d.). Language and Thought. Linguistic Society of America.

Joseph, G., & Strain, P. (n.d.). Enhancing Emotional Vocabulary in Young Children. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning – University of Colorado at Denver.

Torre, J., & Lieberman, M. (2018). Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation. Emotion Review, 10(2), 116–124.

University of California – Los Angeles. (2007, June 22). Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects In The Brain. ScienceDaily.

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