Have you ever asked a significant other about how his or her day went and received a frustratingly vague “fine” in return as a response? This leaves you not only in the dark about the details of their day, but also stuck behind an emotional wall, struggling to get in.
The truth is, it’s difficult for many of us to communicate—to authentically share and articulate—how we feel. Having been misunderstood in the past, it’s also no wonder why many of us struggle to feel comfortable sharing our feelings with others.
Yet, a major part of emotional intelligence and building deep, meaningful relationships entails understanding and conveying your feelings and needs effectively, then addressing them in constructive ways that avoids miscommunication, smooths over conflict, and keeps the conversation moving forward.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Most of us are never taught emotional literacy, the ability to accurately explain our feelings, so we often have a hard time getting in touch with the good, the bad, and the ugly. And when we’re not aware of our emotions, it’s more difficult to master them. Instead, we opt for vague surface-level descriptors like, “I’m fine,” “I’m OK,” which don’t come close to explaining the highly complex, nuanced emotions we all feel every day.
Happily, emotional labeling is a skill that can be developed.
The Importance of Emotional Labeling
Being able to accurately identify and label emotions is incredibly essential for well-being. In fact, the more specific you can be about your inner experience, the better you’re able to create a plan to resolve or work on issues. Think of it like a recipe: by labeling what you’re feeling, you’ll be able to enjoy a fuller breadth of emotional “flavors” that make up the human experience.
Knowing the vocabulary available to describe your emotions, referred to as “emotional labeling,” can help you become more aware of the intricacies of what you’re feeling, communicate effectively with those around you, and regulate reactions in a healthy, productive way.
For example, have you ever thought you felt angry at someone but then after talking about it, realized you felt something deeper than anger – you felt deep betrayal? Recognizing this and labeling it accurately shows a heightened awareness of your emotions, and in turn means you can master it proactively, rather than fall victim to an explosive emotional reaction.
Emotional intelligence is all about being mindful of your feelings and your responses to them, so emotional labeling is an important part of cultivating EQ. An emotionally intelligent person can come home from a long day at work and identify she’s feeling overwhelmed, which is much more specific and actionable than describing her mood as “bad”. Rather than stewing in a pervasive, unpleasant emotion, unsure of what to do to make it better, she can leverage her awareness to address the feeling of being overwhelmed, such as delegating housework in order to focus on urgent work matters or making sure she sets a strict bedtime to log much-needed sleep.
For the emotionally intelligent person, this self-awareness has a direct correlation to one’s ability to manage, control and adapt their reactions and moods to successfully navigate relationships, resolve conflict, lead, and negotiate. Emotional labeling enables the professional woman in our example to not only communicate to her partner that she’s feeling stretched thin, tired, and restless because of work, but also helps her appropriately express this and ask for space for the evening. On the other hand, if she came home and said, “I’m so stressed!” without really getting in touch with her needs, miscommunication could follow, descending the evening into a downward spiral filled with arguing. Being able to pinpoint and articulate what she’s feeling is critical to making the dynamic between them more positive and allowing no one to feel attacked or blamed.
The Emotional Labeling Toolkit
Increasing your emotional intelligence and mastering difficult conversations all starts with paying more attention to and more accurately articulating what you’re feeling. When it comes down to it, there are literally thousands of words available to you to identify your feelings. The trouble is, we’re so used to saying things like, “ugh I’m so mad!” “I’m bummed out,” or “Aw I’m so happy!”—or just typing an emoji onto a screen—that we’re not as literate in what these emotional labels are.
To get started, download the emotions table worksheet below, which has dozens of words you can use as a cheat sheet to have more successful, productive conversations and communicate more effectively at work, love, and at home.