Why labelling an emotion (correctly) is important.

What is the reason you go to your Doctor when you are experiencing some symptoms?

The simple answer is that you want him (or her) to diagnose what is going on and offer some suggestions about how best to “treat” whatever it is that your symptoms suggest needs attention.

Your symptoms are a window into a process that is taking place in your body.

Simply put, here is the process:

Symptoms ==> Diagnosis ===> intervention

The diagnosis is a label.

The point of a correct diagnosis is that it should lead to a treatment.

In other words, if you don’t know what you are looking at, you can’t give it a label.  If you can’t give it a label, you have no idea how to treat it.

I recently experienced a red rash on my legs that itched like crazy.  Because I did not like waking up at night wanting to scratch my legs, I went to my primary care physician.

He looked at the rash and told me I had “idiopathic pruitis”.

While this sounds very scientific, what these words mean is that I had an itch (pruitis) that he did not know the cause of (idiopathic). In other words, he put a fancy label on my symptoms which did not allow him to do anything else.

In this case, the label was rather useless and did not lead to any recommended treatment.

He implied that it was nothing and that it would quickly go away.

It didn’t.

So, i went to a Dermatologist (skin specialist) who told me that my doctor’s diagnosis was incorrect.  I did not have an unidentifiable “itch”.  I had a seasonal heat rash on my legs. I don’t remember his official diagnosis.  However, based on his diagnosis, he prescribed an ointment and the problem was eliminated.

In this case, the process was very straight forward. The correct label resulted in the choice of an effective response.

But, think about a fever or other “non-specific” symptom.

Here the process is not always so clear. Yes, the symptom tells you that there is something going on in your body but much more information is needed before you can correctly determine what is going on and what intervention is required.

Have you ever had a symptom about which you were concerned and either gone into see your doctor, visited an urgent care center, or, perhaps, consulted with a “practitioner” by phone and were told that there was nothing to worry about?

I have.

The process is similar regarding your emotions.

It is a bit of a stretch and not completely accurate but you could think of your emotions as your symptoms reflecting your underlying perceptions.

I need to point out here that most of this post focuses on correctly labeling your own emotions so that your actions in any given situation are effective in addressing what is happening to you.

It is equally important, if an emotion is directed at you, that you attempt to correctly label that emotion.  Doing so gives you an opportunity to choose how you want to interact with someone who is anxious around you, angry at you, or envious of you.

Your emotions tell you something may be going on  in your environment.

The key to using your emotions as tools or mastering someone else’s emotions, is understanding that emotions are a window into their world and how they are perceiving what is going on between you.

Your emotions alert you to how you are perceiving what is happening to you but much more information is needed before you can decide what you need to do. They are your “early warning system”.

The fact is that you are hardwired to scan your surroundings for any threat and to subconsciously react to that threat. This process is facilitated by and communicated to you through your emotions.

Mastering your emotions involves understanding the function of emotions, correctly identifying the emotion you are experiencing by starting with the physical signs in your body, analyzing the information your emotions make available to you  including your thoughts, and using this information to choose an effective response to the situation in which you find yourself.

Put another way…

In order to master your emotions as tools, it is critical that you learn how to correctly identify the physical signs in your body that represent each emotion and correctly label the emotion so that you can accurately assess your situation and choose an effective response.

Why is it critical that you learn to correctly label your emotions?

You might make the argument, regarding anger, that emotions are self-evident so labeling is no big deal.

In other words, “if it looks like anger, it must be anger”.

Well, the truth is, while anger often is easily recognizable when it is experienced as a “primary” emotion, there are many times when anger is expressed as a secondary emotion.  When this happens, the “anger” you see (or express) may actually be indicative of hurt, anxiety, a sense of weakness, or vulnerability.

For those of you who are “regulars” to this blog, you know that anger is one of 6 primary emotions.  The primary emotions can be seen in all human cultures and many subhuman species.  If you have kids, you will have noticed the primary emotions “shortly” after your infant was born.

The primary emotions are mad, sad, glad, fear, disgust, and surprise.

Many writers have tried to label anger as a secondary emotion.

A secondary emotion is one that substitutes for another emotion.  So, if I am really feeling anxiety but I show you anger, anger is a secondary emotion that I am choosing to display because I don’t want you to know that I am really nervous or anxious.

Sometimes, anger will be used as a secondary emotion by men because men do not want to appear “weak”.  Women may avoid anger and substitute another feeling because it may not be safe, culturally accepted, or situationally “appropriate” for a woman to express anger.

Anger can also be used instrumentally.  When this happens, the display of anger is used to manipulate you into taking some action including backing off, giving in, or surrendering.  I may look angry but I’m actually just determined to “force” you into doing what I want you to do.  My anger is a weapon I’m using on you.

Your feelings are your symptoms.

You need to learn how to “read” your body.

The message of the feelings are the diagnosi.s

Your initial emotional reaction only tells you how you first perceive what is happening to you.  It may, or may not, be accurate.

Your choice of adaptive action is your intervention.

Take a look at the list below. You can find many different lists by googling “feelings list”. This is just one I came across. It is neither unique nor representative.  It is just an example.

While the basic emotion is “afraid”, there is a clear distinction between “apprehensive”, “suspicious”, “worried” and “terrified”. You might choose to respond differently to someone about whom you are worried than you would someone about whom you are suspicious.

I think you get the point.

And, someone else’s reaction toward you would also vary with their perception of you.

Image result for feelings list pdf

In summary, then,  you can’t be sure about the response you choose to  exhibit toward another person until you can be sure that the emotion you are experiencing correctly matches the situation in which you find yourself and you have correctly labeled that emotion.

When you do this, you have mastered that emotion.  And this, emotional mastery, is the goal you are seeking.