"Name it to tame it," then make it fun

Naming your emotions

Emotions are fascinating to talk about because we have a very real, physical experience with them but at the same time they’re abstract – we can’t see or touch our emotions. The best we can do is try to describe them.

This work of naming your emotions is widely explored in everything from mindfulness to emotional intelligence research. If you’re interested in reading about it in more detail, I find Dr. Daniel Siegel’s explanations of this to be really accessible. He summarizes the concept with the phrase “name it to tame it.”

The general idea is that integration happens in your brain when you connect the reflective, thinking parts and older, more impulsive parts by describing your emotions with words. This can feel imprecise, especially at the beginning, but it’s a critical step in slowing down enough to acknowledge what’s going on inside you. When you notice how you’re feeling and give it a name, you tend to experience some immediate relief.

Create a moment of calm in the storm

For example, imagine you’re having a mess of a morning. Your toddler has spilled yogurt, hates the clean shirt you grabbed from their dresser, and while you try to convince them to get changed it feels like you can hear a giant clock ticking down every second. Now you’re running late, too! Ugh!

It’s so easy to get swept up in that emotional storm. Frustration, irritation, and worry over being late each slam into you like waves on the shore.

But rather than stand there and get pummeled, take one step back. Now, instead of washing over you, you have the space to recognize each of those emotions as they’re rolling in.

Say to yourself “I’m nervous about my meeting this morning and am feeling really on edge. I’m rushing around, upset about this yogurt because I’m worried about being late.”

In my experience, when I’m able to take that moment, the relief is almost instant. Just by clarifying what’s going on it feels like the water becomes clearer. And if I want to make a change in how I’m going to respond, it’s much easier to find a productive way forward.

Apply this technique in your relationships

This is tremendously helpful with little kids (and other adults) too.

Expanding your emotional vocabulary to cover the range and nuance of what you feel can take time, but it makes your understanding of yourself – and others! – that much more precise. If you explain your own emotions, as well as theirs, it helps them practice this skill and build their vocabulary too.

In the example above, try saying those sentences out loud to your toddler. Then add “you liked the shirt you had on and are frustrated that we have to change it.” You’ll probably get a big nod in response. Everyone likes to feel seen and understood. Once you’re on the same page, it will be much easier to move forward together.

The goal here is recognition and understanding. You can’t avoid the more challenging, uncomfortable feelings (and you shouldn’t! they’re part of the being human package set). But you can work on how you handle those feelings, both in yourself and others.

It’s like shifting from a passive state where your emotions are happening to you and might spill over into your day in any number of ways, to being more active in how you interact with that emotion.

Give stress and overwhelm the Riddikulus treatment

Recently, I like to take this one step further with a bit of silly imagery that I mentioned in last week’s post: whenever feelings of stress and overwhelm start to pop up and disrupt calmer waters, I imagine a little seal peeking its head above the surface.

It’s completely silly but it helps to take something that typically causes a rush of unpleasant emotions and turn it into something more benign – kind of like the Riddikulus spell in Harry Potter.

Wishing to never feel overwhelmed or trying to tell myself that it would be possible to get rid of that emotion forever would be unrealistic. I feel much more centered when I recognize that it will come, but it will also go. And it’s ok.

So rather than panic or try to bury it deep below the surface, when overwhelm appears I can say: hello, you. What’s brought you here today?

Give the “name it to tame it” strategy a try.

And if you think it would help, imagine an amusing form for your unpleasant feelings to take when they make an appearance. Reducing your fear of emotion can be one of the first steps in managing it.

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