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How to Identify Your Emotions

By Lifestance Health on June 17, 2021

How are you?

It’s a question you may hear nearly every day, but how often do you give an honest and accurate answer? Chances are that you usually answer with something like “Fine!” or “Good!” Some people may occasionally admit they are “not great” or “a little under the weather.”

But people rarely give an accurate answer to this routine question. It’s likely not because anyone is trying to be dishonest, but rather because most people are not skilled at naming their emotions.

Emotional identification is a foundational skill for anyone who wants to improve their mental health. Like any skill worthwhile, it takes practice and intention. However, learning to name your feelings is the first step in moving through those emotions in a healthy way.

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Be Specific

When asked to describe their feelings, many people use words like sad, mad, happy, or fine. While this may be a good start, experts recommend being more specific and descriptive when you’re trying to identify your feelings.

For example, if you would say that you feel sad, try to dig a little deeper and find out what kind of sadness you’re experiencing. Are you lonely, heartbroken, regretful, or hopeless? If your first thought is that you are mad, try to get more specific. You might be resentful, defensive, livid, or disgruntled.

Don’t just be specific when identifying uncomfortable emotions; try the same techniques with positive feelings too. Instead of saying that you’re happy, you may say you’re calm, fulfilled, excited, or refreshed.

You don’t have to be great with words to start practicing this skill. Mental Health America has an excellent worksheet with hundreds of specific emotions from which you can choose.

Notice Physical Effects of Emotions

While we typically think of emotions as something our minds experience, strong emotions can have effects on our bodies as well. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is when people experience emotional heartbreak, they can often feel it in their physical hearts as well.

When you try to identify your feelings, take a moment to notice where you feel the emotion in your body. For example, if you’re stressed, you may feel the tension in your jaw or heartburn in your chest. If you’re nervous, you may feel it in your stomach.

Sometimes, emotions can show up in unexpected ways in the body as well. Clear all expectations of where you feel emotions in the physical body and just check in with yourself.

Ask Plenty of Questions

Sometimes naming the emotion can be incredibly complicated. The first feeling that comes up may not be the foundational issue. It may be hard to find the feeling in your body. Or there may be too many emotions to easily sort through.

Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions about your emotions during this process. You don’t have to have all the answers immediately. Sometimes just asking the question can help quite a lot.

When identifying your emotions, you may ask questions like:

  • Is there something happening in my life to cause this shift?
  • How are the relationships in my life?
  • Am I missing something that I need, like sleep or adequate nutrition?
  • How long have I been feeling like this?

You may also question the first emotion that you identify. For example, you may say, “Is this really anger, or am I nervous?”

Be Intentional With Your Phrasing

Throughout the process of identifying your emotions, be sure to use “I feel” rather than “I am.” You are not your emotions. You are a fully realized person who feels emotions.

Furthermore, remember that whatever feeling comes up won’t be there forever. Emotions are transient. They will come and go. But this new skill of yours will stay with you through it all.

You're not alone.
Our providers can help.

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