Key 1. Label it!

‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears —’

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 2

To improve my public speaking skills I became a soapbox speaker: a person who stands in a public place and talks.

The practice began millennia ago when the only way to impart ideas to the public was to stand on something and address people directly. Julius Caesar was a famous orator, or soapbox speaker, though he probably had a balcony stand on. Jesus Christ was another, though he and his contemporaries had to make do with a hillock, at best. The luxury of standing on an actual soapbox, or wooden crate, didn’t appear until the 1800s.

Public speaking continued this way for centuries. In the 1500s, in an English village called Tyburn, a popular variation developed. Once a month, the authorities would hang twenty or more prisoners, and those doomed souls were allowed, even expected, to shout a few dramatic words before their neck was stretched.

It is said that truth sits upon the lips of dying men. Those prisoners said things a person with a future dared not say: they railed against the government, the aristocracy, and against anyone else who had earned their displeasure. The speeches were so forthright and entertaining that they drew crowds, and platforms were erected to accommodate thousands of fee-paying spectators.

It was free speech in its ugliest and most pure form. ‘Dancing the Tyburn jig’ became a euphemism for being hanged.

In 1783 the Tyburn gallows were taken down, but speakers continued the tradition. The area’s name was later changed to Hyde Park (London), and people still go there to speak and listen. Speakers’ Corner, as it became known, is now a major tourist attraction.

There are Speakers’ Corners throughout the world, and I speak in Sydney’s, every Sunday. (There are four other speakers, and a few part-time speakers.) Not only have I improved my public speaking skills, I have also received valuable feedback from passers-by.

I get to say it ‘like it is’ just as those prisoners did so many years ago. There is value stating outright what we believe to be the truth. That is what this key is about: searching for the truth about how we feel, finding it, and stating it. That’s the first step in developing emotional resilience.

Recently I invited someone to dinner. I prepared the food and by 7pm everything was ready. By 7.30pm she hadn’t arrived, so I rang her. 


‘Didn’t you get my email?’ she asked me. ‘I sent it this morning.’


‘I haven’t looked at my emails’, I told her.


‘If you had, you would have known I wasn’t coming tonight.’


Through gritted teeth I said it was neglectful of her to assume I would look at my emails, and anyway, she should have rung to give me as much notice as possible, to prevent me buying unnecessary food. The rest of the conversation was brief.


When I hung up, I knew I was feeling bad. So I labelled that feeling. I said to myself, ‘I feel irritated. And betrayed. I feel unimportant.’


I had stated the emotions I was feeling. I had labelled them.


Often we don’t notice what we are feeling because we are too busy focusing on the problem. Once I knew what was happening inside me, I relaxed. It’s far easier to cope with an emotion when we are aware of it. Its intensity diminishes.


If we don’t know what we are feeling – if we don’t recognise our jealousy, humiliation, irritation, hurt or loneliness, for instance – we will be tossed about by those feelings. If we say ‘I feel like crap’ we won’t know what we are actually feeling. Those ‘blob’ words are non-specific and won’t help us. Terms like ‘I feel okay’ and ‘I feel fine’ are blob terms too; they don’t convey information or properly describe emotions.

If we don’t properly describe what we are feeling, we can lose touch with that feeling. We might be feeling lonely, but if we simply say ‘I feel lousy’ we might not become aware of that loneliness. So, we don’t get to address it. It hangs around.

People who simply say they feel ‘bad’ might be feeling afraid, but are unaware of it. Others expect to be angry, so they assume they are angry, and act in anger. They waste time and energy being angry, and don’t address the fear.

If we are not aware of an emotion, it will lead us, and influence our behaviour. We might assume we run our life, but if we are not aware of our emotions they will run the show. We will do things and wonder why on earth we did them.

If we don’t want to be a puppet led by unseen forces we need to know what we are feeling, and the best way to understand our feelings is to habitually search for what we are feeling and label it.

‘I feel irritated.’       ‘I feel apprehensive.’        ‘I feel isolated.’

We may, for instance, realise we feel annoyed. We would tell ourselves: ‘I feel annoyed.’

That’s labelling it.

Further, the expression, ‘I feel annoyed’ is more helpful than ‘I am annoyed’, as we are describing the emotions we are feeling, not defining ourselves in terms of that emotion.

Even if we don’t want to reveal to anyone what we are feeling (that can be wise sometimes!), we still need to acknowledge it to ourselves. We can think the words, ‘I feel annoyed’.

Develop the habit of labelling your emotions. For example:
 ‘I feel grumpy!’  ‘I feel pleased!’ ‘I feel afraid!’ ‘I feel powerless.’

When we are in the habit of labelling our emotions we become adept at recognising what’s happening inside ourselves. If we discover we are angry, we can figure out how we are going to express that anger. Instead of that anger leading us, we can direct it to make necessary changes. If we discover that we are afraid, we can work out what to do next. Either way, we can start making wise decisions on how to deal with what we are feeling. And, just knowing what we are feeling can reduce its intensity. When we replace our inner turmoil with the realisation that we are angry, the accompanying frustration and fear evaporate.

In short, figure out precisely what we are feeling, and label it.

It’s a good way to get to know ourselves.



‘Why would labelling an emotion reduce its intensity?’
There are various reasons:
* If you understand what emotion you are dealing with, you will feel less turmoil. (If Bill is angry, but not aware of it, he will experience turmoil and won’t know why. But when he discovers he is experiencing anger, much of the frustration and fear will evaporate because he now knows what he is dealing with.)
* Labelling an emotion can provide a similar outlet to swearing or other forms of expression.
* We may discover that our emotion is less extreme than we realised (for instance, that we are not furious, merely peeved).



‘You suggest that we use the expression “I feel annoyed” instead of “I am annoyed”. Why?’

As the psychotherapist, Gay McKinley, explains:

‘It is the subliminal message that such usage gives yourself. If I say, I feel stupid, that is valid.  It is what it is – just a feeling.  Harmless.  If I say, I am stupid, and my sense of self is robust, it may also be harmless. If my sense of self is fragile, and I say this, I am laying down and reinforcing the neural pathway in my brain that tells me I am stupid.  This is all done out of awareness.  So we need to be aware of the words that we use.  It’s okay to feel stupid; it’s pretty stupid to think that you actually are!’



‘Sometimes people ask us how we are, expecting the answer, “I’m fine, thanks.” But what if we’re not?’
In western culture this question is a standard greeting, and a form of acknowledgement. However, if the person knows you well, and is genuinely enquiring as to your wellbeing, consider being honest and accurate. For example, ‘I feel disconcerted, thanks.’

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