I once 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 me to give me as much notice as possible, to prevent me buying unnecessary food. The rest of the conversation was brief.
After the call I felt inside me turmoil. So, I searched for the emotions I was feeling and labelled each one. I said to myself, ‘I feel annoyed. I feel betrayed. I feel belittled. I feel disappointed.’ And a few more. When I understood what I was feeling, I relaxed. I felt better.
Because it’s far easier to cope with a feeling when we know what it is.
When we don’t know what’s happening inside us, it can be scary. But when we identify each individual emotion we recognise each one. They are all familiar to us. They are the same old friends we have felt in the past.
So, the turmoil evaporates.
Furthermore, by being specific we can reduce the intensity of the emotion, like when we realise we aren’t devastated, merely disappointed.
We can also uncover emotions we didn’t realise we had. As well as feeling miffed, we might also realise we feel frustrated. Then we can begin to address that frustration.
But be specific. Don’t just say to yourself, ‘I’m feeling crap.’ The word ‘crap’ is a blob word. If you use a blob word you still won’t know precisely what you are feeling. Terms like ‘I feel okay’ and ‘I feel fine’ are blob terms too; they don’t convey enough information.
Another blob word is ‘awesome’. There are so many richer, more accurate words to describe something that pleases you than that word, and the closer you get to describing that feeling accurately, the richer life becomes.
Bad’ is another blob word. Someone who says they feel ‘bad’ might, for example, be feeling afraid, but not know it. So, they don’t address the fear.
We might be feeling lonely, but if we simply say ‘I feel lousy’ we might not become aware of that loneliness, and so we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to address it. So, it hangs around.
Avoid blob words. Be specific. If you are feeling angry, what word would you use to accurately describe that anger? Are you annoyed? Irritated? Peeved? Miffed? Vexed? Find the right word and use it.
In summary, get into the habit of labelling your emotions, and being specific. When you know precisely what you are feeling, life runs more smoothly.
Plus, there is a bonus: when we make the effort to accurately state how we feel, people appreciate the honesty and tend to take us more seriously.
Q. ‘Sometimes people ask me how I am. They expect me to answer, ‘I’m fine, thanks.’ What answer should I give them if ‘fine’ is a blob word?’
In western culture that question is a standard greeting and a form of acknowledgement, so it’s alright to use ‘I’m fine’, or just nod. However, if the person knows you well, and is genuinely enquiring into your wellbeing, be honest and accurate.
Q. ‘Why would labelling an emotion reduce its intensity?’
(1) 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.
(2) Labelling an emotion can provide a similar outlet to swearing or other forms of expression.
(3) We may discover that our emotion is less extreme than we realised. We are not furious, merely peeved.
Rolf: ‘My cat died. I feel awful.’
Beatrice: ‘Be specific.’
Beatrice: ‘What are you feeling, exactly?’
Rolf: ‘Irritated, that you’re asking me this.’
Beatrice: ‘Good. What else? How do you feel about your cat dying?’
Rolf: ‘Awful. How do you think I feel?’
Beatrice: ‘Be specific.’
Rolf: ‘Wretched – sad – angry – miserable – flat – guilty . . .’
Beatrice: ‘Good stuff.’
Rolf says he feels awful, and he’s right. But he doesn’t know precisely what he is feeling, and that can be unsettling. And, did you notice that he said ‘guilty’? He may not have been aware of that guilt before. Now he can examine his guilt and ponder about why he feels it.
Also, knowing that he feels those emotions and that they have been heard, will ease his discomfort.
Rolf’s pain is still there, but he also knows he feels wretched, sad, angry, miserable, flat and guilty – and now he has a better chance of dealing with those feelings. He won’t have to suffer the ‘noise in his head’ telling him there’s something wrong, yet not know what it is.
Mind you, being specific can have its problems:
Rolf: ‘I’m feeling discombobulated.’
Ways to be specific:
(1) Search for the word that most accurately describes what you are feeling, as we have just discussed.
(2) Don’t exaggerate or catastrophise.
Don’t use the word ‘ecstatic’ when you feel delighted.
Don’t say ‘I’m furious’ when you feel merely annoyed.
Don’t use the word ‘fantastic’ when you just feel pleased.
When we exaggerate we make a caricature of what we are feeling. That won’t help us know ourselves.
‘. . . if you develop a habit of saying you “hate” things – you “hate” your hair; you “hate” your job; you “hate” having to do something – do you think this raises the intensity of your negative emotional states more than if you were to use a phrase like “I prefer something else”?’
(Anthony Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within)
(3) Ditch hackneyed disabling expressions like these: ‘It’s all too much.’ ‘I’m freaking out.’
‘I can’t cope.’ ‘Life’s a bitch.’ ‘I am devastated.’ ‘What an absolute, total disaster.’
‘That’s typical.’ ‘That’s Murphy’s law!’ ‘I’m such an idiot.’
Using these trite and whiny expressions prompt us to feel powerless, frustrated and discouraged.
Further, they make us look powerless, frustrated and discouraged! Try instead:
‘This is unpleasant.’ ‘I dislike this.’ ‘I’m disappointed.’
These expressions will not magnify the drama like the other expressions do; instead, they will reduce the intensity of the unwanted emotion. Plus, you will see the situation in a healthier perspective.
(4) Avoid these two particular words of exaggeration: always and never
‘It always rains on my birthday.’ ‘You never do what I suggest.’
‘You always do that.’ ‘We never go out.’
‘It always happens at the last moment.’ ‘I never have any luck.’
Avoid other exaggerations too, such as everyone and no one:
‘Everyone is corrupt.’ ‘No one cares.’
Step 1. Think of a time when you felt angry.
Step 2. Do any of these words accurately describe that anger?
irritated displeased dismayed peeved exasperated irked irate perturbed annoyed miffed ruffled If not, does another word come to mind?
Step 3.Did you feel other emotions as well? Hatred? fear? stress? frustration? resentment? humiliation? Do other feelings come to mind?
Using a thesaurus, find the most accurate word to complete these sentences.
When the team I support wins, I feel …………………….
When the team I support loses, I feel ……………………….
When the team I support draws, I feel …………………………..
When someone ignores me, I feel …………………….
When someone cries, I feel ………………..
When someone praises me, I feel …………………
When someone talks about themselves all the time, I feel …………………
When someone gets mad at me, I feel …………………
When someone acts superior to me, I feel …………………
When someone is attracted to me, I feel …………………
When someone breaks a confidence, I feel …………………
When someone is late for an appointment, I feel …………………
When I am in a group of strangers, I feel …………………
When someone gives me the silent treatment, I feel …………………
(These sentences were compiled by Belinda Ballan, Sydney University)