Emotions are complicated. When we are teaching young children about their emotions, one of the first things we do is help them expand their emotional vocabulary. It is important that kids have a lot of feelings words in their vocabulary, beyond simply happy, sad and mad. This is because what we feel at any given moment is rarely simple. Having an expanded vocabulary helps us articulate what we are feeling.

It is no surprise that the older we get, the more complex our emotions become. An as adults, we don’t always take the time to identify exactly what we are feeling, and why we are feeling it. This is an important step in being emotionally intelligent and taking care of our own mental health.

Let’s give an example we can all relate to.

Imagine that you’ve arrived at work after a rough morning. Pick any three things that could go wrong on a given morning: the alarm didn’t go off, you were out of coffee, your toddler threw a tantrum on the way out the door, you spilled on your work outfit and had to change, you hit terrible traffic on the drive to work, you read a stressful email on your phone, etc. It’s one of those mornings.

Now, you show up to work. Someone asks you a question and you just lose it. You react in an uncharacteristic way, by raising your voice or being snarky or sarcastic or rude. The person asks if you’re okay and you say, “I’m having a bad morning.”

Here’s where it’s important to figure out exactly what feeling is underneath and why you’re feeling it. When you’re a little more calm, you can go to a quiet place and reflect. It’s possible you’re feeling:

  • Anxious, because the email you read mentioned something coming up that you're note sure how to manage
  • Guilty, because your toddler has been crying at daycare drop off every day this week and you feel like a bad parent
  • Angry, because your partner promised to buy more coffee and didn't
  • Ashamed, because how hard is it to remember to set an alarm

And maybe you’re feeling none, or all, of these emotions. But whatever it is, once you identify what you’re feeling, you can address the root issue, rather than lose it on an unsuspecting co-worker.

Dr. Dan Siegel calls this “name it to tame it”. When we can name the emotion, we can tame the emotion. If we label the emotions above as a “bad morning”, there’s not much we can do about that. But if we say, “Actually, I feel anxious about this email I received.” Then we can take steps to manage the anxiety, by gathering more information or asking for help.

This same lesson applies to children as well. When a child has a rich feelings vocabulary, she can (with practice) begin to say, “I felt upset that John kicked the ball during the soccer game, I was just about to shoot and try to score!” rather than, “I am MAD!!” The latter – not so helpful. The former, however, we can work with.

Naming our emotions is a great tool that we can improve with practice. And it’s something we can easily teach children, by providing them with a robust vocabulary of feelings words and helping them use them appropriately when the time comes. 

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