What emotion is that?

Photo credit - Christopher Windus via unsplash.com

Photo credit – Christopher Windus via unsplash.com

Emotional intelligence – as the name suggests, is about understanding our emotional state and being able to manage it. The first step is to recognise and name your emotions. Sounds easy, but sometimes the underlying emotion can be masked. Here are some tips to help you identify your emotional state.

Psychologists suggest that naming your emotions is important as a first step in dealing with them. They call it labelling. However, many people struggle to identify accurately, what they are feeling. The most obvious emotion is not always correct.

Mis-labelling can occur for a number of reasons. It can depend on your training/socialisation. For example, if you have been taught to suppress strong emotions, you will be reluctant to label them. Sometimes the underlying emotion is more difficult to identify. It may be there but experienced more subtly.

Emotional agility

When we develop greater levels of emotional agility, it enables us to interact more successfully with ourselves and the world
~ Susan David

Being able to recognise and acknowledge the emotions you experience is important. It seems that naming the emotion, helps to explain it to yourself, and potentially puts you on a path to better managing that state. It is suggested that people who don’t acknowledge and address their emotions may display lower well-being and more physical symptoms of stress, like headaches (David, 2016).

If labelling is so important, what might be helpful is having some labels to use. Below are lists of labels that demonstrate the subtleties that can exist within an emotional state.


Source: Susan David as quoted by hbr.org

David offers three tips to get a more accurate sense of your own emotions.

  1. Broaden your emotional vocabulary
  2. Consider the intensity of the emotion
  3. Write it out

How can you broaden your emotional vocabulary?
Words are important for expressing yourself and your emotional experience(s). For a strong emotion, consider what you would call it. Try to label it with 2-3 different words that describe how you feel. Sometimes this helps you to “discover” the nuances of the emotion being experienced and helps to fine tune the identification process. The lists above are a non-exhaustive guide. Don’t stop there if nothing satisfies you. Delve deeper and extract from within yourself or from other sources (dictionary/Google searches) the words that match your experience.

Consider the intensity of your emotion
Within the lists offered above, there are words that offer different degrees of intensity. For example:

angry → grumpy, frustrated, annoyed, defensive, spiteful, impatient, disgusted, offended, irritated

Impatient and disgusted give rise to different degrees of anger. They also hint at the reason behind the emotion, providing more scope for understanding it. After determining the appropriate label(s), David suggests rating it on a scale eg 1-10. She suggests this helps to identify the depth of feeling experienced, and the urgency or strength of it. It is a process of selecting a label, testing it on yourself and either keeping or changing it to a better term that is more apt.

Write it out
Research suggests there is a link between writing and emotional processing. What does that mean? That writing things down helps you process them. The research suggests that there are benefits to your well-being from doing this. The things that have helped people are writing things like:

I have learned …
It struck me that …
The reason that …
I now realise …
I understand …

The writing process allows people to gain a new perspective on their emotions and potentially understand them more clearly. This works for many things – as I have suggested in this blog previously about keeping a gratitude journal. 

The value in keeping a journal is in the reflection process. Reflection is an important activity that not everyone engages in. You can do it without writing things down, but the deliberateness of the writing process enhances thought processes and sort of formalises it a bit more.

Susan David suggests the following reflection activity can be used on a daily basis or just on a needs basis when you are going through a rough time.

  • Set a timer for 20 minutes

  • Write about your emotional experiences from the past week, month, or year (use a notebook or computer)

  • Don’t worry about making it perfect or readable: go where your mind takes you

  • At the end, you don’t have to save the document; the point is that those thoughts are now out of you and on the page. However, if you do you can look back at your notes at a later point in time and see how things have changed, how you have grown or progressed things.
    (David, 2016)

The net effect

When you understand what you are feeling, you are better able to manage it and manage the effects on others. The process of recognising your emotional state and naming it goes a long way towards being able to do something about it.

What sort of world would we live in if we were all emotionally intelligent? What would we be able to achieve if our emotions could be acknowledged and managed? Lots more that we achieve currently, I think! What do you think?


David, Susan. 2016. 2 Ways to Better Understand Your Emotions www.hbr.org 10 November 2016

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