The Power of Naming Your Emotions


Have you ever experienced your child having big emotions that feel overwhelming to both your child and you? Especially if you are still in your toddler era, you are probably familiar with really big emotions, and sometimes it’s over a banana. If you’ve ever tried to quickly persuade your child to ‘feel differently’ you’ve probably learned that it doesn’t work–or it potentially made things worse. So what do we do with these big emotions when they surface in ourselves and our children? The best advice I can give you is to name your emotions, sit with them and navigate them.

In Latin, the word emotion comes from the root word motere, which means “to move”. An emotion is a series of chemical processes that happen in your body from a trigger. The purpose is to produce a survival behavior. From your ’emotional response’ begins a feeling, that feeling turns into a thought, and that thought produces a behavior. Of course, this all happens rather quickly sometimes. These emotions serve as information and help us communicate with others. If we are going to experience our emotions, the first thing we must do is accurately name the emotion we are experiencing.

When we name our emotions, we are able to observe them without judgment, separate them from who we are and accept them. With proper naming of our emotions, we are able to avoid being completely hijacked by our feelings because we notice that we are separate from these emotions. We aren’t judging these emotions as good or bad, they just are. There is benefit in our specificity as we name our emotions because it informs us of what is needed to cope with them. If are able to be more specific with ourselves than, “I’m feeling bad” and enter into specific naming by saying “I’m feeling anger and sadness” then we have far more information into what we may need to navigate our emotions.

By naming our emotions, we can begin to sit with them. I like to imagine some sort of Freudian conversation taking place within myself that always includes a couch and an armchair. The conversation within goes something like this:

“I’m feeling anger and sadness”
“Wow, anger is a really powerful emotion that usually signals there has been some sort of violation. What happened that made me feel threatened? Sadness tells us to slow down and make room to cope with the loss of something. What have I lost that is causing all this sadness?”

By beginning to explore and answer these questions, by sitting with my experience, non-judgmentally and with curiosity, I am gaining the wisdom and information to take action and communicate effectively. Not only am I gaining critical information, I am also creating space to experience my emotions. We live in an age where we rely heavily on our thinking, intellectual brain. However, science tells us that our bodies do most of its experiencing unconsciously and through chemical, electrical and hormonal processes. Sigmund Freud said that “the mind is like an iceberg that floats with 1/7th of its bulk above water.” Unexpressed emotions have a way of piling up in our bodies, they don’t go away if we don’t metabolize them. Give yourself and your children permission to experience them.

The purpose of emotions is not simply to name them and experience them. The purpose is ‘to move’ us into action–to navigate them. So the question becomes, what are my emotions telling me that I want and need? Going back to our example of anger and sadness, my emotions are telling me that there has been a violation and a loss. What am I experiencing that my body is telling me I am actually unwilling to tolerate? How can I go about taking action to remediate this violation? What is it that I feel I am losing? How can I either take action to prevent this loss or begin to grieve the loss I am experiencing? How can I care for myself in the midst of this violation and loss?

As we practice doing this for ourselves, we can model it and coach our children through it as well. When your toddler is absolutely losing it over the banana, what injustice are they experiencing? How can you support your children into giving them the control and independence to “peel the banana” exactly as they want it peeled? What perspective can we help them take to draw them out of their narrow focus? How can we coach them to name their emotion: “I am so angry you peeled my banana”, sit with their feeling to gain information: “I wanted to peel my banana” and navigate them toward appropriate action: “Mama, please let me peel my banana next time.”

Life isn’t always bananas, but I hope you can see what is available when we name, sit with and navigate our emotions. An important part of this practice is that with proper naming, experiencing and navigating, we are living in acceptance of the realities of our situation. Rather than pretending or fantasizing, when we live in honest acceptance of what’s happening we can actually begin to take actions to change our experience. Acceptance allows us to pursue effective change rather than getting stuck in judgments and trying to fight reality. So the next time your child is experiencing big emotions, support them with the powerful process of naming their emotions, sitting with their feelings and navigating them toward appropriate action.


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