Labeling Emotions and Thoughts

This month's Skill of the Month is sort of a two-in-one. These two skills are somewhat separate but at the same time work together. Labeling emotions is a really fairly easy skill but an important part of many other skills. As you might imagine, this skill is simply to state "I feel (whatever emotion you're currently experiencing)." Why is this so helpful?

Many times, we don't really think about how we're feeling, we just feel. Stating that you feel a certain way helps you to identify what it is you're feeling. You might not think merely stating how you feel is particularly helpful but doing so has another impact--it creates a moment of distance from the feeling. You have to shift from the feeling to the thinking part of your brain in order to put the feeling into words. In order to do this, you have to look at it more objectively and for the briefest moment, you distance yourself from feeling it as you name it. It also appears to help, therefore, to reduce negative feelings just a bit. It also is self-validating. When we state the fact that "I feel ____________" we are accepting the reality that the feeling exists within us and that we're experiencing it at the moment. We validate our own experience of the feeling. Stating "I feel angry" can be the first step in determining what is causing the anger--what thoughts are going along with that feeling?

Labeling thoughts is an important skill for everyone, especially when we're engaging in negative thinking. As with labeling emotions, when we have to move from the experience of something into the description of it, we create distance. We are required to look at it from a different point of view. Many people don't really think about labeling their thoughts--most of us just have thoughts and that's it--but our thoughts affect our emotions so many times it's not true that "that's it." I'm advocating that you begin to think about your thoughts as just thoughts. So you might think to yourself "I am not going to pass this test!" If you can immediately say "I just had the thought that I would not pass this test" it changes it from the experience of anxiety, caused by the thought that I wouldn't pass the test, to something that I can begin to challenge. To take this a step further, then, I can say "I just had the thought that I'm not going to pass the test. Is this a true statement, though? I can't really foresee the future. I don't know without a doubt that I won't pass the test. I did study some, although perhaps not as much as I would have liked, but I'll just do the best I can." You see, in this example the thought that "I am not going to pass this test" as with most thoughts that we have, can go unchallenged and therefore "believed". Then we face the so called self-fulfilling prophesy. 

As you can probably tell, this is a skill I recommend especially to my anxious clients. Let's look at both skills together with the example I alluded to earlier, anger.

If I am having an argument with someone and I begin to get angry, I recommend my clients to--at the first sign of anger--excuse themselves from the situation temporarily. I recommend saying to the other person "I am feeling rather upset at this moment so let's take a ten minute breather. We'll both be able to think more clearly. Let's meet back in 15 minutes." (or something like that depending on the circumstances.) If you find that you cannot do this, see if you can just say "You know what, I need to use the restroom. When I get back, we can continue the conversation." The restroom is a wonderful aide! Its the one room that you can go in by yourself, lock the door, and be relatively undisturbed for at least a few minutes! Most people don't want to prevent you from using it either! So use it! I recommend my clients to keep a pad of paperand a pencil in a drawer in their bathroom so that you can use the time to prepare for the continuation of a stressful situation.

The next step, when you've managed to get yourself out of the stressful situation for a moment, is to label the emotion. "I am feeling angry." Next, label your thoughts "I had the thought that this person is being extremely unreasonable and unfair to me." Then perhaps you can see if the situation can be looked at from the other person's perspective and determine if there are compromises to be made. Notice that in this situation, the thought that the person is being unreasonable and unfair is going relatively unchallenged. Perhaps that is true! What about if the thought is "this person said this thing which means he thinks I'm a bad mother." In that situation, we would need to examine the thought and challenge it unless the person specifically stated that I'm a bad mother.

These skills can be used for all thoughts and emotions but it is most beneficial for the times when we're experiencing  negative emotions (frustration, sadness, anxiety, etc.) and unhelpful thoughts. It can be a laborious process to look at our thoughts and emotions and see how they impact one another, but until we label them, we cannot doing much about them. These two skills, therefore, form the cornerstone of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.