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Control Emotions Better by Labeling Them

When we want to control emotions better in the midst of a difficult conversation, we may try to ignore the unwelcome emotion or try the opposite, indulge it. These approaches don’t work very well in the face of incapacitating emotions. But something else does: Give the emotion a name.

When we’re emotionally swamped, it’s really difficult to bring our better selves to the very conversation that contributed to our emotional state. Trying to ignore an overwhelming and unwelcome emotion tends to put our good skills slightly out of reach right when we need them most.

Out-of-control emotions can make smart people stupid.

On the other hand, indulging the distressing emotion doesn’t work very well either. Rumination, the act of focusing on angry feelings, for example, has been shown to increase both angry feelings and displaced aggression.

Rumination is the worst thing that you can do, because you’re just mentally rehearsing the wrong in your mind.

There’s middle ground between trying to ignore a strong emotion and indulging it. And that middle ground has a name:

Affect labeling

Affect labeling is the simple act of noticing and putting a name to an emotion. It appears that just recognizing and naming an emotion can have a powerful effect on quelling it.

Psychology professor Matthew Lieberman, author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, and colleagues noticed that when research subjects were asked to label a strong emotion, they showed less activity in the amygdala and greater activity in a region of the brain associated with vigilance and discrimination.

Putting negative feelings into words can help regulate negative experience.

In essence, the act of noticing and labeling a strong emotion seems to engage our executive brain, transform the emotion into an object of scrutiny, and disrupt the intensity.

Lieberman’s research was conducted over a decade ago, but the idea of affect labeling — and the research supporting it — has stood the test of time. In 2018, a team of researchers led by Rui Fan and John Bollen even turned to Twitter to take affect labeling research out of the lab and into the everyday world.

Bollen, Fan, and colleagues identified 42,000 English language tweets expressing a “positive” emotion (e.g., “I feel happy”) and more than 67,000 tweets expressing a “negative” emotion (e.g., “I feel angry”). They then analyzed the emotional content of tweets by those authors in the six hours before and the six hours after the affect labeling tweets.

The researchers found that affect labeling had a calming effect on both positive and negative emotions, with negative emotions calming more rapidly after the “I feel…” statements. The impact of affect labeling appeared more pronounced for women than men, particularly for negative emotions

Just saying the words “I feel bad” almost immediately brought emotions back down to the baseline.

Here are ways to use affect labeling to help yourself or others in the midst of a difficult conversation.

Using affect labeling to help yourself

Lieberman suggests three ways to use affect labeling to quell a strong emotion of your own:

Think about it

Have a quick, silent conversation with yourself. It might go something like this: What emotion am I feeling right now? Huh. Yep, that’s it: Exasperation.

Write about it

Not only do people who write about intensely emotional experiences show improvements in objective measures of health, but writing is also a very effective way to boost your performance in pressure-filled situations.

Verbalize it

You don’t have to exit the difficult conversation to use this emotion-controlling device. Experiment with labeling your emotional state out loud and be careful not to use it as a weapon. Just state it simply, like this: I’m realizing I’m pretty exasperated right now.

Using affect labeling to help others

The last thing someone angry wants to hear is another person judging them for their anger (click to tweet). So tread carefully when using this idea with someone else. Here’s how to do it with finesse:

Option 1: Ask, don’t tell

Since none of us can possibly know for sure what nuanced emotion someone else is feeling, it’s far better to ask than assume. Asking might sound something like this: You sound pretty frustrated. Is that right?

Even more simply, ask, What emotion are you feeling right now?

Option 2: Talk privately

Professional mediators often use a private meeting, aka caucus, to check out something that’s better discussed outside the hearing of other participants. In a private meeting I might say something like, Tell me what’s going on for you right now or My sense is that the conversation is doing some serious button pressing right now. Am I off the mark?

Since the goal here isn’t only to discuss what’s frustrating them, but also to teach the use of affect labeling, I may do a bit of coaching here as well: There’s good evidence that actually saying out loud the emotion we’re experiencing helps us keep our balance better. In that spirit, what emotion are you feeling right now?

This post was originally published in May 2015 and updated in 2019 to reflect recent research.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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