I want to share with you something that often comes up and it’s about emotions, feelings and labels: your emotions are your emotions; they are what you feel. And by consequence how you describe them is individual to you. In the same way mine are different from yours.
What is happy or sad for you doesn’t associate to the same thing for me. How I feel sad, the feelings of sadness are the emotions that I feel, that I’ve labeled either sad or happy.
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Naturally you’ll have done the same thing. Over time you will have labelled the feelings and given them a description – all based on your personal life experience. Feelings are 100% subjective. The labels, the descriptions we give these feelings are not universal.
I could say, “I’m happy” and you could say the same thing but what has made us happy or the emotions that we’re feeling in that moment could be vastly different.
The happy chemicals in our brain may be the same but they will not be stimulated by the same set of experiences or feelings; because it’s individual to you.
Why have I berated this point? Because understanding that we have labelled our feelings offers us one unique observation: if we have labeled certain feelings, then we have the power to change them.
When people say, “I’m scared”, how do they know they’re scared? How do they not know they’re not excited?
We’ve all had sudden feelings in the past and then labeled them and they stuck that label and the label hasn’t ever changed.
When we label emotions we restrict our experience.
When you say, “I’m scared” our brain and our body happily provide all the reasons to feel scared. It’ll release the related chemicals that induce that feeling. If instead we say, “I’m scared and excited”, you’re going to have quite a different response to the situation. When we label our emotions we restrict our experience; heck, we label other people’s emotions we can limit them too!
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Once we begin to accept we assigned the labels to our emotions, we begin the interesting acceptance that we can change them. We can change the meaning.
How do you know you’re not excited? How do you know you’re curious, a little scared and exhilarated?
An example you can try out is when we want to create a new habit, perhaps something like a new diet. Either you’ve experienced this or can imagine how it must feel, the sensation of being hungry or not full can be one that derails our best intentions. We feel hungry, we start to crave our favourite treat food and for many this feeling overwhelms us and we either break the new habit temporarily or permanently drop the diet entirely.
Yet if we reassign the meaning we give the feeling and made it the signal that said we were successfully achieving our diet or goal weight, then how would we feel? My proposition is that you’d get an uplift from feeling this. The pang becomes an affirmation that you were getting closer to your goal, the feeling would now be associated to being a successful dieter.
Let me invite you to try this, when you’re feeling strong, heightened emotions get curious and ask yourself: what else could this feeling be? What is alongside this feeling that I’ve not noticed before?
Drop inside yourself and just check: is it really fear? Maybe there’s other things inside that which are worth paying attention to? Maybe if we pay attention to them we’re not so scared, we’re not so fearful?
And importantly, as with the example about dieting, perhaps you can relabel these feelings to be more useful, more positive and ultimately more empowering. Keeping you ruling your emotions and not the other way around.
Let me know what you think down in the comments; I’d love to hear from you.
Ben Jackson coaches for personal development, leadership and transition for career parents. Juggling work, family and life in the Chilterns, he’s currently studying consecutively for a diploma in counselling and a diploma in teaching.