Name That Feeling

Reading your emotions takes practice

March 22, 2020

This week, I’ve asked my friend Marc Brackett to share his tip of the week. As our country deals with the coronavirus, his advice is particularly timely. Be well.

About 10 years ago, I was suffering from acid reflux and blamed it on work stress. When I went to my doctor, he said, “Welcome to the professor’s life.” Then he said, “Take some Prilosec for the heartburn, and I’ll prescribe you some anti-anxiety medication to alleviate the stress.”

But I wondered whether medicating my stress was the right decision. Was my problem truly anxiety, or was it something else? How could the director of a center for emotional intelligence not be aware of his own feelings? Just because I knew the science didn’t mean I was practicing it.

So I asked myself a few questions: What was I really feeling? What might I have been reacting to?

Was I stressed? Stress is a response to adverse or very demanding circumstances. That wasn’t my problem. I was able to get all of my work done pretty well.

Was I anxious? Anxiety is worry about future uncertainty and the inability to control what will happen to you. That wasn’t my issue.

Perhaps I was feeling pressure? Pressure is when you perceive that something at stake is dependent on your performance. Nope. That wasn’t it, either.

Finally, I realized I was “stressed” because I was taking on too many commitments. I was fully booked from early morning until late at night (including squeezing in a yoga class most evenings). I had no time to breathe—I was overwhelmed!

Naming my actual feeling was liberating. Why? Because it clarified the situation and gave me a path forward. The only way I’d feel less stress was to take things off my plate.

When I cut back a little on my work obligations and scheduled downtime in the evenings with my family, my stress levels and acid problems subsided.

As our lives are upended by the coronavirus, understanding our feelings is more important than ever.

Don’t assume the first word you or your child comes up with to describe a feeling is the accurate one.

Do ask questions to better understand and label your feelings.
Identifying them—without judgment—helps you express and regulate them, which leads to healthier relationships and greater well-being. Here are more tips for managing emotions in these uncertain times.

With the wisdom of emotion and gratitude,

About the author

Marc Brackett, the author of Permission to Feel, is the founder and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Study Center of Yale University.