Naming Our Emotions

Sometimes when I’m in a session and a client is talking about a particularly challenging topic, I might pause and ask them to connect with whatever emotions they are currently experiencing.  While therapists are often expected to ask questions like that, there can still be a resistance, almost a cringing away from the uncomfortable emotion.  I certainly understand that reaction, sitting with a difficult emotion can be unpleasant at the very least, at times it can be overwhelming. So why do therapis ts insist that their clients sit with these challenging feelings?  How is this a helpful practice?

I will be writing three parts on this topic:
Part 1 – Why is Naming our Emotions a Challenge?
Part 2 – The Benefits of Naming Emotions According to the Research
Part 3 – Emotions as Information and How to Label Them

Part 1 – Why is Naming our Emotions a Challenge?

It seems so simple- just name your feelings!  So why can it feel so challenging?  Like all things in therapy, it starts in childhood! When a child’s parents/caregivers discuss and name emotions in the household, this can benefit the child in two ways: 1. It allows the child to get a better intellectual understanding of emotions, their own and those of others  and 2. it validates their experience, providing a foundation to allow them to feel their emotions without shame.

Research has shown that discussing emotions with children has benefits (Dunn, Brown and Beardsall, 1991):  

  • discussion of feelings within the family unit influences later social behaviour
  • discussion of feelings had a positive impact on sibling relationships
  • children who had families who regularly discussed emotion were more able to accurately identify emotions in unfamiliar adults
  •  empathic caregiving by mothers was positively associated with children’s altruism and ability to repair relationships (Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow and King, 1979)

Furthermore, children with high emotional intelligence (which emotion labelling is a part of):

  • are better able to pay attention and earn higher grades (Rivers et al. 2012)
  • are more engaged in school  (Rivers et al. 2012)
  • have more positive relationships (Raver, Garner, & Smith-Donald 2007)
  • are more empathic (Raver, Garner, & Smith-Donald 2007)
  • are better able regulate their behaviours (Rivers et al., 2012)

However not everyone grew up with  parents who were capable of providing this kind of support.  Many parents have emotional struggles of their own that they are dealing with, such as childhood trauma, and may not be able to support their children because they are so disconnected from their own emotions.

While a childhood history of trauma, neglect and/or abuse is certainly a cause for someone to disconnect from emotions, I have found that an individual doesn’t necessarily have to have a trauma history to have trouble connecting to their emotions.  Simply having caregivers who are uncomfortable with their child’s experience of “negative” emotion can be invalidating.  Children are often told “don’t be sad”, “suck it up”  or when they expressed intense emotion  or were  tantruming, they were treated as though they were  being “bad” or “manipulative”.  The caregiver may not have the support or knowledge to understand their own reactions to their child’s feelings.  Telling a child not to be sad may feel like they are dealing with the child’s emotions, when really, it may be more about the distress that comes up for them when their child is upset. In the end the child feels invalidated and the message is clear – expressing emotions is not welcome here! 

We also get messages – both in childhood and adulthood- about emotions that can lead us to feel shame around both connecting with them and expressing them.  Men are told they need to be strong, and that it is weak to show sadness and vulnerability, and women are discouraged from expressing feelings of anger. Society, culture, gender, family and childhood experiences all have a role to play when it comes to our personal relationship to feelings.

In Two Weeks:  Part 2 – The Benefits of Naming Feelings According to the Research


Dunn, J., Brown, J., & Beardsall, L. (1991). Family talk about feeling states and children’s later understanding of others’ emotions. Developmental Psychology, 27(3), 448–455

Raver, C.C., P.W. Garner, & R. Smith-Donald. 2007. “The Roles of Emotion Regulation and Emotion Knowledge for Children’s Academic Readiness: Are the Links Causal?” In School Readiness and the Transition to Kindergarten in the Era of Accountability, eds. R.C. Pianta, M.J. Cox, & K.L. Snow, 121–47. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Rivers, S.E., M.A. Brackett, M.R. Reyes, J.D. Mayer, D.R. Caruso, & P. Salovey. 2012. “Measuring Emotional Intelligence in Early Adolescence With the MSCEIT-YV: Psychometric Properties and Relationship With Academic Performance and Psychosocial Functioning.” Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment 30 (4): 344–66.

Zahn-Waxler, C., Radke-Yarrow, M., & King, R. A. (1979). Child rearing and children’s prosocial initiations toward victims of distress. Child Development, 50(2), 319–330