Naming emotions can be hard, especially if a person has experienced abuse, neglect, and trauma. In traumatic situations, there is not room for emotions, only room for fight-flight-freeze survival responses. Acknowledging emotions is vulnerable, too, as emotions can be exploited. Emotions are a pathway for connection with other humans, though. Emotions help identify relational needs and promote bonding. For these reasons (and many others), people may want to get in touch with their feelings, but how? Connecting with one’s inner life is not a one time experience, but rather a step-by-step process.
Getting in touch with one’s emotions first requires safety: physical, mental, and emotional safety. The brain cannot engage its thinking part if it is threatened. If emotions will be exploited by others, they cannot be acknowledged. Both children and adults need their basic needs met and safe relationships in order to start connecting with emotions.
Many people us the words “emotions” and feelings interchangeably, but technically, emotions and feelings are different. Emotions are unwilled, automatic, subconscious or conscious experiences (Wake Forest University, n.d.). Feelings, are just that, how the emotions feel in the body. One way to begin to build emotional fluency, then, is to bring awareness to the body. When different events happen, what happens in the body? Tears? Tension? Tussling? Researchers have actually found that certain emotions have certain feelings in the body (Nummenmaa, Glerean, Hari, & Hietanen, 2013). Adults might benefit from printing out feeling body charts as they start on the path to emotional fluency. Children may want to use a doll or draw to express when they have feelings. Beginning to recognize feelings, even if not yet naming emotions, is a step in the right direction.
Adults and children may also benefit from using strategies such as the zones of regulation or engine plates. Leah Kuypers (2021) developed the Zones of Regulation as a self-regulation tool. It uses colors to demonstrate how emotions are manifesting in the body. In the blue zone, energy is low, sometimes associated with feelings such as sadness. The green zone is just right, not too high or low, sometimes associated with happiness. Yellow is associated with discomfort, and red with having too much energy in the body, sometimes from anger, sometimes from hyperactivity and/or excitement. There are no bad zones, just zones that raise awareness of the current state, and then skills to use in each state. Trust Based Relational Intervention simplifies the zones into “engine plates” (Carter, n.d.). Engine plates only have blue, green, and red sections, and frame the body as an engine which they encourage children to monitor to see how it is running (Fregin, 2020). Again, this is a way to start recognizing the presence of emotions, even if not naming them specifically.
How, then, can individuals go from recognizing emotions, to naming them? First, it takes defining the emotions. As a therapist, I usually define happiness as feeling, “good,” sadness as missing something important, and anger as feeling that something is “not right” for starters. Once these emotions are defined and mastered, people can use tools such as the Lindsay Braman’s Emotion Sensation Feeling Wheel (2020) to recognize and define other, more nuanced feelings. Movies like Inside Out (2015) that depict emotions as inward and outward experiences may also help. Ultimately, therapy with a licensed professional may be a way to further unravel and differentiate between feelings and emotions and their manifestations.
Gaining emotional fluency takes steps. It also takes practice. For adults and older children, practice might look like writing about emotions and feelings in their journal. For younger children, it might look like drawing their feeling faces at different times of the day. Further work may include identifying causes (also known as triggers) for different feelings. A trained therapist can also help with this.
Does emotional fluency come easily? No. Emotional fluency is especially hard for people who have encountered trauma. Emotion fluency can be learned however, day by day, step by step. When practiced, emotional fluency can benefit individuals in their everyday lives, and their relationships overall, leading to a happier, healthier life.
Braman, L. (2020, March 29). Emotion sensation feeling wheel handout. Lindsay Braman. https://lindsaybraman.com/emotion-sensation-feeling-wheel/
Carter, V. (n.d.). The emotional awareness meter. Raised in the Field. https://raisedinthefield.com/blog/bvq1knx70zg65b6ncp8ouu89lnmmfs
Fregin, H. (2020, June 19). Using an engine plate. Epic. https://www.4kids.us/blog/engineplates
Kuypers, L. (2021). All the zones are OK! Tips for managing the zones you’re in. Social Thinking. https://www.socialthinking.com/Articles?name=all-the-zones-are-ok
Nummenmaa, L., Glerean, E., Hari, R., & Hietanen, J. K. (2013). Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(2), 646–651. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1321664111
Rivera, J. (Producer), & Docter, P., & Del Carmen, R. (Directors). (2015). Inside out. [Motion picture]. USA: Walt Disney Pictures.
Wake Forest University. (n.d.). The difference between feelings and emotions. https://counseling.online.wfu.edu/blog/difference-feelings-emotions/