Emotional Intelligence

The Art of Labelling Your Feelings

August 17, 2023
4 min read


  • Understanding and expressing emotions can be challenging, leading people to avoid labelling feelings directly.
  • We often resort to vague terms like "anxious" or "stressed" without deeply considering what they really mean.
  • Feelings are complex, and improving emotional intelligence involves getting better at labelling our feelings through reflection, identifying physical cues, using emotion charts, naming emotions, journaling, mindfulness, seeking input, regular practice, and patience.
  • Creating dedicated time to reflect on feelings enhances self-awareness and overall wellbeing, forming a link between behaviours and feelings.

Feelings are hard. They are hard to control. They are hard to understand. They are hard to label.

After conducting hundreds of user interviews asking people about mental health challenges and the behaviours that cause them, we’ve learned that just about everyone has trouble translating their feelings into words.

Most people, when asked to describe their mental health, resort to describing a unique life situation that caused them duress. When pushed to label that situation with a feeling, 95% of people that we met characterised their feelings as either “anxious” or “stressed”.

How we feel shapes and colours our day. Yet, our research suggests that most of us are limited by our colour palette.   

We say we’re stressed. But are we?

Or are we actually worried?

Visual blob representing high being worried

Or restless?

Visual blob representing being restless

Uneasy? Or apprehensive?

Visual blob representing being uneasy or apprehensive

We’re always feeling something – it’s what makes us human. We use these words constantly: stressed, worried, restless, uneasy, and yet we so rarely think about what they mean for us. 

What is a Feeling?

Emotions begin as sensations in the body: a response to our interaction with the outside world. Emotions are at the core of every feeling we have, and yet an emotion is not a feeling.

Feelings, put simply, are how we interpret our emotions – and there is no one right interpretation. Our feelings are subjective. They exist for us and us alone. All we can do is try our best to communicate them.

A Thought Experiment

Imagine if you had to describe every colour you saw throughout your day, but could only use red, yellow, and blue. 

In the same way that your emotions are sensations, you see – sense – the full spectrum of colour throughout your day. You sense a near-infinite number of deep, vibrant hues and values. It feels impossible to label every colour you experience as one of red, yellow, or blue. 

What if we introduce purple into this thought experiment, or orange, or green? It gets easier. The gap between what you sense and what you describe becomes smaller. 

Colours exist on a spectrum, but to make sense of them we have to capture them in words. To commit them to words, we have to name them. We face this very same challenge with our emotions.

Labelling Feelings to Improve Emotional Intelligence

Labelling our feelings is the first step in understanding what brings us up and what brings us down. Just by naming our feelings thoughtfully and consistently, we can gain a deeper understanding of our underlying psychological states. 

When we make the distinction between restlessness and anxiety, for example, it helps us and those around us better understand our experience. When you’re anxious, maybe it helps you most to sit and talk through the feeling. When you’re restless, maybe that’s the last thing you want – maybe you need movement or a distraction. As we build this vocabulary and begin to see our feelings in different colours and shapes, it also helps us understand how others feel and how to support them better. 

Labelling feelings is an imperfect art. There is no right or wrong way to do it, but you can learn what works for you:

1. Pause and Reflect: Take a moment to pause and reflect on how you're feeling. Find a quiet space where you can focus on your emotions without distractions.

2. Identify Physical Cues: Pay attention to any physical sensations you're experiencing. Sometimes, our bodies provide clues about our emotions, such as tension, butterflies in the stomach, or a racing heart.

3. Use a Feeling Wheel: A feeling wheel or emotion chart provides a range of emotions to choose from. This can help you pinpoint more specific emotions that might match how you're feeling.

4. Name the Emotion: Try to put a name to what you're experiencing. Start with basic emotions like happy, sad, angry, or anxious. As you get more comfortable, try to identify more nuanced emotions like frustrated, content, or apprehensive.

5. Journaling: Keep a journal where you jot down your emotions regularly. Describe what happened during the day and how it made you feel. Over time, this can help you become more aware of your emotions and their triggers.

6. Practice Mindfulness: Engage in mindfulness activities, such as deep breathing or meditation. These practices can help you become more attuned to your emotions in the present moment.

7. Describe the Feeling: Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist about how you're feeling. Just by trying to communicate our emotions, we can improve our understanding of them.

8. Be Patient and Practice Regularly: Labelling feelings takes practice. Make it a habit to check in with yourself and express your emotions in words.

Labelling Your Feelings

There is no correct way to practice labelling your feelings – any of the above strategies are a step in the right direction. Just by checking in with yourself and reflecting on your feelings for a minute or two each day, you can develop a deeper connection with your emotions, and build greater self-awareness and emotional wellbeing.

At UpBeing, we believe that there is a fundamental relationship between your behaviours and your feelings. We believe that understanding this relationship is the key to improving your wellbeing and gaining control over your behaviour: a concept that is grounded in centuries of mindfulness practices. But in order to do this, we first have to be able to articulate how we are feeling.

With Gratitude,


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