Emotional intelligence: the potential value (and potential cost) of identifying and naming what we're feeling
Last updated on 21st September 2014
"Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” Rainer Maria Rilke "Letters to a young poet".
I'm a member of a recently established discussion group. We take turns hosting the meetings and deciding what subject area we'll focus on. At our first get-together last month we talked about values, particularly the values we personally try to live by (see the blog posts " ... inspiration from values" and "Purpose in life: reduces dementia risk, increases life expectancy, treats depression and builds wellbeing". We met again a couple of days ago ... lovely ... tea and conversation. Opening up. I don't know most of the other members at all well, so it's particularly fascinating hearing them explore important issues deeply, vulnerably, insightfully ... and also good to try to do this myself. Our hostess at this weekend's gathering had suggested we focus on "Learning our true names". She had sent out a series of papers and poems. One area she mentioned is the power of actually naming something, writing "In some traditions of magic, there is a power within the naming, and learning someone's 'true name' might give power over that person. Or there is simply a power in naming things to overcome fear that is associated with the name. For those who have read Harry Potter, you might recall that Professor Dumbledore tells Harry 'Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.'"
" ... there is simply a power in naming things to overcome fear that is associated with the name." Interestingly, there's a good deal of scientific research that gives some backing to this kind of statement. So at last year's BABCP - British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies - annual conference, Professor Michelle Craske, in her plenary lecture "New ways to optimise exposure therapy for anxiety disorders", stated "This presentation will address the augmentation of emotion regulation during exposure therapy for anxiety disorders, using strategies that target the function rather than the content of cognition. Affect (emotion) labelling, a simple process that involves linguistic processing of emotional responses, activates neural regions that serve to down-regulate the amygdala. Affect labelling is a form of inhibitory regulation of emotion. Individual with anxiety disorders show deficits in such inhibitory regulation. Thus, in training affect labelling may be particularly beneficial as individuals with anxiety disorders undergo exposure to fear producing stimuli. In clinical translation of this work, we have demonstrated the value of affect labelling as compared to cognitive reappraisal during exposure to phobic stimuli. This presentation will cover the basic science of affect labelling and the clinical translation to exposure therapy, in terms of outcomes and mechanisms." This abstract is heavy with psychological jargon, but I hope you get its drift.
So way back in 2007(!), Lieberman & colleagues - in their paper "Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli" - mapped the pathways that seem to carry this "power of naming" in the brain, while Cresswell et al - in "Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling" - highlighted that giving feelings their names could well be "one potential neurocognitive mechanism for understanding how mindfulness meditation interventions reduce negative affect and improve health outcomes". And more recently Kircanski et al - in "Feelings into words: Contributions of language to exposure therapy" - demonstrated that these mechanisms can have clinical value, commenting "A growing body of research has revealed that labeling an emotion, or putting one’s feelings into words, can help to downregulate that affect ... We translated this basic research to a real-world clinical context, in which spider-fearful individuals were repeatedly exposed to a live spider. Using a between-subjects design, we compared the effects of affect labeling, reappraisal, distraction from the feared stimulus, and exposure alone during this brief course of exposure therapy on subsequent fear responding. At a 1-week posttest involving a different spider in another context, the affect-labeling group exhibited reduced skin conductance response relative to the other groups and marginally greater approach behavior than the distraction group ... Additionally, greater use of anxiety and fear words during exposure was associated with greater reductions in fear responding. Thus, perhaps surprisingly, affect labeling may help to regulate aspects of emotion in a clinical context."
And it's not just in working with fear that this is relevant. Demiraip & colleagues - in "Feeling blue or turquoise? Emotional differentiation in major depressive disorder" - pointed out "Some individuals have very specific and differentiated emotional experiences, such as anger, shame, excitement, and happiness, whereas others have more general affective experiences of pleasure or discomfort that are not as highly differentiated. Considering that individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD) have cognitive deficits for negative information, we predicted that people with MDD would have less differentiated negative emotional experiences than would healthy people. To test this hypothesis, we assessed participants' emotional experiences using a 7-day experience-sampling protocol. Depression was assessed using structured clinical interviews and the Beck Depression Inventory-II. As predicted, individuals with MDD had less differentiated emotional experiences than did healthy participants, but only for negative emotions. These differences were above and beyond the effects of emotional intensity and variability."
Again this may be so relevant for mindfulness strategies, so Barnhofer et al - in "Dispositional mindfulness moderates the relation between neuroticism and depressive symptoms" - wrote "Negative emotional reactivity as measured by neuroticism has been shown to be an important risk factor for the development of depressive symptoms. This study investigated whether the ability to be mindful can protect against the negative effects of this temperamental vulnerability. An English community sample of N = 144 individuals who had completed a neuroticism questionnaire six years previously were assessed for current depressive symptoms and dispositional levels of mindfulness at points of assessment approximately one year apart. Dispositional mindfulness moderated the relation between neuroticism and current depressive symptoms: Neuroticism was significantly related to depression in those with low to medium levels of dispositional mindfulness but not in those with relatively high levels of mindfulness. Further analyzes focusing on particular mindfulness skills indicated that this effect was carried mostly by the ability to describe inner experience. The results suggest that dispositional mindfulness and particularly the ability to describe inner experience are helpful in dealing with negative emotional reactivity in a way that reduces the likelihood of depressive symptoms to develop." A post I wrote some time ago ... "'Naming emotions' is another useful self-regulation & mindfulness strategy" ... gives more details about this and introduces a relevant mindfulness exercise.
Fascinating stuff ... and walking into this territory opens up so many other questions. If being able to identify and name what we're feeling helps us not be swept away or sabotaged by our emotions, is mindfulness training one of the best ways of achieving this? My suspicion is not ... so the blog post " ... emotional intelligence, group work & learning to relate more deeply" introduces my personal experience in this area, while the post "Is interpersonal group work better than sitting meditation for training mindfulness?" takes this discussion further. And a further fascinating question is "Do we always want to use this ability to identify and name emotions as a way of draining out some of the power of our feelings?". If we're feeling good, might this type of inner quite analytical response actually be counter-productive ... might it also drain away the power of joyful or happy feelings a bit like it can drain away the power of frightening or unhappy feelings? The answer is probably yes! So see the post "Manchester BABCP conference: Emily Holmes & imagery" with its comment that "usually it's best to increase the emotional & sensory vividness of positive images with less reliance on words, but to decrease the vividness of negative images by introducing more verbal processing."
More to follow ...