On naming and recognising emotions.. and on love

The following excerpt from the wonderful book by Dr Sue Johnson. Love Sense : The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships.is chock full of wisdom.. How often do we find it hard to name the emotions we struggle with, inside ourselves or watching others in, say sadness or depression, struggle to articulate the fear or anxiety we may battle in the face of them? I hope this reading resonates for readers.

Just knowing that there are basic emotion we all feel and recognize can make a huge difference in our everyday lives. Psychologist Matthew Lieberman of the University of California…has demonstrated that the simple act of naming an emotion calms the emotional center of the brain. In an fMRI study, Lieberman showed people images of faces with negative expressions – for example, grimacing in anger. When subjects were asked to identify the sex of the person in the image, the emotional area remained highly activated. But when they were asked to label the feeling their brains calmed down. Naming an emotion begins the process of regulating and reflecting on it.

I see this happening in therapy. As Bernice tells me, “Well, I guess if I pay attention instead of going off my head, I can see that my husband is sad right now. Usually I just freak out – get all confused and dithery. It’s silly but it feels better to recognize that he is sad. Its kind of like pinning everything down; the cues he is sending and my inner responses make sense then. Everything seems clearer, more manageable. Last time, I didn’t just clam up. I was able to tell him. ‘When you get so sad, I don’t know what to do, and that scares me. I think you are getting depressed again.'” What we name, we can tame, when we give meaning to something, we can tolerate it and even change its impact.

So what about love – why isn’t it on the basic list? (of emotions.) A few of my colleagues say it should be, but I don’t. Love doesn’t have a distinct facial expression. Its not a single emotion, a lone note. Its a mix of feelings, a medley. In point of fact, it’s a state of being that encompasses all the basic emotions. When we love, we can be joyful, sad, angry, afraid, surprised, or ashamed – often at the same time. Writer Jeffrey Eugenides puts it beautifully: “Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered in a single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness’, ‘joy,’ or ‘regret’…..It oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal, complicated hybrid emotions. Germanic traincar constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’

Sue Johnson. Love Sense : The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. pp 71 -72

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