"Name it to Tame it"
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
I have a confession to make: I’ve been really impatient lately. Under normal circumstances, I may take a deep breath and move through the impatience with at least some grace. But over the past few weeks I've found myself reacting with unreasonable levels of anger and frustration (usually with my kids), leaving me to deal with feelings of remorse or guilt.
In the past several days I've been making a deliberate effort to step-up my emotion-labeling game. Instead of just mentally noting strong feelings when they arise, I'm taking things a step further and putting those emotions into a verbal sentence for myself and my loved ones to hear: “I feel ____.”
Dr. Dan Siegel, UCLA Professor of Psychiatry, actually put a name to this practice in his best-selling book, The Whole-Brain Child. In it, he reveals that when a strong emotion hijacks our bodies, we have to “name it to tame it.” Brilliant, right? It’s so simple AND it comes with science-backed evidence supporting how the process of naming an emotion can help tame it.
Before I dive into the particulars, let’s be sure to understand that, according to mindfulness experts and psychiatrists alike, the goal isn’t for us to rid ourselves of our emotions, nor should we try to “be in control” of our emotions. Instead, we should strive to both coexist nonjudgmentally with our emotions and be in control of our reactions to them.
Okay, now back to the science…for a quick, bite-sized breakdown of how name it to tame it really works, watch Dr. Siegel talk about it HERE. Basically he tells us that when the right limbic area of our brain, which is a part of what he calls our “downstairs brain,” gets overcome by emotion, our left brain can come to the rescue by labeling that emotion. The very act of labeling sends a rush of neurotransmitters to the rescue to help calm down that right downstairs brain.
Perhaps what’s even more exciting about this technique is how we can use it to help our students, our children and other loved-ones with their own emotional regulation. Here’s an example of how it can play out:
Say you notice your child at home building a massive Lego tower when all of a sudden it comes crashing down to the ground. You see their face turn red, their eyes fill up with tears and their hands clench in fists of fury. According to Siegel, you would first offer a connection, so they don’t feel alone in their feelings. In this case, you may offer a hug or just simply sit next to them. This helps calm the whole system, so you can then redirect their reaction by saying something like, “tell me about what happened and what you’re feeling.” This invites them to talk about it and if they don’t quite find the words to describe their feelings, you can help by listening and then saying something like, “I wonder if what you’re experiencing right now is frustration?” By offering an emotion, it allows your child the opportunity to either hear it and let it register as true, or find an alternative emotion to use as their label. In either event, they have put a name to their emotion, which, in turn tames its effect on their mind and body.
In order to help my Kindergarten students in their mindfulness practice, I created both an emotions chart and an emotions journal. Both documents are available to download for free at the bottom of the page. To use the emotions chart, you place it inside a sheet protector or clear folder and circle the emoticon that best represents your dominant emotion using a dry erase marker. For an added step, you can verbalize the emotion: "I feel _____."
The emotions journal is used in the same way, only using a paper chart designed for children to circle a strong emotion that has arisen and move onto the next chart when a new strong emotion surfaces. There is also a cover page that can be decorated, just for fun. I encourage use of the chart over the journal since it better represents the fleeting nature of our emotions.
The key is to help children identify the one or two main emotions occupying the body in a moment of need. While it can be used as often as necessary, for the purpose of learning how to “name it to tame it,” the idea is to help students make their way to the chart when they need help regulating a dominant emotion.
It's only been a few days since I've implemented the name it to tame it practice, but it has already made a positive impact on my life. Not only do I feel more in control over how I react to my own emotions, but I feel my empathy for others growing profoundly as well. May this practice be as helpful to you as it has been for me!