Strengthen Your Mind by Giving Names to Your Feelings
A guide to making your mind wiser, stronger and more balanced
In early 2016 I came across a book called The Presence Process, written by Michael Brown.
This book was my first contact with intentional personal growth. It introduced the concept of taking active steps to make my life better, instead of just watching it pass by like a movie on a screen.
The Presence Process triggered a major discovery for me. It aims to cultivate present moment awareness by accessing and analyzing the source of challenging emotions. It explains how to process emotions internally, instead of projecting them onto others.
Shortly after reading this book, I started exploring practices such as lucid dreaming and meditation. I started paying attention to the emotional content of my interactions with others. Rediscovering the potential of emotional work made me feel powerful and free: I finally overcame my smoking habit, I transformed my relationships, and I gained a completely new perspective over my own life. Before, I thought that feelings were a sign of weakness; something to be ashamed of. Now, my feelings had become my most valuable allies.
After the initial excitement, there was confusion. “What is the purpose of all this?” I thought. I felt stuck. “Where do I want to go from now, and how do I get to that destination?” My mental expansion had reached a plateau, and I needed answers; I needed clarity.
“Which road do I take?” she asked.
His response was a question: “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” said Alice.
“Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”
- Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland)
Mental Body vs. Emotional Body
According to some esoteric philosophies and religious teachings, the human essence is composed of different dimensions, called the “subtle bodies”. There are two definitions in this approach that I find especially useful to cover this topic:
- The Mental Body (MB) — which I will use to refer to the field of thoughts.
- The Emotional Body (EB) — which refers to emotions or feelings.
Alternatively, for the more science-minded reader, this concept is very similar to the ‘Fast’ and ‘Slow’ systems of thinking described in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast & Slow.
Before reading The Presence Process, I loved feeling clever and telling witty jokes. It made me feel more attractive to others, and it made me feel “superior” somehow. My Mental Body was running the show.
When I finally became friends with my Emotional Body (or, more accurately — I unburied it from the dark place where I had nearly starved it to death during my 24 years of existence), I came in touch with the root of those behaviors.
I had been using sarcasm and jokes to hide my fear of rejection, and that I had taken refuge in books, movies, and entertainment to avoid going deeper. Now, I had finally had a first glimpse of my true self, and it felt painfully pleasant, a bittersweet breeze of relief.
However, it was an unbalanced approach. I couldn’t just suddenly start neglecting my Mental Body in light of my new emotional discoveries. I had to facilitate collaboration between the two.
So how did I do it? How do I still do it everyday?
It’s easy: I call my feelings by their names.
Naming Your Feelings
“This is Ground Control to Major Tom” — David Bowie
The first step towards collaboration is effective communication.
Feelings are the main language of the Emotional Body. Thoughts (and words) are the main language of the Mental Body. Therefore, I figured, I had to come up with a translation system, a common radio frequency.
Luckily for me, these realizations came up right when I happened to stumble upon Nonviolent Communication (NVC).
I was astonished by the effects that practicing NVC had on my communication with other people. For the first time in my life, I felt deeply understood by another human being. I was surprised to find that others felt deeply understood by me. The result was a new level of openness, almost like telepathy. I had just hacked human connection, and it felt like traveling a thousand years into the future.
In the process, I found a long list of feelings:
By describing my feelings to them and showing them more of myself, I used this list to optimize my communication with others.
And that’s when I realized that if I can use this list with other people — why not for my own inner feelings?
So, I started naming my inner feelings. My EB would now be in charge of feeling my emotions, and the MB of naming them. The EB would identify each vibration and communicate it; the MB would get the message, say “Roger that,” and transcribe it.
How this practice has strengthened my mind
1. My emotions power my intellect, and vice-versa
I didn’t forget the benefits of exploring my emotions. That lesson is learned, and I know how my growth is boosted when I feel them unconditionally instead of repressing them.
Many successful people use their emotions for incredible purpose, and channel their emotions into their work as a way to achieve peak performance.
One example is Keith Hernandez, a Major League Baseball player from 1974 to 1990 and winner of 11 Gold Globe Awards, who transformed the anger he felt when pitchers threw balls at him — a calculated decision often used by pitchers to psychologically “break” the targeted batter — into motivation:
“That was always a positive motivational thing for me; if a pitcher knocked me down or hit me on purpose, well by golly you’ve got your hands full for the rest of the game with me.” — Keith Hernandez
Modupe Akinola, a professor at Columbia Business School, writes about the connection between sadness and creativity, and throughout history there have been countless examples of creative prodigies who were able to channel their melancholy into art (think Van Gogh or Virginia Woolf).
I believe that this is an infinitely more productive approach: to accept our emotions and learn how to use them productively, instead of denying and repressing those feelings.
But in order to be transformed into raw energy for real personal growth, those emotions need a structure and direction. This support is provided by the MB, which creates a strategy by organizing those feelings into intelligible concepts. In return, the MB gets powered by the strength and creativity of the EB, and together they keep on fueling the development of the mind.
“The mental body is the navigation system of our capacity for being, and the emotional body is the fuel tank containing the various emotions, rather like different grades of fuel, intended to activate varying intensities of movement.” — Michael Brown (The Presence Process)
When I look at my NVC list of feelings and I find the perfect word to describe my emotional state in that moment, I feel a sense of inner peace — the kind of peace that creates movement and progress.
2. I cultivate equanimity
I know that I’ll never find names for all of my emotional nuances. I also don’t want to get stuck with static definitions. I want to keep on questioning, to find the best name to describe what I feel in that moment, and to accept that it might change. Maybe now I feel frustrated, but this same feeling might have a different name 5 minutes from now.
It’s not about clinging on to the definitions: they are ever-changing, just like the feelings themselves. Naming my feelings is an invaluable lesson in impermanence.
“‘All conditioned things are impermanent’ — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.” The Buddha
I first learned about strengthening the mind through observing and accepting impermanence at a 10 day course of Vipassana meditation.
This meditation technique was originally practiced and taught by Siddhartha Gautama. It showed me how to observe my bodily sensations with equanimity — without aversion or craving, and by recognizing their ephemerality. As a result, I’ve experienced a new clarity and sharpness of mind.
One day during the Vipassana retreat, while meditating, I felt an intense pain on my back. I tried my best not to hate it, and I kept on reminding myself that it would go away. After a few hours of observing it as if it was someone else’s pain, it disappeared.
After that, I became fascinated with the power of equanimity, and I’ve been trying to find hacks and tricks to keep using it as a tool to sharpen my mind.
Naming my feelings soon became an obvious answer. It’s simple, effective, and efficient: I can apply it to my daily life without having to commit too much extra time to it.
This helps me keep track of what I felt before, and the more I see how much these feelings change, the more I can tolerate and accept them. Whenever I feel anxious or angry or sad, my mind sees that I have been there before, and it realizes that if before the misery eventually gave way to happiness, then it will do it again. And the mind becomes wiser, stronger and more balanced.
3. The heart meets the intellect; the mind meets other minds
“So he understands that the person is tense, but it doesn’t occur to him that there may be more to that tension. Like the person is tense in a certain way, like in a gripping tense, or a pulling-in tense, or more of a holding, and that he can ask about those qualities.” — Ryu, Circling Facilitator and founder of WhatIsCircling.com
As I said before, I came across this amazing list of feelings when I first started learning about NVC, and at that time I was using it solely to communicate with other people.
There is a reason why NVC its successful: this practice is extremely effective.
You can also use these names to communicate your feelings with other people in a clear, universal language, which will boost your communication and facilitate common growth.
You can show people around you how to better support you if you all speak the same language, and it works the other way around too. When you use the same words, you can understand and empathize more effectively and help each other develop.
How to put all this into practice
1. Journaling my feelings
I know, I know, you’ve probably read a dozen articles about journaling in the last month. This might seem just like yet another routine — one more thing to add to the thousands of ideas that you already want to implement.
Well, the thing is, you don’t have to do it everyday; you don’t even have to do it at all.
I journal because it’s fun. I enjoy taking a moment for myself and embarking in an inner journey of emotional discovery. It makes me feel accomplished, centered, fulfilled. I sit down every morning, and I add 30 seconds to my journaling routine to 1) tune in to my current feelings and 2) find and identify a word that matches it.
Sometimes, if I feel like it, I also write what triggered these feelings.
After doing this for a while, I can use the information I gathered to analyze patterns and optimize my life. For example, I noticed that I usually feel irritable the next morning if I go to bed late, and that I feel energetic after I do yoga. Valuable insight and precious materials for building remarkable routines.
2. Asking others to ask me how I feel
Sometimes I don’t even feel like observing my feelings, let alone name them. Sometimes it’s challenging, either because I feel distracted, or afraid of what I might have to face. And sometimes I accept and respect this lack of motivation, but there are other times in which I could use a push and find the strength to dive deeper.
This is why my partner and I agreed that, once a while, we will ask each other about how we feel. It’s like having a human alarm clock, gently reminding you to connect your brain and your heart and taking yet another opportunity to grow.
Because my partner is there to listen to me, I feel more encouraged and motivated than if I were on my own. He also helps me refocus if my mind plays tricks to distract me: we help each other get straight to the point. This makes me feel safer, more engaged, and more focused.
Sharing a certain feeling with a certain person might also be challenging in itself. Sometimes, it’s hard just to show our emotions to other people. And that challenge is an invaluable tool in itself: a tool that we can use by overcoming our social fears and pushing through our comfort zone. It’s scary and exciting, but what could be a better tool for growth than pure vulnerability?
3. Pausing in challenging situations and searching for what I feel
There are countless ways to bring yourself back into the ‘zone’. It’s been studied by sports psychologists, personal development specialists and over-achievers of all kinds. Benjamin P. Hardy recommends cold showers in the morning; in his book The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin writes about how he used to leave the room and go for a run in the middle of exceptionally challenging chess practices.
It’s great that we have the power to transform our state of mind in challenging situations; but what if, just before putting away that inner fire, you take a quick look at it to see what it’s made of?
This technique will also help you become less reactive in those situations, while teaching you how to better process your emotions and solve problems.
4. Doing daily check-ins
“Self-observation is the first step of inner unfolding.” — Amit Ray (Yoga and Vipassana: An Integrated Life Style)
Sometimes I stop. I take a break from whatever mental story I’m engaged in, and I ask myself:
“How do I feel right now?”
And the more I do it, the better I feel. I train my brain to look for those feelings and match them to those words, and I make it into a habit. After a while, I no longer needed my cheat sheet: I’d become faster, more efficient, and more in tune with myself. It’s like learning a new language: when you speak it all the time, you will inevitably get more familiar with the vocabulary and become more fluent everyday.
A strong and healthy mind is a mind that lives in the present moment. It’s an amazing mindfulness tool, and a method for making your mind stronger, aware, and balanced.