Self Differentiation Part II: Recognize Emotions

I believe this is one of the most difficult things for people to do. Next time you feel something change for you, emotionally, try to name the emotion you are experiencing. I spend a lot of time on the front end of counseling sessions talking about this issue. This is so important because emotions can tell us two things.

  1. They allow us to know how we are feeling, and communicate that to other people. This furthers our relationships.
  2. Just being able to recognize our emotions indicates a change in the part of our brains we are using.
Our Emotional Brains

When we don’t take time to process emotions and simply react, we are only using our Limbic System. This is not a very large (or “intelligent”) portion of our brains. It mainly refers to the brain structures responsible for our responses to the environment around us. In particular, the Amygdala is the brain structure believed to be mostly responsible for our emotional responses. So, when you are only responding to emotions, you’re only using a small part of your brain that is not involved in the functions of the brain best suited for creating healthy relationships. When you are able to take a moment and identify the emotion you are experiencing, you move your thinking from the reactive Limbic System to your Prefrontal Cortex. This is a much larger brain structure that is responsible for many of your higher brain functions (i.e. logical thinking, planning for the future, etc.). So, by simply slowing down and making an attempt to identify the emotion you are experiencing, you engage a part of your brain that is capable of making reasoned decisions, and not just reactions based on limited information. (There is a case to be made for “snap judgments”, but that is a discussion for another time and rarely involves relationships.) My mentor writes the 8-9 “core” emotions (loneliness is the wildcard) on a marker board in his office, and he references it nearly every session. He does this to help people identify the emotions that come up in session. Because, again, identifying the emotion you are experiencing at the moment, helps you better respond to what is going on around you.

Emotions and Self-Differentiation

Understanding your emotions is a crucial step in Self-Differentiation because if you can’t name the emotion, you can’t know what to do about it. Remember, a foundational part of Self-Differentiation is knowing your values, beliefs, etc. and knowing how they shape the way you live. Recognizing and understanding your emotions helps you know what to do with them. Emotional identification will also make you a better communicator. When you can clearly state how you are feeling, it gives you the confidence to ask for what you need, set up clear boundaries, and build long-lasting relationships based on deeper understanding. Being able to identify your emotions may sound easy. However, many times I begin to ask people to put words to the emotions they are experiencing or have experienced I get looks like I just asked them to do high-level math. In the same way, I cannot explain to you what abstract algebra means, many intelligent adults struggle to understand (and manage) their emotions. How can you know who you are when you are oblivious to what is going on inside of you? It’s like making business decisions based on your “gut” and never seeking out feedback from customers.


In addition to this series on Self-Differentiation, I will also be writing a lengthy blog post (or multiple posts) helping identify what I believe are the core emotions we experience.



Kyle Purcell is a counselor based in the Conway, Arkansas area, specializing in helping those who struggle with shame and other kinds of relational issues.

(501) 358-7607 Ext 104


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