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Learning to Identify Emotions

Identify Emotions and Reduce Emotional Instability

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Updated July 23, 2010

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Many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) struggle to identify emotions. This is not surprising; being able to identify your emotions is thought to be a key aspect of emotion regulation, and many consider BPD to be, above all else, a disorder of emotion regulation (in fact, some experts have proposed changing the name BPD to “Emotion Dysregulation Disorder”).

Why Can’t People with BPD Identify Emotions?

There are actually quite a few reasons that people with BPD may be particularly bad at identifying their emotions. First, BPD is often linked to childhood maltreatment, such as child abuse or neglect. The ability to identify emotions is something we develop quite early in life, and our caregivers play an integral role in helping us learn what we are feeling.

Children who have abusive or neglectful caregivers can miss out on this lesson. Instead of learning what they are feeling, maltreated children may instead learn to be afraid of their emotions (because emotional expressions can trigger abuse), or that their emotions don’t matter (because they are ignored by neglectful parents).

However, a substantial minority of people with BPD were never maltreated as children. Why, then, might they have trouble identifying emotions? It may be that some people with BPD are genetically predisposed to have very intense emotional responses.

In this case, caregivers may have trouble helping their child understand their emotions because the responses seem so intense. This may also trigger the development of an emotionally invalidating environment, as parents struggle to acknowledge emotions that seem to be out of proportion with the triggering event.

Why Is It Important to Be Able to Identify Emotions?

Emotions are very important to our daily functioning, because they help guide our decisions, help us connect with other people, and keep us out of harm’s way.

For example, imagine if you were not able to identify the emotion of “fear.” Without an ability to recognize fear signals, you might get yourself in some pretty dangerous situations. If you can pick up on your fear cues, however, you are more likely to stay away from people or things that might harm you. So fear, while it is sometimes an unpleasant emotion, is actually critical to our well-being.

Another reason it is important to be able to identify emotions is that when we can’t identify our feelings, we often end up with a vague, confusing internal experience that some call “muddy emotions.” Some people who have trouble recognizing their emotions will say things like, “I just feel awful!” Awful is not an emotion, but it is probably a muddy experience generated by a confusing mix of emotions. It is much more comfortable to be able to identify the emotions that are there (i.e., “I feel sad, fearful, and ashamed”) than to experience muddy emotions.

How Can I Learn to Identify Emotions?

If you have trouble identifying emotions, there is good news. Even if you didn’t have a chance to learn this skill as a child, it is never too late to learn to identify what you are feeling.

Of course, this skill takes a great deal of practice—as children we learn to do this over the course of years, with many practice trials each day. You can learn this as an adolescent or adult as well, but expect to practice daily for months before you begin to notice a change in your ability to identify emotions.

Here are a few exercises that are designed to help you recognize the emotions you are having. If you really struggle with this, start small—do one of these exercises each day for even just a few seconds. The key is to build slowly over time, to practice with lots of different types of emotions, and to keep a consistent (daily) practice.

Sources:

Hayes SC. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. 1st ed. New Harbinger Publications; 2005.

Linehan MM. Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. 1st ed. The Guilford Press; 1993.

Roemer L, Orsillo SM. Mindfulness- and Acceptance-Based Behavioral Therapies in Practice. 1st ed. Guilford Press; 2008.

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