Play It Where It Labels


blog old couple holding handsAn editor I heard speaking at a conference once told the roomful of writers she wouldn’t buy a manuscript unless the magic words were on the page somewhere. “I love you,” was mandatory in her book, a sina qua non of the genre. 

I agree, and I don’t. I don’t agree that HEARING the words matters that much. My companion animals never say them to me, babies can’t say them, many adults have no powers of speech, and yet, the ability of these wordless souls to love and make others feel loved is beyond question. 

blog Sign I love youTurns out, the words are important for the character speaking or thinking them. When we’re beset by emotion, our minds rabbiting around with feeling, our hearts full, putting a label on the feeling reduces our sense of stress and calms our brains. This is especially true of negative emotions, which can ricochet around inside of us for days. 

I see this in the courtroom, when therapists who work with upset children are asked to testify. One of the basic questions put the therapist is, “What are your therapeutic goals for this child?” The answer, inevitably, includes something like, “Caleb is working on saying what he feels.”

blog old man and dogThis does not mean working on getting him to admit he doesn’t like his mom’s nasty boyfriend–that will come much later–but rather, simply saying, “I feel angry,” or, “I feel hopeless.” Just giving the mind a word to describe the feelings calms down the mental riot the emotions generate. Brain scans confirm what the child can tell you: Being able to name what you feel helps you control your emotions, rather than be controlled by them. 

blog pup and kittenThink about all the material on the internet intended to sway our emotions, to lure us to click, comment, sign the petition, speak out, do this, get up on our hind legs, don’t stand for that… How often are we invited to stop, think about what we feel, and stay with it long enough to find an accurate name for it?

No wonder a hero or heroine can take 343 pages to realize, “This is love.”  But when they do recognize their sentiments as the real deal, we can almost see them become calmer, more resolute, clear-eyed people in our mind’s eye. The same transformation blog girl and horsetakes place when somebody, in the midst of great upheaval, can say, “I feel betrayed,” or, “I feel powerless.”

A few words, a big impact, a start on moving past those uncomfortable sentiments. And “just keep swimming” as a strategy? Erm… maybe not. Trying to ignore or repress negative emotions can make those brain scans go truly haywire. That’s why the character who pats the hero’s hand and reminds him, “It could always be worse. You mustn’t over-react, put it behind you…” is often in cahoots with the villain.

Name what’s in your heart. It matters.

Have you ever had an “Aha!” moment when you came up with the right label for feelings that had been plaguing you? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of “Matthew–The Jaded Gentlmen, Book II.” 


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17 comments on “Play It Where It Labels

  1. Actually, yes. When I fell in love with my husband the joy was tempered by something else… it was guilt. I was engaged to a man who had already become an abuser – though I didn’t really recognize it at the time. However, I had given my word that I would marry him. I knew in my heart that I was making the right choice to break off that relationship, but the guilt was there undermining the thrill of new love. It took talking to a coworker to understand that I needed to let go of the guilt… I should not feel bound to a promise made to someone who did no respect me. Tonight I am feeling deep sorrow. That dear man who counselled me has lost his long battle with cancer.

    • Sorry for your loss, Glenda. I had a great therapist during my pregnancy and for the first five years of my daughter’s life. I might still be checking in with that woman, except… cancer. She’s still with me, every time I can reason and my way to some wisdom, or make the wise decision instead of the unhealed one.

      And good for you, for knowing when a guy really, truly cared about you.

  2. I’ve mentioned a few times that my Mom passed away last year.

    My brother and I were so caught up with Mom’s finals days and hospice, our Dad’s feelings (and our siblings feelings too)and the details of the funeral (with no help from our other four siblings), we were numb. In fact, we were numb for two months. It wasn’t until she had been gone for two months that he and I fell apart….within days of each other.

    I called him sobbing and…he was sobbing before I ever called him. Everything hit us at the same time….we had been so strong for everyone else, we weren’t able to grieve until things were settled.

    We didn’t think it was grief until we talked to each other….and then it was like, “oh, so this is what grief is like.” It was helpful to have someone else going through the same thing at the same time for the same reason.

    It’s taken me about a year to feel like myself with Baby Bro seemingly back on track a bit sooner. Grief, real grief is a tricky thing to recognize.

    I think those Regency and Victorian folks knew what they were about with some of their mourning restrictions. Grief is an important feeling which should be acknowledged so you can move.

    • Grief can be a trickster, masquerading as rage, fatigue, hyperactivity, overfunctioning… many masks, and then the pain lands, often when you thought you were past that…

      Thank goodness you and Baby Bro could sort each other out. Watch out for the land mines on the calendar though–the anniversaries are everywhere, and I for one, tend not to see them coming until I’ve gone on some broomstick ride, and then, while writing a check hours later, realize I’m dealing with unexploded ordnance from some past loss or trauma.

      Complicated stuff, and so hard. I wish you brighter days and smoother sailing.

  3. Labeling emotions is such a simple topic, yet it is difficult for most people. Trust me, my husband is a psychologist. He’d probably be out of a job if emotions were an easy thing.

    I grew up with a mother who thought it was more important to appear happy than to actually BE happy. No emotion was acceptable, unless it was happiness. I never quite learned how to label how I felt until I was an adult and in a relationship with a man who valued the expression of my feelings–ALL of my feelings–not just the happy ones. Although it was life-changing to be able to express my feelings, it wasn’y always easy (and is STILL difficult to this day!).

    • Bet your mom had a very clean house. Ask me how I know this.

      And culturally, we’re not often encouraged to examine our emotions and sort them out. We’re told to focus how we “act,” using the verb advisedly.

      I’m glad life (and your own good instincts) landed you beside a guy who had a firmer grasp of mental health than your mom did. In my mother’s case, I just want to shake my fist at the society that left her very few options except to look happy to do all that vacuuming, over and over, day after day…

  4. For most of my younger life I had a very contentious relationship with my mother. I felt she didn’t love me as much as some of my other siblings. We quarreled A LOT.

    It wasn’t exactly an AHA “moment” but somewhere in my early 30s I came to the realization that she was never going to be the person I wanted her to be – and that was all right. I loved her and she loved me even if she didn’t “show” it in the way that I wanted her to.

    I’m so glad I was finally mature enough to accept her as she was because our last 20 years together was sooooo much better than the first 30.

    • I’m nodding my head. I recall the same moment. My five or six year old daughter was climbing all over me as I sat on my parents’ deck, and Mom had just announced that it was time for dinner. She’d spoken with a certain edge in her voice I knew well, one that said Mom didn’t like how the child–an only child with an only parent–was trying to hijack the adult conversation, though my mother, who’d raised seven children, very much needed to do the same thing–hijack the conversation and move everybody into the dining room, THAT INSTANT. Mom would never have said she was consciously competing with the child, but. Food should be eaten when it’s ready, anybody knows that.

      I remember thinking, “Mom gets to be the baby. She’s earned it, I don’t need to be the baby, I have a daughter to raise. I hereby declare the mother daughter struggle over for another generation. Thank you, Mom for all the dinners you’ve cooked, and all the times you never got to be the baby, ever. Hope I can do as well.”

      The alternative was too much work and all about need rather than compassion. It’s probably coincidence, but I had just turned the age at which my great-grandmother had died, leaving her own daughter (my grandmother) lady of her father’s house at age seventeen.

  5. Definitely. My soon-to-be-ex recently came to see me after my refusals to see him before I left the state where we had moved together for his job. For some reason, he needed to see me. I suspected it was to make himself feel better, to feel less guilt for leaving. I was right. At no time during his “narrative” did he say he wanted to be with me. It was all about him. At that moment, I decided I deserve MORE.

    • Well, yes! Great minds….
      I’d like to see more about how repressing an emotion just makes it worse, because this is a cultural fixture for most of us.

      Navel-gazing, paralysis through analysis, thinking it to death, bogged down in her emotions…. we have a lot of terms for why we should neglect to organize and label our feelings.

      Balance, I guess. Always the balance.

  6. Yes, I had an Aha moment yesterday!

    We have all been a little sad since our corgi Irish died last month.
    Change is difficult and it takes awhile to get through someone (dog’s) passing. The dogs have been out of sorts, too.

    Yesterday, I was grooming Molly and Celeste in the garage. I finished brushing Molly and went to get Celeste. She wasn’t nearby. Celeste had moved a few crates, knocked over a few boxes and was sitting in Irish’s old crate looking very pleased. Celeste also helped herself to Irish’s old blanket yesterday.

    Celeste knew something wasn’t right…she couldn’t tell me but she showed me.
    I agree with Celeste that it ok to miss someone or something or even your dog. It helps with the grieving process and let’s you move on.

  7. Hmm… I had lunch with my sister on Saturday. We did not get along growing up. I asked her to come to town for a belated birthday lunch. It was not so much what I said, but didn’t say. I was kind and compassionate to her. I didn’t judge her and inform her what she was doing wrong with her life. I simply said “Happy Birthday” had some gifts for her and her children and left it at that. Perhaps kindness is the best gift of all.

  8. So far, no feelings plaguing me-I am usually a happy person and enjoy every moment. My Grandmother always told me that it takes more muscles to frown than smile. I don’t know how accurate she was but I always try to have a smile on my face.

  9. Dear Grace (my mothers name!) are you
    related to Burrows Matthew and former
    Anne McIlhenny? I knew them years ago
    when I worked at the Buffalo Courier-
    Express, newspaper no longer published.
    Remembering my over four years with the
    daily (& Sunday!!) warms my heart. Best
    wishes. “Lucky”