The Power of Naming

I had a few days recently of feeling lethargic. I felt heavy and weary, like there was an unseen weight pulling on me and everything felt like too much.

I now recognize, I know, this feeling. It took me a while to learn that it is different from the feeling of truly being ready to rest, to take a break. This is an old feeling with roots. It showed up in a recent dream of mine as a fat man sleeping heavily and deeply in a big bed, groggily resisting efforts to be moved or awakened or disturbed in any way.

I have learned that this comatose energy is the flip side of the relentless, compulsive, self-punishing way I used to mindlessly move about in the world. Even though it’s a bit of a chicken-egg situation – I don’t know which of these two parts of my self came into being first – the fat man was, at one time, one half of my psyche’s best effort to create balance. At one point, his presence made perfect sense.

(That is, by the way, true of many of our feelings and behaviors that we experience as bothersome. They arose, at some point, out of absolute necessity. If they go unexamined, however, they tend to rigidify and persist, long after the situation that required them has passed.)


I’m sharing this because I’ve been thinking about my last post and about the power of naming our experiences. Difficult feelings, as I had (maybe too) generally referred to them last time, aren’t just feelings that are horribly traumatic or terrible in some way. Daily anxieties, sadnesses, tensions, frustrations, awkwardnesses – all the emotions we feel everyday – can be extremely difficult to live with. Even positive emotions, like joy, can be hard to truly let in if we’ve never learned how.

For me, the daily, endless battle between the frantic, driven energy and the heavy, lethargic energy was exhausting and disorienting and painful. It made it hard for me to discern what I wanted or needed at any given moment. I felt like I was being dragged along behind some speeding, out-of-control truck, and I couldn’t even clear my head enough to figure out how to slow it down. All I could ever do was swing to the other pole and collapse into an immobilization that had a ceaseless, gnawing edge of restlessness.

These feelings were very knotted up together for a very long time. But the more I have worked to be aware of them; the more I have let myself feel them (rather than mindlessly bouncing between them); the more I have talked with others about them – the more I have been able to tease them apart. I have been able to name them.


The seemingly simple act of precisely naming the exact feelings of a particular experience has profound and long-lasting effects. I have experienced it many times but am always surprised by its power. I have seen all of my psychotherapy clients experience it. To finally name something that has been unnameable – because it was overwhelming or hidden or knotted up in a big, indistinguishable mass – brings instant relief. It is deeply soothing. It is as if we have suddenly found a missing puzzle piece that, in some cases, we didn’t even know was missing. Our whole being relaxes and rests easier now that we have words for this thing, this sensation, this experience. I remember when I was first able, with the help of someone else, to find words that captured the experience I have been describing to you. I felt an unmistakable “click” inside. The feelings weren’t suddenly gone, but a torturous burden had been lifted. The naming had untangled the painful, mysterious knot.

Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the same time that the weight lifted, a door opened. Naming a feeling makes us keenly aware of it, and we forever after experience it differently. Lived experience, mine and others, testifies to it. Depth psychology is founded on it. And now, exciting to me and many other therapists, the emerging findings of neuroscience are showing it to be true at the brain level as well. As Bonnie Badenoch describes in detail in her book, Being a Brain-Wise Therapist, becoming aware of an experience changes it from being implicit to explicit, creating new neural pathways and more fully integrating the experience across the different parts of our brain. As we repeat this process over and over, we gain emotional resilience, a greater sense of physical and emotional ease, improved communication, insight, and intuition.

For me, I am no longer blindly hostage to the painful extremes. I now know their shape. I have learned from living with them and noticing them. I can now more easily recognize when I am slipping into an extreme of manic doing or lethargic collapse. I can more easily recognize and “do” out of my wellspring of natural energy. (I am amazed at how much energy I truly have!) I can more easily recognize when I really do need to rest, and resting in that way gives me a much deeper sense of relaxation than mindlessly collapsing into an inert state of not doing.


Try to name the full experience of a feeling sometime. It doesn’t have to be just one word. What’s the texture of the feeling? If it’s anger, for example, is it irritation, frustration, annoyance, exasperation, resentment, hate, rage? When do you feel it? What does it remind you of? What is it like? Do you see an image when you feel it? Where and how do you feel it in your body? What do you feel an urge to do when you feel it?

Really try to find the flavor of it, your exact experience of it, its height and width and depth. Even better, talk with someone else about it, someone you feel safe with and can trust to help you name it. However you do it, be patient in finding the right words. Stay with it. It might take time. You will know the right words when you find them.

© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2012.

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