Recognize Your Emotions in 6 Steps

“Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.” – Vincent Van Gogh

In order to effectively manage our emotions we must first learn how to accurately recognize them.  Some people try to ignore their emotional reactions, letting a whole host of emotions build up inside.  The result of this denial of one’s emotional experience is lack of self-knowledge as well as impaired ability to use one’s emotions productively.  Other people have difficulty regulating intense emotions and may feel that they are at the mercy of their emotional reactions.  This is an equally powerless place to be, since both types of people have trouble recognizing and managing emotions.

To begin to use our emotions effectively, we must first slow down the emotional process so that we have the “space” to investigate what is happening from the place of a mindful observer.  Once we are able to step outside of ourselves enough to examine what our emotions are trying to tell us, we are in a better position to make healthy decisions.

Recognizing your emotions requires complete honesty with yourself.  If it feels too frightening or difficult to admit the truth behind your emotional processes, it is quite difficult to make accurate assessments of how to move forward.  The important thing to remember is that once you are completely open and honest with yourself about what is going on for you internally, you are free to both make healthier choices and to detach yourself from your old problem-saturated patterns of reacting.

How to Recognize Emotions

The creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Dr. Marsha Linehan, has written about this effective six-step process for recognizing emotions, explained in The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook:

(1) What happened?

This step encourages you to fully describe the emotional event.  Try to stick to only facts in this step (not interpretations).

(2) Why do you think that situation happened?

Consider this an opportunity to identify possible causes of the emotional event.  The reason this step is so crucial is because it is often the meaning that we give to events that determine our emotional reactions.  For example, if you planned on going to a movie with a friend and she canceled at the last minute, your interpretation of why she canceled will directly affect your emotional response.  Consider how different you would feel if you had one of these two interpretations of the event:

  • “She is always too busy for me.  I guess she’s not a good friend”
  • “I know she had a big project due tomorrow.  She is probably busy working on it tonight.”

(3) How did the situation make you feel – emotionally & physically?

Take the time to identify your primary and secondary emotional responses to the event.  While this can be a new concept that is tricky to practice, the benefits and insight gained make the endeavor worthwhile.  Notice any physical sensations you may be having (e.g., tightness in your throat, queasiness in your stomach, or tightening of your jaw).

(4) What did you want to do as a result of how you felt?

This questions encourages you to identify your urges.  This step in particular requires complete honesty with yourself for this process to be most effective.  It can be painful to admit to ourselves some of the urges that we feel when experiencing emotional reactions.  When we are overwhelmed by emotions, there can be urges to do or say something that you would likely regret later.  As you begin to accurately observe what you want to do in the moment of intense emotions, you can compare this with what you actually do.  We often do not really act on every urge that we have.  This is reason to be hopeful!  If you can control your urges sometimes, it is quite likely that you can control other urges at other times, too.

(5) What did you do and say?

In this step of recognizing your emotions, you have the opportunity to identify what you actually did as a result of your emotions.  Even if you didn’t respond ideally, be honest with yourself about how you did handle the situation and use any mistakes as a learning experience.  How can you use anything that you said or did in the “heat of your emotions” as a teaching tool for how to handle the next interaction differently?

(6) How did your emotions and actions affect you later?

In this final step of recognizing your emotions you are encouraged to identify the long-term consequences of your actions.  How did your words/actions during an emotionally provocative event impact your long-term well-being?  For example, if you chose to handle overwhelming or upsetting emotions by drinking too much, you will notice negative consequences the next morning if you are feeling sick, are late for work/school, or have said/done something that you regret.  Another example may be saying something hurtful to someone you love and watching the consequences of that behavior manifest itself in the relationship as a lack of closeness, guilt, or hurt feelings.

The next time that you find yourself either detached from or overly attached to your emotions during an interaction with another person, take the time to mindfully observe yourself in the moment.  Notice your emotions as they arise, without judgment.  Begin to go through these six steps to recognizing your emotions after the event.  Once you become adept at using these skills, you will be able to mindfully identify your emotions reactions and choose healthy responses in the moment.

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Linehan, M.M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Prayer is the language by Lel4nd / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. David Morris on August 3, 2019 at 11:59 pm

    I have a lot of problems with this exercise because I simply don’t have emotional experiences in my daily life. The few emotional experiences I do have are so clouded with intense emotion that I can’t accurately recall them. I’m constantly searching for tools that match my circumstances better. How do I create and emotional experience so I can do this activity?

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