NAME your feelings
If you want to handle your feelings effectively, NAME them. NAME is an acronym for:
N – Notice
A – Acknowledge
M – Make space
E – Expand awareness

Let’s go through these steps for handling your feelings, one by one.


When strong feelings show up, the first step is simply to notice them. This is not always easy. In fact, the more intense your emotions, the harder it is. There are two main reasons for this.

· First, by the time you reach adulthood, your habitual responses to your emotions are deeply entrenched. You have become an expert at living on automatic pilot; your natural tendency is not to notice what you’re feeling until after you’ve already acted on it. It takes quite a bit of practice to unlearn these habits.

· Second, when strong emotions arise, your mind tends to go into a frenzy. Your psychological smog gets all stirred up, growing thicker, darker, and stickier until soon you are completely lost. And the more fused you become, the less your capacity for awareness. Thus in order to work effectively with your emotions, you will first need to disperse the smog. That’s where some mindful breathing comes in handy:

· First breathe out fully, pushing all the air from your lungs. Then allow them to fill from the bottom up.

· As you do this, notice your breath flowing in and flowing out. You can think of your breath as an escape chute: it helps you to slide from your mind into your body.

· You may find it helpful to say to yourself something like “Letting go,” “Stepping back,” or “Dropping the story”—or perhaps something humorous like “Bye-bye, smog” or “See you later, mind.” (It’s not essential to do this, but many people find it aids defusion.)

· Next, move your awareness from your breath to your body, and notice where this feeling is most intense. We characteristically feel strong emotions in certain areas of our body: most commonly our forehead, jaws, neck, throat, shoulders, chest, or tummy. So check out your body. Take a few seconds to scan it from head to toe, and zero in on wherever the feeling is strongest.

· Notice where this feeling starts and stops. Where are its edges? Is it at the surface or deep inside you? Is it moving or still? What temperature is it? Does it have hot spots or cold spots? Notice as much about it as you can, as if you are a curious scientist who has never encountered anything like it before.


Once you’ve noticed the feelings and sensations in your body, the next step is to openly acknowledge their presence. This can be done with some simple self-talk. Say to yourself, “Here’s a feeling of anger” or “Here’s a feeling of insecurity.” In ACT, we encourage you to describe your feelings in this manner rather than saying “I’m angry” or “I’m resentful.” Why? Because when you say “I am guilty” or “I am sad,” it seems as if you are your emotion, which makes it seem much larger than it actually is. In ACT, we want you to experience that you are not your emotions in the same way that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts and feelings come and go; they pass through you, much as clouds pass through the sky; they are transient events, continually changing. They are not you. Even the common phrase “I am feeling angry” could be better stated as “I am having the feeling of anger.” Notice how the latter description helps you to step back from the feeling a little.

An even simpler option is to label your feeling with just one word: “anger,” “guilt,” “fear,” “sadness.” And if you can’t quite identify the emotion, you can use a vague term like “pain,” “hurt,” or “stress.”

Acknowledging is an important step in acceptance. It means you are “getting real”—that is, that you are opening up to the reality that this is what you are feeling in this moment. It’s like skating on thin ice: if you want to deal effectively with the situation, the first step is to acknowledge that the ice is thin.

Note: It is important to acknowledge your feelings nonjudgmentally. If you say to yourself, “Here’s this terrible feeling again!”, that’s likely to lead you to avoidance, not acceptance.


When painful feelings show up, we tend to tighten up around them. Rather than give them space, we try to squeeze them out or squash them down or push them away. This is like locking an angry or frightened horse inside a small tin shed. The horse will pound its hooves against the sides, hammering away, frantic to escape—and in the process, it will do a lot of damage. But suppose you release that horse into a large open field. There it can run around to its heart’s content. Soon it will expend all its energy and settle down. No harm done. In much the same way, we can learn to open up around strong feelings. If we give them plenty of space, they will expend their energy without harming us. Your breathing can help you with this:

· Breathe in deeply. Imagine that your breath flows into and around that feeling in your body. And as it does, it’s as if, in some magical sense, a space opens up inside you. It’s a sense of opening up, of making room for all those unpleasant sensations.

· See if you can allow those feelings to be there, even though you don’t want them. You don’t have to like them or want them. You are simply giving them permission to be present.

· This is not a clever way to get rid of the feeling. It is merely a way to make peace with it—to stop fighting or running from it.

· You may find it helpful to use some self-talk. Perhaps say to yourself, “Opening up,” “Making space,” or “Let it be.” Or perhaps try a longer phrase: “I don’t like it, I don’t want it, but I can make room for it.”

· Keep breathing into and around your feelings. Open up little by little, making more and more room.

· You can make this exercise as short or as long as you like. You can do a one-minute version or a twenty-minute version. With practice, you can run through the whole exercise in ten seconds, which is about the time span of one slow, deep breath.


The final step is to expand awareness—in other words, reach out and make contact with the world around you. Life is like a magnificent ever-changing stage show, and on that stage is everything you can think, feel, see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. This feeling in your body is only one actor upon the stage. For a few moments there—in steps 1, 2, and 3—you dimmed the lights on the stage, and you shined a spotlight directly onto this feeling. Now it’s time to bring up all the lights again. Notice the whole stage show; notice everything you can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Look around the room. Where are you, what are you doing, who are you with? What can you see, hear, and touch?

As you do this, your feelings are still present, but you have made room for them; they can hang around until they decide to leave. Meanwhile you are free to act, guided by your values. So expand awareness: reach out and connect with the world around you. Rather than turn inward and close down, turn outward and open up. Then let your values gently show you the way: ask yourself, “What would I like to do right now that’s consistent with my values?” Don’t wait until you “feel better”; if there’s something meaningful or important you could be doing, then do it right now!


Excerpt from ACT WITH LOVE: Stop Struggling, Reconcile Differences, and Strengthen Your Relationship with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (New Harbinger Publications)

Author's Bio: 

Russ Harris, MD, is an acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer and the author of The Happiness Trap. He travels around the world training psychologists and other health professionals in ACT, a revolutionary new approach to human happiness.