Of all the things you need, an emotional vocabulary probably isn’t at the top of your list, but there are good reasons for arming yourself with this powerful tool.
The Purpose of Emotions
Emotions define life experience! Without emotion nothing would affect us, or change us, or motive us. We would be like robots walking through life void of meaning. There would be no victory because there would be no loss, and no fulfillment. Life would be neutral, blank, uninspiring. Someone would climb Mount Everest. But who would care? Well, nobody would. It would mean nothing. If someone got hurt, who would care? Nobody, because there would be no compassion. It is through emotion that we experience the duality of life and have it mean something.
Emotional Auto Pilot—How the Average Human Deals with Emotions
If you’re like most people, you were never taught what to do with your emotions. In fact, you were probably punished as a child when you expressed negative emotions because your parents were punished as children for the same thing! Most of us mindlessly practice dysfunctional generational patterns out of ignorance because we were not taught healthy coping strategies!
Then add to that ignorance and punishment the fact that culture (at least American culture) also conveys messages that it’s not okay to express negative emotions, or emotions that convey vulnerability or weakness. For example, the old adage that “real men don’t cry”. Real men actually do cry and wish they could feel safe expressing their humanity more often (listen to my song “Build the Man” which conveys the message that it’s okay to let our men be human). We are all subject to every emotion on the spectrum, but culture, upbringing and conditioning (even our own) force us into what I call “emotional auto pilot”.
Emotional auto pilot is the habitual reaction we have when emotions arise that we don’t know how to navigate. Overall, as a culture, we tend to stuff our emotions, literally. Food, drugs, sex, workaholism, social media, distractions of all kinds repress the emotions we don’t want to feel. We have mastered emotional repression.
But there is a cost.
Patterns of repression can also be called addictions. Addictions are patterns of escape. I call them the “drug of choice”. Mine used to be reading. I love to read non-fiction, but there was a time when I read non-stop, excessively. When I began to see it as a problem, I realized that I was doing it to avoid my own thoughts and feelings. Addiciton. We want to feel good, or at least not feel bad, so we do something we think will bring us the feeling we’re seeking.
It seems, at first glance, like a reasonable solution. We reason that if X will alleviate Y and give me Z (if even only for a moment) then why not do it? But addiction ultimately robs a person of joy, peace, positive emotion and begins to snowball on itself because the negative that comes after the high begins to feel unbearable. Isn’t it ironic that in the process of trying to avoid the negative so we can feel good, we actually void the ability to feel real happiness?
On the other side of the spectrum is positive emotion. These don’t really cause a problem. We all love to feel them. And culture tells us that we should feel those feelings all the time, but that’s not realistic. We are human, and again, the contrast and opposing emotion is what defines positive feelings. The object of managing emotions shouldn’t be to never feel negative feelings, but rather to learn how to deal with negative feelings in a healthy way.
How Does an Emotional Vocabulary Help Me?
If you didn’t have an English vocabulary you wouldn’t be able to understand this article at all. It wouldn’t make sense. Likewise, if you don’t have an emotional vocabulary, how can you understand your own feelings? A vague feeling of “yucky” doesn’t really give you any information to work with. Something just feels off and you want to escape it. That doesn’t really help you.
An emotional vocabulary informs and empowers you. It allows you to address your emotions intelligently and decide what to do with them. It gives you healthy options and releases you from emotional auto pilot.
Whenever you exercise choice, you are exercising power and control in your life. Although you may not always have power over a situation that causes uncomfortable feelings, you do always have power over what to do with your emotions. Let’s take a look at how this works.
What IS and Emotional Vocabulary?
An emotional vocabulary is like any other set of subject-specific words. These are the words you use to describe your state of being in any given moment. We all know general terms like: happy, sad, mad, scared. But we don’t usually expand beyond those.
For the word ‘happy’ you have many similar words like: contented, excited, ecstatic, elated, pleased, thrilled, etc. All of these words can be substituted for the word happy, HOWEVER they each have a subtle nuance of meaning that can have a big impact on expression. If I say I’m happy, that is a very general term, but if I’m ecstatic you know I’m beyond happy. You know I’m having an intense, high-level reaction to something very exciting.
The same is true for negative words. Subtle differences make all the difference. For example, you might use the word ‘angry’ when you might actually be annoyed, irate, furious, irritable, offended, or uptight. The words you attribute to your feeling make all the difference in how you deal with the emotion.
An Example of Identifying Emotions and How it Can Empower You
Let’s elaborate on one of the examples above. Say you feel “off”. That unspecific term is hard to tackle. But if we ask some questions, we might be able to distinguish a more exact emotional term, which can then help us decide how to deal with it.
Let’s see if we can define “off” a little more precisely.
- When did I start feeling this way? Where was I? Who was I talking to? What was said? What did I hear, see, experience?
- Has this happened before? Is there a pattern?
- Am I not doing something I normally do? (like exercise, taking mediation, etc.)
- Am I doing something I don’t normally do? (like a new job, a new relationship, dealing with a big stressor)
There may be too many variables to list everything that could be contributing to your feeling of “off”, but try and break down how you feel by asking yourself questions.
What if I Still Don’t Know Exactly How I’m Feeling?
There are many emotion charts that can be found online. If questions, like those above, don’t help you define your emotions more clearly, use one of these charts (or several of them, as they can contain a variety of words). Look through the charts and pick a word that feels right.
Still can’t seem to get to a word? Try this Exercise that helps Release Blocked Emotions, or try Painting to Release Blocked Emotions. Still no luck? Talk to a qualified therapist who can help you bridge the disconnect.
Going back to our questions and how they empower. Let’s say you finally tie the feeling of “off” to a conversation you had, and you realize that you’re actually feeling frustrated. If you know that you’re frustrated you can ask yourself additional questions to help you decide what to do about that frustration. Such as:
- What can I do about the circumstances that caused this situation? Do I need to address anything? Is this a pattern? Or is it something I can just let go?
- What can I do right now that would be empowering?
- How can I exercise my power of choice to change the way I’m feeling?
- Do I think I need to feel this emotion to justify my behavior?
- Do I need to feel this emotion for a little while before I let it go? (this is okay too!)
- Do I need to talk to a therapist?
Another Example of Labeling Emotions
Here’s another quick example of the power of distinction when labeling emotions. Let’s say you’re feeling frustrated. This is very different from feeling exasperated. If you’re exasperated, you’re beyond frustrated. You would likely have a more complex pattern of steps that got you from A to Z. Knowing you’re exasperated would also indicate a need for greater self-care because you’ve triggered into some pretty intense emotions. You may need more time to recuperate or greater support. You may need to time to heal something. Understanding the difference allows you to give yourself what you need.
The Importance of Emotional Accountability
Emotional accountability is a willingness to accept responsibility for your own emotions. This is often a difficult mindset to develop. Most of us, when we get triggered, want to blame whatever, or whomever triggered us as responsible for how we feel. Humans like to play the victim role.
Yes, people do things, and those things can hurt us and cause us to react emotionally, but our reactions are our responsibility alone. No one makes you angry. You respond with anger to something that triggers you. It’s that simple.
Let me illustrate.
One night, a number of years ago, my husband and I got into a stupid argument. I went to bed fuming with anger. I couldn’t sleep. He was downstairs watching T.V. while I was tossing and turning. I blamed him for my anger and for hurting me. Now yes, he did say some things that hurt me and those comments were his responsibility, but my anger was my choice, my responsibility.
We always have the power to choose our reaction to any stimuli (unless we are medicated or have other psychological challenges). For the first time in my life, I realized that I could keep being angry or just go to sleep. I decided to go to sleep. The anger immediately left me and I feel asleep without any trouble.
How was that possible?
The decision to go to sleep allowed me to let my anger go and move into a state conducive to sleep. I decided not to be angry and the anger left. I remember feeling completely bewildered that it was that simple. It’s not that easy every time, but it is always a choice.
If you’re not ready to be accountable for your emotions (asking questions of yourself, making changes, etc.) you’ll have a very hard time tapping into deep, nourishing levels of self-care. This is where a therapist can be a valuable resource. I will also suggest a few books at the end of this article that can help readers understand more about the victim mentality and emotional accountability. A good therapist can help you learn to explore emotions in an environment that feels safe, and offer guidance when you’re struggling to manage those emotions.
How Labeling Feelings Can Help Your Children
An emotional vocabulary is powerful tool to give your children. About a decade ago we had a registered nurse come and talk at our church because we’d had two drug-overdose suicides by young adults in our area in a matter of months. She said a huge contributor to drug abuse by young people was due to a lack of understanding in how to identify and manage emotions.
We all need healthy ways to express our feelings. Our children need this tool! Teach them positive and negative words for various emotions. Give them a rich emotional vocabulary to draw from. Then be a safe person for them to express those emotions to. Their negative emotions are not a reflection on you. They are a reflection of human nature.
You can begin practicing being a safe person for your children by being a safe person for yourself. Allow yourself to feel! If you can learn to pause, observe, identify, and withhold judgment on your own feelings, you can then learn to do this with your children and ultimately teach it to them so they can be emotionally healthy and realize they have choices. None of us need to default to distraction and addiction if we are willing to learn a better way. Feelings themselves are not the problem. It’s how we choose to deal with those feelings that becomes a problem—a problem we don’t even realize we have.
This Week’s Challenge–Practice Identifying Emotions
Take a few minutes right now and see if you can label your emotional state. You may have positive, negative, or more neutral feelings. It doesn’t matter, just give it a try.
Then this week, practice identifying your positive emotions at least once. Expand your vocabulary. Try getting really specific with nuanced words. Once you get comfortable labeling positive emotions, try this with negative emotions. Recognize that negative emotions are part of the human experience and are not bad in and of themselves. Labeling them and giving yourself permission to feel, and then making a conscious choice about what to do with them is what matters.
Bonus Tool for Emotional Empowerment
Next time you find yourself angry, or livid, or infuriated try this (after you identify the emotion):
Say “I am [insert word here]. And that’s okay.”
Then breathe in and out of your nose. You’ll probably be breathing pretty fast at first. After a few breaths, try and slow your breathing rate. Eventually you’ll begin to breathe more normally. Breath controls the brain. Once you’re calm and rational you can decide what to do about your situation and emotions. You can make decisions that are not harmful to yourself or others, or that may cause you regret. You can ask questions. You can take healthy actions. You can get support. You can live intentionally instead of on auto pilot. You can even experience more peace because you are not controlled by your emotions. You have learned to control them!
Although we will always experience negative emotions, what we do with them is up to us. The power lies in choice. And choice lies in being able to identify what you are dealing with. And that’s the power of an emotional vocabulary!
Additional Articles on Emotions
Books I Recommend (because I’ve read them and think they’re helpful):