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How to expand our emotional vocabulary

How have you been? I am asking my client at the start of a therapy session. OK she answers. I vary the polite but often not very meaningful How are you? to show to my client that I actually want to know how she is. And fair enough, I am not being told Fine, how are you? I am getting a much more honest OK. But it still leaves me guessing. This sounds like a bit of a mixed bag, I say, hoping to find out more. Yes, I have had some ups and downs this week, but overall, I am OK. she replies. Hmmm, I know a little more now but only a little.

I am not sure if the OK acts as a protection from judgement or if she is really not sure how else to say it. I explore: Is there another word you could find to describe what you have been feeling?

I don't know. Nobody ever asks me that. … I am feeling like I want to be happy but there is nothing to be happy about. … Empty is probably what I would say. I am feeling empty. All of a sudden, there is an opening. She has let me into her world. From what seemed a bit distanced I now feel a lot of warmth for this client and her search for happiness. I empathize with her never having been asked how she feels. It tells me something about her struggle to put her feelings into words.

Articulating our feelings to each other creates connection. That doesn't mean that we need to share the same feeling at the same time. If we are able to express our feelings without criticism or blame, we have a much better chance of being heard, which in turn will make us feel more understood and connected. Using more differentiated feeling words increases the level of understanding and connection and will ultimately lead to better relations overall. There is thus a strong rationale for expanding our emotional vocabulary. And if improving our own relations with others isn't enough of a motivation, learning how to talk about our feelings also enables us to teach others how to do that, for example our children, partner, friends or family members.

Especially in times of physical separation where there is less opportunity to express our appreciation through affection or in tangible ways, communication may be all we have to support each other and stay connected. However, we can only receive understanding and emotional support if we let other people in. We need to give others a chance to connect with us by showing some vulnerability, by sharing some of our feelings. And this in turn necessitates for us to recognize and name our feelings.

This is where the issue starts for many of us. Particularly when we have grown up in a family where feelings are not talked about, we will have had very little chance to learn about them. One client told me that he never saw his mum cry. Another one said that she never saw her parents argue. While I am not saying that these examples are necessarily problematic, it just means that we have far less opportunity to learn about feelings. We may also receive mixed messages from our parents: an angry face or a slammed door with no verbal explanation; teary eyes and a hunched back and the statement I am fine; someone numbing their anxiety or depression with drugs or alcohol and disappearing in their bedroom for hours or days – how are we supposed to make sense of this as a child? What words can we give to those experiences?

And what about our very own feelings? Are they even recognized, let alone allowed? These are statements some of my clients have been confronted with growing up: Boys don't cry; You shouldn't be angry; Pull yourself together; If you cry you make mummy upset. And these are only the explicit messages. Many times, clients learned implicitly that as their parents were hiding their emotions, so should they; that showing their feelings was unnecessarily burdening their parents; that showing emotions is weak and not showing them is strong, and so on… And then the therapist asks you: How are you feeling?

An easy starting point to improve our emotional literacy and to move from OK to something a little more telling is to look at the four main groups of feelings: anxiety, anger, sadness and happiness. If someone asks me how I am feeling, I can quickly check which of these groups of feelings is heightened: Am I feeling more angry or anxious? Are these tears of happiness or sadness? Sometimes, I might feel several contradictory feelings. Sometimes, I can only work out one dominant feeling and a wild mix of others. Sometimes, it is only later, when my feelings have calmed down, that I can figure out what was going on emotionally for me at the time. All of this is OK ;)

Once I have identified the main group of feelings, I can then explore the intensity and specific flavour of my feeling. In the anxiety group, I might feel restless, worried or terrified, to name a few examples. If I am feeling some level of anger, it may be boredom, I may feel frustrated or full-blown rage. If I identified sadness as the main group, the feeling itself could be best described as deflated, disappointed or in despair. And when it comes to happiness, I might be feeling content, delighted or ecstatic. If I have some time on my hands, I might search for synonyms to see if I find a word that describes my feeling even more precisely and expands my emotional vocabulary in the process. The more specific I can be in terms of how I feel, the more chance I give others to connect with me and the more I can feel understood.

If you like to expand your emotional vocabulary and get more in touch with your feelings, I suggest this very simple and effective exercise. At least once a day, ask yourself: How am I feeling right now? Give yourself a bit of time to answer this question honestly. Start by grouping your feeling into one of the four main categories: Is it anxiety, anger, sadness or happiness? Search for a word within that group that describes your feeling most accurately. Consider the level of intensity and flavour of your feeling, for example Am I feeling a little nervous or actual fear? Am I feeling a bit down or seriously depressed? If one word isn't enough to capture your feeling state, check if a second or third feeling is also very dominant at this time, even if it stands in conflict with the first. See what happens if you share your feelings with someone. Own your feeling - try to just say: I am feeling unsettled / furious / blue / elated / ... without any expectation towards the other. Notice how your relationships change when you communicate your feelings in this way.


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