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Emotional Vocabulary

You know how babies cry because they can’t tell us what they want or how they are feeling? It must be so frustrating to them to not be able to tell the people on whom they are dependent what they want. Children learn language quickly and eagerly. When they start to learn words they cry less often because they have words to express themselves. Just like a child, as our vocabulary expands our ability to express ourselves clearly and succinctly does as well.

I remember learning certain words that were just fun to say or that described something so well. Maybe you do, too. Some of my favorites were:

Onomatopoeia. I learned this word from an elementary school educational TV show that our teacher used to have us watch. I love the sound of the word and the fact that the word describes a word that describes a sound. Boom! How fun is that?

Another favorite I remember learning was quintessential. Isn’t that a great word? Isn’t it just THE BEST?

A word a learned in the past few years from one of my favorite TV shows - White Collar - is the german word schadenfreude - pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune. While I don’t really wish it to be a part of my character it is such a descriptive word of something we all experience, but can’t exactly put a finger on until given the correct word

Emotions are the same way. We can feel something or wish we could feel something, but without an extensive emotional vocabulary, we just can’t describe exactly what it is. As we increase our emotional vocabulary, our ability to process emotions and create emotions expands.

I love the movie Inside Out. It made mainstream the idea that it's okay to feel our emotions and that they are more complex than we think. For example, happy memories can be touched with sadness like Riley’s memories at the end of the movie. She learns that it’s okay to feel sad and that sadness can lead to positive experiences and memories like those of her family and friends supporting and comforting her.

We are all pretty well versed in joy, sadness, anger, and fear, the four emotions portrayed in Inside Out, but our feelings are deeper, more personal, and more nuanced than just these four feelings. We deserve to give ourselves the full range of experiences in our emotions, but cannot do so until we increase our emotional vocabulary. How we talk about our emotions affects how we experience our emotions.

Let’s look at an example. If you are feeling sad, what does that mean? She was sad when her ice cream scoop fell off the cone. She was sad when her husband died. Those are two very different feelings, but without an adequate emotional vocabulary, we use the same word to describe both. What are some other words you could use?




Heavy Heart


Let Down





As you read those words, can you feel in your body how each feels slightly different? Some feel lighter than others. Some feel heavy. Some feel dark. Some have a faster vibration. Some have a slower vibration. Pay attention to how each word makes you feel.

The words we use change our experience of the emotion. Instead of sad, let’s look at those two examples again with different vocabulary:

It was a bummer that her ice-cream fell off the cone.

She is in anguish over the fact that her husband died.

Your experience of those emotions - even in that brief second while you read those sentences was different.

Often we want to create emotion in order to take certain actions. We say we want to feel happy, so we can be kind to others. We say we want to feel motivated so we can get our work done. Imagine what you could create with a wider range of emotions from which to choose.

Most people say they want to be happy. Is that what you want to feel? Is happiness going to create the result you want? Or is it something more like:









After reading those, and feeling the different reactions each of those words produce in your body, can you see how each emotion could produce a different result? If I’m feeling peppy I may be bouncing around saying “hi” to everyone and twirling as I go. Yes, I am happy, but it so much more. If I am joyful I may be much slower and deliberate in my movement. I may be just sitting, holding a newborn child. I am still happy, but it is a deeper, calmer happiness than peppy. Distinguishing between the emotions creates a different result.

As we both process emotions that we notice in ourselves and work to create emotions that we would like to cultivate in ourselves, paying attention to the words we use makes a difference. Increasing our emotional vocabulary dramatically changes our experience of both our inner and outer worlds.

As we increase our emotional vocabulary our ability to feel deepens and our ability to create emotion expands.

"Think about what emotions you experience on the regular and are they different than maybe the emotions that your friends experience on the regular and question why that might be. Instead of all of our emotions kind of being built in, maybe they are learned emotions and if that is the case, we can learn to feel different emotions more regularly.”

With a better emotional vocabulary, we will be able to feel and process our emotions more easily and we will be able to create the emotions we want in order to produce the results that we want.

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