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5 Helpful Ways to Grow Your Emotional Vocabulary

grow your emotional vocabulary

Table of Contents

Summary

Research shows that how we talk about our emotions influences how we experience them. As such, using the wrong word could minimize or exaggerate a negative feeling and then make that feeling worse. Of course, before we can recognize and label our feelings, we first need to have the right language to describe how we are feeling. If you do not have a strong emotional vocabulary, you may struggle with accurately communicating your needs and asking for help.

What are Emotions? 

Take a moment to think about your everyday life. How many emotions do you think you feel on any given day? How many feeling words do you know? How many times do you think you accurately identify how you are feeling? 

Research shows we tend to use 3 umbrella terms to describe all our emotions: if something good happens, we tend to say we are happy, and if something bad happens, we tend to say we are sad or angry (Brown, 2021). But those 3 words can’t cover all the nuanced emotions that we feel everyday – hostile, mortified, enthralled, agonized, tranquil, and bewildered, to name a few.  

These words define what it means to be human, but how often do you hear people say they feel bewildered? How many times have you exclaimed, “I feel so tranquil today!”? If you find that you struggle with labeling what you are feeling, you are not alone. There are strategies you can use to grow your emotional vocabulary and become better at expressing how you truly are feeling.  

The Importance of Emotional Granularity 

Emotional Granularity is the ability to recognize and accurately label how we are feeling (Brown, 2021). Possessing and using this ability can be healing and lead to greater emotional regulation and psychosocial wellbeing (Brown, 2021). 

Research shows that how we talk about our emotions influences how we experience them. As such, using the wrong word could minimize or exaggerate a negative feeling and then make that feeling worse. For example, saying that “I feel depressed,” when you actually are feeling sad (which is a less emotionally intense experience), can reinforce the negativity and lead you to feel worse than you originally felt. 

Of course, before we can recognize and label our feelings, we first need to have the right language to describe how we are feeling. If you do not have a strong emotional vocabulary, you may struggle with accurately communicating your needs and asking for help. This is why developing emotional granularity is so important for your mental wellbeing! 

Common Emotions 

When we accurately can name our emotions, we then can better manage, regulate, and move through them. To begin to understand feeling words better, it can help to break them down into overarching emotion categories. Here are some emotions that you might not know, or that you might be using incorrectly, and what they mean (Brown, 2021). 

Anger 

  • Hostile: occurs when anger continually goes unaddressed; this emotion keeps us stuck in a cycle of being stubborn, pessimistic, and quick to anger, which manifests in behaviors that easily are noticed by others (e.g., being inflexible, always assuming the worst, etc.). 
  • Agitated: becoming visibly disturbed or upset by something or someone. 
  • Jealous: involves feeling insecure due to someone else’s achievements or advantages, sometimes leading to hostile behavior toward the other person. It also can occur when we feel protective or territorial about something or someone.  
  • Contemptuous: arises out of a feeling of deep hatred or disgust. 

Sadness 

  • Shame: believing you are inherently flawed, and therefore, unworthy of love, belonging, and connection. 
  • Disheartened: feeling discouraged or let down to the point of losing hope and motivation. 
  • Hopeless: believing nothing good can/will ever happen and feeling discouraged about the future. 
  • Agonized: experiencing severe mental pain and suffering, usually resulting from anxiety or worry. 

Fear 

  • Anxious: experiencing great concern or worry; characterized by a prolonged sense of uneasiness and unhealthy patterns of thinking (e.g., rumination). 
  • Mortified: experiencing extreme embarrassment that arises out of shame or wounded pride. 
  • Overwhelmed: experiencing extreme levels of stress on a physical, emotional, and/or cognitive level to the point of feeling unable to complete daily tasks. 
  • Hysterical: having a disproportionately extreme emotional response to a situation. This also can refer to crying uncontrollably, due to fear or sadness. 

Love 

  • Enamored: having strong feelings of admiration, infatuation, or love for someone or something. 
  • Appreciative: feeling respect, admiration, or gratitude.  
  • Compassionate: showing empathy or compassion, which means having an awareness of other people’s distress or suffering and wanting to help.  
  • Enthralled: happens when your attention is fully captured, and you experience feelings of delight, fascination, or wonder. 

Joy  

  • Tranquil: occurs when there is an absence of demand or the pressure to do anything while relishing the feeling of doing nothing; this pertains to feeling calm and peaceful. 
  • Amused: finding something pleasantly entertaining or funny. 
  • Jubilant: feeling and expressing extreme happiness or joy, usually in response to a pleasant event or an achievement. 
  • Content: feeling complete, appreciative, and as though you are enough, due to your needs being satisfied. 

Surprise 

  • Bewildered: feeling extremely confused, lost, or puzzled; having difficulty understanding a situation.  
  • Awe-struck: being filled with wonder, amazement, or even dread. 
  • Perplexed: being confused and uncertain about something or someone. 
  • Astonished: feeling overwhelmed by a reaction of surprise, shock, or wonder. 

If you are interested in further expanding your emotional vocabulary, check out this emotional wheel to further investigate feeling terms and exactly what they mean. The next time that you need to express how you feel, consider using one of the new terms you’ve learned! 

Emotional vocabulary wheel

Why Do I Feel This Way? 

Expressing your emotions can be difficult, especially if you grew up in a family that didn’t talk about emotions or mental health. Being honest about how you feel, both to yourself and others, puts you in an extremely vulnerable place.  

People generally don’t like feeling vulnerable, because they are raised to associate it with weakness. This is not true though; to be vulnerable is to be strong! It is courageous to be vulnerable, because it requires us to face uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, in order to achieve personal growth (Brown, 2021).   

People who suffer from mental health disorders, such as depression and ADHD, may have a harder time than others in differentiating between and expressing their emotions (Thompson et al., 2021; Beheshti et al., 2020). However, a mental health professional can help you with the symptoms of these disorders and with emotional regulation and expression. 

How to Grow Your Emotional Vocabulary

Notice How You Feel: The next time that you feel any emotion that seems different from your baseline, pause, bring your attention to it, and try to identify, as accurately as possible, how you are feeling and where in your body you are feeling it. If you are struggling with finding the right word to describe how you are feeling, consider talking with loved ones or consulting an emotion wheel to gain some clarity.  

Be Mindful of Your Word Choices: When talking with others, be mindful of the words that you choose. For example, when a friend asks, “how are you doing?,” instead of instinctively saying “good,” take a mindful moment to pick an honest emotion that allows you to express authentically how you are feeling. 

Try Emotional Journaling: Often, writing about how you feel is a lot easier than saying it out loud to someone. Additionally, writing your thoughts and emotions in a journal can help you to determine if the feeling word you are using is accurate, or if perhaps another word is needed. 

Be Patient: Have self-compassion for yourself, as recognizing, labeling, and talking about feelings is not an easy thing to do. It takes time to cultivate your emotional knowledge. Keep practicing and don’t give up! 

Seek Professional Help: If you struggle with recognizing and expressing your emotions in a healthy way, and you find that it is affecting your relationships negatively, talk to a mental health professional. A professional can help you to process how you are feeling in order to come up with the appropriate feeling terms and coping mechanisms. 

Scholarly Sources 

Brown, B. (2021). Atlas of the heart. Random House.  

Beheshti, A., Chavanon, M-L., & Christiansen, H. (2020). Emotion dysregulation in adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: A meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry, 20(120), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-020-2442-7  

Karimova, H. (2017, December 24). The emotion wheel: What it is and how to use it. PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/emotion-wheel/  

Thompson, R. J., Liu, D. Y., Sudit, E., & Boden, M. (2021). Emotion differentiation in current and remitted major depressive disorder. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 685851. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.685851 

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