Key 2. Be specific when you describe an emotion.

There are thousands of colours. Paint charts describe just a few. We have navy blue, royal blue, baby blue, cobalt blue and so on, but most of the time we just say ‘blue’. That’s fair enough, because most of the time the shade of the blue isn’t important.

In the same way, there are thousands of emotions, but only a few hundred words to describe them. The emotion you might feel at seeing the ocean for the first time would be different to the emotion you feel seeing a caterpillar for the first time. We might use the word ‘wonder’ to describe both, but the emotions being described would be different.

It’s understandable that we only have a few hundred words to describe thousands of emotions, but it’s a shame we use only a handful of those words. By limiting our language, we limit our understanding of what we are feeling.

For example, if we say things are ‘awesome’ or that they ‘give us the shits’, we are not being precise, and those words don’t help us unravel the turmoil within. On the other hand, if we can find the precise word – such as heartened, encouraged, pleased, astonished, curious – we become aware of life’s richness.

More importantly, we understand exactly what we are feeling, which makes it easier to deal with. We can uncover emotions we didn’t realise we had. As well as feeling ‘miffed’, for instance, we might also realise we feel frustrated. Furthermore, by being specific when labelling an unwanted emotion we can reduce its intensity – as when, for example, we realise that we aren’t devastated, merely disappointed.

The key to describing an emotion is to be specific. Instead of simply saying we feel angry, for instance, we can ask ourselves: ‘What type of anger am I feeling? Am I miffed? Vexed? Peeved? Irritated? Frustrated?

There are two other main ways to be specific.

Don’t exaggerate or catastrophise
Don’t use the word ‘ecstatic’ when you feel delighted.
Don’t say ‘I’m furious’ when you feel annoyed.
Don’t use the word ‘fantastic’ when you only feel pleased.

When we exaggerate, we don’t get to know ourselves; we get to know a caricature of ourselves. Catastrophising is an extension of exaggeration, and even more damaging. It is so important that it has its own key.

Don’t use clichés
Don’t say ‘I’m mad as a bull’ when you feel annoyed.
Don’t say ‘I’m scared out of my wits’ when you feel nervous.
Don’t say ‘I’m as sick as a dog’ when you have a cold.
Always search for the word that best and most precisely describes your feeling, and use it.

Rolf: ‘My cat died. I feel awful.’

Beatrice: ‘Be specific.’

Rolf: ‘Huh?’

Beatrice: ‘What are you feeling, exactly?’

Rolf: ‘Irritated, that you’re asking me this.’

Beatrice: ‘Good. What else? How do you feel about your cat dying?’

Rolf: ‘Awful. How do you think I feel?’

Beatrice: ‘Be specific.’

Rolf: ‘Wretched – sad – angry – miserable – flat – guilty . . .’

Beatrice: ‘Good stuff.’


Rolf says he feels awful, and he’s right. But he doesn’t know precisely what he is feeling, and that can be unsettling. Did you notice that he said ‘guilty’? He may not have been aware of that before. Now, he can examine his guilt and ponder about why he feels it. Knowing that he feels these emotions and that they have been ‘heard’ will ease his discomfort.

Rolf’s pain is still there, but he also knows he feels wretched, sad, angry, miserable, flat and guilty – and now he has a better chance of dealing with those feelings. He won’t have to suffer the ‘noise in his head’ telling him there’s something wrong, but not know what it is. 
 Mind you, being specific can have its problems:
Rolf: ‘I’m feeling discombobulated.’

Beatrice: ‘Huh?’



‘We are often encouraged to exaggerate in the name of positivity. The self-help guru, Anthony Robbins, for example, reckons that if we habitually use positive words like “spectacular” instead of “good” we will benefit. He also suggests we replace expressions such as “I feel angry” with the words, “I feel a little bit peeved”, “I feel a tad out of sorts” or “I feel a smidge cranky” to reduce the emotional intensity of an experience. What would you say to that?’

I believe it’s more important to accurately state our true feelings, and to get to know ourselves better. We need to make the unconscious conscious. Fibbing to ourselves will hinder that. If you are genuinely furious, tell yourself, ‘I’m feeling furious’, rather than, ‘I feel a little bit peeved.’ To really know ourselves, honesty is important.

‘What if I don’t feel anything in particular? What if I feel nothing?’

Be specific about that. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you feel?
listless      impassive       apathetic       cool        indifferent        serene
     deadened      calm
unmoved      bored      ambivalent
When you feel nothing in particular, still search for the right word and be specific.



‘Does it matter if I can’t think of the right word to describe my emotion?’

No, because even the attempt to find the right word is important, because that will bring us closer to what we are feeling. There are countless emotions that don’t have words adequate to describe them.

Exercise:
Step 1. Think of a time when you felt angry.



Step 2. Do any of these words accurately describe that anger?
irritated       displeased    irritable      peeved       exasperated    irked           irate      perturbed     annoyed        miffed        ruffled       perturbed       dismayed
If not, does another word come to mind?

Step 3. Did you also feel:

hatred?   
If so, do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
dislike           distaste         contempt       disdain       detest
 repulsed        hostility         despise          disgust       appalled
 repelled        disturbed       revolted        uncomfortable

Did you also feel:
afraid? anxious?  worried?  If so, do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
cautious       unnerved   nettled       concerned    alarmed
 pensive         nervous     uneasy      apprehensive
 intimidated  tense         perturbed   scared         bothered

stressed? If so, be specific. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
panicky           flustered         overwrought           anxious
    uneasy            alarmed           uncomfortable      worried

frustrated? If so, be specific. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
helpless           powerless         exasperated       discouraged            
 disheartened   disappointed     embittered        irked



resentful? If so, be specific. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
bitter         indignant      incensed      jealous used

betrayed? If so, be specific. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
lonely    isolated   forsaken   despair  abandoned  indignant

humiliated? If so, be specific. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
embarrassed    subdued   uncomfortable    crushed     sad
 degraded         shamed    disgraced            humble       hurt

powerless? If so, be specific. Do any of these words more accurately describe what you felt?
helpless           feeble          weak          ineffective hopeless useless

Step 4. Did you also feel any of these emotions?
relieved  exhilarated          powerful            invincible        burdened        lost                 defiant                disassociated      disappointment    guilt

Completing that exercise might have taken a while, but when we are in the habit of identifying our emotions and clearly labelling them, we can do it quickly.

 

 

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