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 that emotion easier to deal with. And, we can uncover emotions we didn’t realise we had. For instance, as well as feeling ‘miffed’ we might also realise we feel frustrated.
Furthermore, by being specific when labelling an unwanted emotion we can reduce its intensity. We might realise 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, let’s ask ourselves: ‘What type of anger am I feeling? Am I miffed? Vexed? Peeved? Irritated? Frustrated? Furious?
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.’
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.’
‘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, 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 that can adequately describe them.
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?
Did you also feel:
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.