Why You Should Strengthen Your Emotional Vocabulary

Feelings are so much more than "good" or "bad."

Posted Jan 12, 2019

Mariana Plata
Source: Mariana Plata

Last year, I created a post for Instagram that said: "feelings aren't good or bad, all of them matter." To which a follower appropriately asked: "How do we call the 'bad' ones, then?" 

When I say feelings aren't "good" or "bad," I'm talking about the moral value we've placed on them. Let's turn back time to when you were younger: How did your parents react when you won an award at school or when you did an especially good job at an extracurricular activity?

Now, let's think about how your parents reacted when you got hurt while playing outside, or when you were having a tantrum, or when you were sad because of a fight you had with a sibling or friend.

Do you notice the difference? 

Let's start at the beginning

Usually, parents respond to behaviors and situations the best way they can. We know how to manage pleasant feelings, such as happiness or excitement, much better than the unpleasant ones. However, when something happens to their children they're unable to control, parents quickly enter an alert mode. This is what Dan Siegel calls "flipping the lid"—an analogy he uses to explain what happens when our rational brains disconnect from our emotional brains. 

When this happens, our brains are "kidnapped" and we can't think. Consequently, when we can't think clearly, parents react defensively to unpleasant feelings – those we normally call "bad feelings." 

When we analyze it from this angle, it's not surprising to think that we've been conditioned, from a very young age, to see those emotions we dislike feeling as "bad." And the scenario becomes even worse when we receive remarks like "don't feel bad" when we finally get the courage to express these unpleasant feelings. 

Why develop an emotional vocabulary 

It's important to develop an emotional vocabulary because it helps us have more answers than "good" or "bad" when someone asks us how we're doing. Giving a moral value (as good or bad) to our feelings only reinforces shame and guilt, which handicaps our ability to identify and recognize our feelings. When we allow shame and guilt to join us, we have a higher risk of repressing our feelings and limiting our emotional expression. 

The earlier we develop an emotional vocabulary—and it's never too early or too late to start—the better our chances of cultivating emotional maturity and inner growth. 

Examples of pleasant feelings include: 

Examples of unpleasant feelings include: 

And the list goes on and on. The key is that the earlier we can recognize the signs in our bodies as feelings that need to be expressed, and the better we become at accurately identifying them, the better our chances at learning how to manage them. The better our chances to generate empathy with others. The more we invest in strengthening our emotional vocabulary, the better our the quality of our relationships with our partners, our children, our friends, our co-workers, and with ourselves.  

The more extensive our emotional vocabulary, the more attuned we can become with other people's needs and feelings. How do you develop your emotional vocabulary and help those around you develop theirs? Let me know in the comments down below. 

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