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Is Your Emotional Vocabulary Big Enough?

Embracing granularity to manage our full range of feelings.

Key points

  • We tend to have a limited emotional vocabulary, which, in turn, limits the tools we have to regulate our emotions.
  • Being able to specifically and precisely differentiate our feelings has a host of positive consequences.
  • There are easy steps you can take each day to expand your emotional vocabulary.

Imagine you have a toolbox. This toolbox contains a screwdriver, a hammer, and a wrench. When something breaks, you fix it by using one of these tools. In fact, when something breaks, you immediately ask yourself, “Screwdriver, hammer, or wrench?” This is partly out of habit and partially because these are the only tools you have to work with.

Two Scenarios

Scenario A: One day, you notice your favorite chair is wobbling because a screw on the bottom of the seat has come loose. Screwdriver. It’s actually a bolt with a hexagonal hole. Wrench. You squeeze underneath the chair and try tightening the bolt using your wrench. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough space around the bolt to clamp it and also rotate it. You huff and you puff, trying to turn the bolt with the wrench, then your bare hands, and then you even give the hammer and screwdriver a go out of frustration. Alas, the bolt is still loose and the chair is still wobbly. Since you don’t own any other tools, you decide to just live with your seesaw of a chair. A month later, as you sit down in the chair with your morning coffee, the chair snaps from the uneven distribution of weight, leaving you in a writhing heap on the floor, wondering why these things always happen to you (as well as wondering why you couldn't just fix the chair properly in the first place).

Scenario B: One day, you notice your favorite chair is wobbling because a bolt with a hexagonal recess on the bottom of the seat has come loose. You grab your trusty toolbox. Allen wrench. You tighten the bolt with relative ease and precision, let out a satisfied sigh, and move on to bigger and better things to focus on.

Emotional Granularity

What could these two scenarios possibly have to do with something like emotion regulation? Our emotional vocabulary is our toolbox for dealing with emotional distress. The more words for emotions we have at our disposal, the more tools we have in our toolbox. Research has shown that having the ability to identify and name emotions precisely, or possessing a high level of "emotional granularity," is correlated with being less overwhelmed in stressful situations, being better able to manage one's negative emotions, engaging less in destructive behaviors such as binge drinking or self-harm, and being less likely to have issues with depression or social anxiety.1

It appears that it is possible to teach individuals how to increase their emotional granularity, or ability to differentiate between their emotions. A 2012 study found that people who were scared of spiders experienced fewer anxiety symptoms and were more willing to engage with spiders after being taught to broaden their emotional vocabulary when observing spiders (e.g., describing their emotions in terms of feeling disgusted but also intrigued) than individuals in control groups who were instructed to use other strategies such as cognitively reframing one's perspective and using distraction.2

Often, the way we try to cope with problems is by using the toolbox with three tools in it from Scenario A, but, instead of a screwdriver, hammer, and wrench, we have "happy," "angry," and "sad." Many people I have worked with have felt like the only tool they have sometimes is that one hammer of "anger" to pummel themselves, their situations, and others.

Just like trying to pick the right screwdriver that goes with a particular screw, it can be challenging at first to find the right word to describe what we are feeling in the moment, especially if we haven't gotten used to using that word in that context yet, or using the word at all, for that matter.

Is this a T10 or a T15 screw?

Am I angry or am I livid?

I can’t tell if I need a Philips head #2 or a Philips head #3 screwdriver.

I don't know if I am feeling nervous or if I am really just jittery.

I’m feeling happy. Really, really happy. So maybe I mean thrilled. No, wait, ecstatic… Aha, I've got it! I feel bliss.

Don't worry, it's OK if it seems difficult to tell the difference between virtually identical emotions with only slight nuances, like trying to estimate if a screw is 3/16th of an inch wide or 5/32nd of an inch wide just by looking at it. Nevertheless, an experienced carpenter can do just this, knowing precisely what type of screw is in front of her and what type of screwdriver she will need because she has seen and used this same screw and screwdriver a thousand times over. In a similar fashion, each time we open up our toolbox of emotion words and pick the one that fits our current "emotion" the best, we are improving our skill at being able to tell the difference between feeling overwhelmed and feeling burnt out, between being anxious and being afraid, between walking on sunshine and merely feeling radiant.

Finding the Right Emotion Words

It can help to have some sample tools for you to choose from to start filling in your personal emotional vocabulary toolbox. I know it can feel daunting to have too many choices at first, so I might recommend this feelings wheel from The Gottman Institute as a starting point.3 You might also keep a journal at hand to write down emotion words you stumble upon in books, shows, and conversations that resonate with you. Keep your ears and eyes open for such delectable, descriptive words like elated, expansive, and exuberant, and that's just with the letter "e"!

I hope you feel inspired to take steps to increase your emotional vocabulary and fill your toolbox with words that can help you be more resilient, regulate your emotions better, be more effective in your relationships, and have a richer internal life.

LinkedIn image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock. Facebook image: MAYA LAB/Shutterstock

References

1. Kashdan, T. B., Barrett, L. F., & McKnight, P. E. (2015). Unpacking emotion differentiation: Transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving distinctions in negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(1), 10–16.

2. Kircanski, K., Lieberman, M. D., & Craske, M. G. (2012). Feelings into words: Contributions of language to exposure therapy. Psychological Science, 23, 1086–1091.

3. Willcox, G. (2022). The Gottman Institute. https://cdn.gottman.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/The-Gottman-Institut…

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