Have you ever thought about the words you use to describe emotions. When someone asks “How are you?” and you say “Good” – what does that mean? Good may mean one thing to me and different to you.
So this week I would like to get emotional and talk about them.
I find it fascinating that it’s incredibly hard to define what the word emotion means – there are different views on the meaning. For this post, an emotion is ‘a relatively brief conscious experience characterised by intense mental activity and a high degree of pleasure or displeasure.’ Add to that it’s instinctive or intuitive, not based on reasoning or knowledge and can motivate an action or influence behaviour.
There are several agreed lists of words to describe emotions. For ease, this Wikipedia page [https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contrasting_and_categorization_of_emotions ] includes many of them. Just looking at the EARL list of 48 words, immediately made me stop and think about how many of them do I use.
It appears that it can really help to use a wider vocabulary, in conversation and more importantly when trying to understand an emotional reaction to something. Its referred to as emotional labelling and there is scientific evidence that being able to use labels can help regulate the emotion. Susan David, author of the excellent ‘Emotional Agility” book, sums this up
“We know that people who are more fine-tuned about the label that they use for their emotional experience tend to be happier over time”
After labelling the emotion then what? From therapeutic guidance it’s clear that the natural reaction of sometimes delaying or pushing the emotion away actually creates issues, through build-up of the emotion and not really addressing the cause. The guidance includes the following:
- emotions are not good or bad – they just are. They are transient, not permanent, even if it feels like they are
- acknowledging that can help accept them, to stop or reduce the associated mental effort
- pause and consider the emotion. What is trying to tell you, what is the best action based on it and how would that action fit with your underlying values.
My favourite quote from Susan David –
“Our happiness comes not as a goal but as a by-product of engaging in honesty with ourselves.”
By expanding the range of words we use to label emotions may help us manage them better. Sounds simple, hard to do. Within depression it’s very hard to accept that emotions are just there and the ability to manage them is compromised further by the self-questioning critic.
I find labelling brings a cognitive processing to the emotion, allowing me to see it or the cause more clearly and stops me from ignoring or pushing the emotion away, even if it’s painful. That’s the really hard part. Just like a lot of what I write about these things are hard, you are up against the evolution of the brain and habits formed over many years.
To sum it up and I wish I could recall where I saw this quote :
“Events are events. It is the mind that turns them into a tragedy or a comedy.”
Here is a further vocabulary consideration. You may have seen media coverage of a New York based artist, Yao Xiao, who created a cartoon depicting saying “Thank you” rather than “Sorry” (and being English I say that a lot). It obviously doesn’t work in every instance. I noticed the difference in how just changing those words made me feel, while still graciously acknowledging the other person. Just consider these examples:
- if a few minutes late for a meeting, rather than saying “Sorry I am late”, try “Thank you for waiting for me”
- when trying to talk about something hard, instead of “Sorry for rambling” try “Thank you for listening to me”.
I still say sorry, good and bad a lot though, but working on it.
Have a good, I mean joyful, weekend. Chris