Why You Need to Increase Your Emotional Vocabulary

Why You Need to Increase Your Emotional Vocabulary

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of mindfulness. (See this post if you’re in the dark.)  Knowing what you’re feeling at any given moment is a huge gateway to emotional health. One of the most important steps towards mindfulness and emotional health is developing an extensive emotional vocabulary. Part of pinpointing exactly what you’re feeling means having an expansive vocabulary to describe precisely how you’re feeling.




After years of working with clients, I’ve come to the conclusion that the majority of humans have a pretty limited emotional vocabulary, consisting of about ten emotions: mad, sad, bad, good, fine, upset, anxious, happy, stressed, tired. (And yes, I realize that good, bad, and fine aren’t really emotions, but people seem to use them anyway.) This limited vocabulary severely limits our ability to name how we’re feeling.


There is a huge difference between feeling sad and hurt. There is a difference between feeling disappointed and rejected. There is a difference between devastated and bummed. It’s the nuances in emotions that really make the difference.


Still not convinced? Consider this example. Say you have been experiencing significant knee pain, so you decide to schedule an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon. During the appointment, the surgeon is going to do several things to determine exactly what the issue is. Is it a torn ACL, a strained meniscus? Have you overextended something; is it arthritis? Is your cartilage wearing down; is it a ligament issue, a tendon? Yes, the overall issue is knee pain, but that’s not very specific, and it doesn’t give any real sense of what is going on. The doctor is going to take their time in assessing the problem at a detailed level, so that they can do something about it, tailoring the intervention to your specific injury and needs.


Our emotional health works the same way. We have to get an accurate, detailed picture of what we’re feeling if we want to be able to do anything about it.


Last week, I had a moment where I was dragging. I could feel it. My energy was low, I just wasn’t feeling it. When I noticed this, I stopped to ask myself, “What’s going on; how are you feeling?” I could have just gone with “tired or blah,” but that wasn’t really accurate. I acknowledged that I felt depleted, exhausted, and run down. These words may not seem that different than “tired or blah,” but they are. And acknowledging them gave me a heck of a lot more info about how to move forward and feel differently than if I just would have said “blah.”


To help you increase your emotional vocabulary and work towards increased mindfulness, I’ve included a printable list of emotion words for you to reference throughout the week. The goal is to be descriptive in naming your emotions. And don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re going to find one, perfect word to describe how you’re feeling in a particular moment. It will likely be a combination of several different emotions, and sometimes when I can’t quite put my finger on the emotion, I’ll acknowledge feeling a “lesser version of (insert emotion.)” This is a new skill for most people; therefore it takes time and practice.


I encourage you to print out the included Emotional Vocabulary list and keep it somewhere close by and fairly accessible. Try keeping one in your planner, at your desk at work, and stuck to your family’s fridge.  Try to check in with yourself a couple times a day, asking, “How do I feel right now?” Check in when you feel particularly activated or upset or after you’ve had a difficult encounter, as well as in times that feel less emotionally activating. Push yourself to use descriptive and nuanced emotions, increasing your awareness of what you’re feeling in the present moment. As someone who practices this on a daily basis, the impact is pretty remarkable. This is one of the skills that my clients enjoy the most; I often hear what a big difference it makes in their lives. So give it a try and let me know your experience! I’m eager, excited, and anxious to hear your responses. (PS: Did you catch what I did there? Yep, I used my emotional vocabulary words. Boom.)


Emotional Vocabulary Word List

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