The Language of Emotions

Do you have an emotional vocabulary?  Do you use a wide range of words to describe how you are feeling or do you rely on “fine” and “okay?”  In our environment of rapid change and clipped conversations (verbal and through technology), most of us rely upon the expedient answer of “fine” when queried by someone, especially in a non-intimate environment (e.g. the clerk at the store, a bank teller, work colleague before the start of a meeting).

I’ll admit I have resorted to those non-descript responses for the sake of brevity.  There are situations in which a quick smile and a “fine” are appropriate.

However, over the years I’ve seen more and more people struggle to describe their emotional state.  It is as if their ability to articulate their feelings has atrophied like an unused muscle.

In the past few years I’ve resorted to giving a few clients a list of emotional words and the assignment to choose an emotion they are either uncomfortable or unfamiliar with.  They are to explore that emotion.  To imagine what it might feel like, look like, and what might trigger them to experience it.

The goal is to be able to build up their emotional anatomy, so to speak.  To learn that emotions are part of the normal experience of being human, not something to be avoided.

An emotion is but a brief episode of physiological reactions that last a few seconds.   What keeps an emotion present is what we say to ourselves about the trigger, the experience, or the memory associated with it.

Some of my clients fear that if they experience a “negative” emotion, like sadness or anger, they will somehow get stuck in that state.  Or they believe that feeling sad will automatically lead to a serious bout of depression.

Clinical or chronic depression is more complex than a feeling of sadness.  Depression should be evaluated by a health care provider or qualified therapist for diagnosis and treatment.

New research from the University of California at Berkeley indicates that human emotion isn’t as distinct as previously thought.  Instead, the investigators found that emotions are not distinct separate states, but are fluid and interconnected.  “Emotional experiences are so much richer and more nuanced than previously thought,” said Allen Cowen, a member of the research team.

Twenty-seven distinct categories of emotion* were identified and mapped to show the connection and gradients between emotions.  Historically it was believed that there were six basic categories of emotions; happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust.

This latest research indicates that not only are there 27 categories, but that the emotions blend into each other. For example, awe will blend into peacefulness or amusement will flow into adoration.

What does this new color-coded map of emotions mean?  (Yes, the researchers color-coded their emotional map to illustrate the connection and blending of emotions.)

Science has validated what many have assumed for decades, that there is a rich emotional palette available to us humans.  There is a diversity, breadth and depth to our emotional life.  And that our emotions are fluid and transient.  We can experience a lush and nuanced range of emotional states.

This research is counter to what I see regularly in our culture, the use of simplified and abbreviated language when we are describing emotions.  I speculate that because we have instant access to more information than we can process, combined with the speed of change has caused us to try to simplify our communication.

I surmise that information overload and speed have contributed to the reduction in our emotional lexicon.  We don’t feel we have time to explore our emotions or even really notice them.

I wonder if previous generations spent more time exploring the complexity of their inner worlds.  They had more quiet time and weren’t badgered by the pings, rings, and dings of smart phones, text messages, Facebook & Instagram notifications, and overloaded email inboxes.

As for me, I’m going to give up trying to use emojis.  It’s too difficult for me to choose one to communicate how I’m feeling, and I spend too much time searching for just the right one.

After reading about this latest research, I now know why I can’t identify just one emoji.  Emotions are complex and blend together.    I’d rather spend my time exploring my inner landscape.  Who knows what I’ll discover?

*The 27 emotional categories:  admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, craving, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, excitement, fear, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, surprise.