In theatre, it was never sufficient to portray a character as "sad", or "happy", or "angry." Lady Macbeth deserved to have her fury and hatred shown, just like Beatrice from Much Ado about Nothing needed to have her amusement and delight conveyed. What I learned in theatre, and what we all need in daily life, are emotional awareness and emotional vocabulary.
You might tell your friend you feel "not so great" today, but is that really an accurate description of what's going on inside you? As Susan David puts it in her book Emotional Agility, "if we can't accurately label what we're feeling, it becomes difficult to communicate well enough to get the support we need." But before we can communicate what we feel, we must become aware of it. This can be a challenge in itself, because we humans tend to have all sorts of counterproductive coping mechanisms to deal with unwelcome emotions.
Part 1: Emotional Awareness
Hugo Alberts and Lucinda Poole of PositivePsychology.com explain that people who have a low level of emotional awareness may struggle to “describe their emotions or find it hard to describe edges, colours, and any other characteristics of the emotion.” If you just thought to yourself "I've never in my life tried to describe the texture or colour of an emotion", don't worry, I had exactly the same thought! In fact, most of us only notice our emotions through their physical effects: We are literally surprised by the tears of sadness, the loudness of our voice when we are furious, or our hands trembling with excitement.
Once we do become aware of our emotions, we oftentimes try to suppress them with all our might, because we hold limiting beliefs about the "acceptability" of emotions. Particularly negative thoughts and emotions such as frustration, sadness, or envy are often deemed as unacceptable signs of weakness or lack of control. While this phenomenon is also typical of people with depression, eating disorders, social phobia, PTSD, or borderline personality disorder, I am sure either you yourself or someone you know holds one or several of the limiting beliefs about emotions listed below:
If I lose control of my emotions in front of others, they will think less of me.
If I let myself feel this emotion, I will be overwhelmed by it.
If I tell others how I truly feel, they will think I’m weak.
Other people don’t feel this way. There must be something wrong with me.
I should be able to cope with difficulties on my own without turning to others for support.
Being an adult means not getting carried away by emotions, I must be rational!
I’m stupid for feeling this way. I should just suck it up!
Emotions are the enemy of productivity.
I can’t share my true emotions without blighting other people’s good mood.
My emotions are beyond my control, I can do nothing to change them.
These manmade rules of emotional interpretation are widespread, and according to Alberts and Poole, "growing up in an environment where the expression of difficulties or negative feelings was met with punishment could be one cause of such a problem."
In order to escape these emotional dogmata, we need to shift our perspective: According to Karla MacLaren , no emotion is either inherently good or inherently bad – meaning there is no emotion that is by definition beneficial or detrimental to your wellbeing, because it’s all about the intensity: The best rule here, as in most other areas of life, seems to be “everything in moderation.” Take anger for example. Anger is universally categorized as a negative, even unproductive emotion – adults who show anger freely are often judged childish and immature. But as MacLaren explains, “anger helps you protect your position, your standpoint, and your individuality. If you don’t have enough anger, you’ll tend to give up your position and your sense of self, but if you have too much anger, you’ll continually offend against the rights of others.” Anger also alerts you to injustices committed against yourself or others, thus showing you where to direct your action. This ambivalent nature of emotions means we need to be able to name exactly what we are feeling in order to tell which type of it we are experiencing. This is where a nuanced emotional vocabulary is required.
Part 2: Emotional Articulation
Humans begin building an emotional vocabulary even before they can talk, so it's crucial that we demonstrate a wide range of emotional terms for our children's sake. But our emotional vocabular range also has very real effects on our own physical health, as unexpressed feelings often manifest as headaches and backaches. As Susan David explains, the other typical outlet for any number of unnamed emotions is random but powerful anger. So what can you do to build your own and your child's emotional vocabulary?
Use metaphors (words from a different domain) to describe emotions you do not have a specific term for. Example: Describe your emotions in terms of weather: “There are storms and calm skies, heavy rain, and light winds. They always change. I visualize myself as a tree experiencing these emotions that come and go.”
Add feeling noises to your Big List of Feelings: This technique is specifically recommended for children, but why not give it a go yourself? Children don’t always know how to identify an emotion by word, but they may know the sounds that accompany them. For example, your child may not know the word "worried," but they may know that "uh-oh" usually goes with that feeling. Check out Amanda Morin’s article for more children-specific advice and tips for building emotional vocabulary!
Read books: Authors of fictional stories depend on knowing a wide variety of emotional terms, so their books can be a great treasure trove for you to stock up your own vocabulary!
Journal: Start writing about your emotions in your journal, and make a habit of going back and circle any emotional vocabulary you've used. Perhaps as you do so, you can think of more detailed ways to describe what you were feeling? Try adding a colour, a texture, or a movement to any given emotion!
Ultimately, in the words of Elena Aguilar, "the key is to notice and name your emotions without attaching judgment." As anything truly valuable in life, emotional articulartion takes practice, but it can allow you to move away from operating on autopilot and into a more empowered state of being. Using a script provided by PositivePsychology.com , I have recorded an Emotional Awareness Meditation for you to provide some guidance as you explore your emotions. You can get the recording for free if you subscribe to my Newsletter!
As always, thank you for reading,
feel free to contact me with any feedback you would like to give,
and I hope to see you again next week!