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The language you use to express your emotions and describe your experiences can unintentionally define them. Language is meant to communicate complex and abstract concepts, but it’s imperfect and often insufficient. It is also very powerful. How you talk about emotional experiences can inadvertently define them, but you can also decide to do it with intention. You can set the mood by choosing the words to describe your inner world. You can subtly shift negativity, reframe conflicts, and boost your mood by changing the language you choose to illustrate your feelings.  

The gap between emotions and language 

The standard language available to discuss feelings in English is lackluster. It falls short of the complexity and nuance we feel. As a young woman, I read and fell in love with Richard Matteson’s story Blood Son in which the character Jules Dracula finds he needs to combine words to satisfyingly convey certain morbid concepts. I wrote some pretty lousy poetry back then and, I found that Jules was right; combining two words would better communicate the feeling I wanted to express than either of the individual terms could do on their own. 

I was quite a little book worm and gloomy little goth back in the day. I’ll never forget reading in Milan Kundera’s beloved The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the definition of the untranslatable Czech word litost. He said it meant “a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.” Oh, how my melancholy little heart reveled in this new bit of language, a magical word that communicated volumes. Similarly, at this point, we’re all familiar with words like hygge and schadenfreude. They’re common words from other languages for concepts we understand but have to borrow because we don’t have similar words in English. 

page from an old journal with a pressed flower and Milan Kundera quote

I did an art project once in which I called for people to create words to communicate some of these common concepts that lack language. The one I remember best is that sensation of recognition and familiarity upon seeing a common item in the wild, such as a hairband or a bobby pin. Immediately you think it’s yours, but then you realize that you haven’t walked there before and it’s certainly not yours. This leads to a subtle pang of disappointment. I’m sure you can think of other examples of sensations for which we lack language. 

I’m giving permission, suggesting, and requesting that you create words or even develop your own language for talking about how you feel. This practice may include making up brand new words, combining existing words, or borrowing words from other languages that better express your sentiments. You can be very creative with this using references to characters from fiction who’ve gone through similar events to create quick recognition of an emotional state. This language will be all yours, and you can share it with loving and deserving people. 

Another foreign word example, in Japan, there is an expression, doki doki, which represents the beating heart and means my heart beats, or I feel for you. As explained to me, it expresses a sweet (or maybe sad-sweet) empathy, compassionate affection, or nervous excitement for another. I taught English in Japan, and there was an older math teacher who was very kind to me. He always greeted me with a beautiful smile. One day he smiled that lovely smile and put his hand on his heart. He said I gave him the doki doki feeling. I think he sensed that being the only one of your kind, a lone foreigner, comes with a hint of loneliness; for that, he felt tender compassion. 

This expression has become part of my permanent lexicon, and I hope that as you begin the work of exploring your emotions deeply, you find words and phrases like this to describe the unique aspects of your emotional landscape. Developing the language to express what you mean is a significant part of understanding yourself. It’s key to emotional intelligence and self-awareness. It provides clarity to enable superior emotional regulation. 

Language is powerful, and your choice of words can assign or remove value inadvertently if you’re not paying attention. Is your emotional language loaded with undetonated bombs waiting to explode? Is it chock full of unicorns and rainbows? Is it somewhere in between? 

The words you choose have the power to cast a spell over your life, and only you can tell whether that incantation is a blessing or a curse. Interestingly, an early definition of the word spell was to speak out loud or to declare, and when you declare the life you want and set the emotional tone, things can change quite magically. No matter how you choose to communicate, it’s good to gauge your style and word choice to understand the way you compose the story of your life, emotions, and experiences. 

Start where you are and review your emotional language

  • Which emotions do you experience most often? (list 3-5) 
  • Are you a warrior, a victim, or something in-between? How ch to you characterize yourself?
  • Which words do you use to describe your feelings and moods? 
  • Which words would your friends & family use to describe you and your moods? Are you an optimist, pessimist, or realist? Do you tend toward magical thinking?
  • Are there feelings you can’t describe to others?
  • heart-When you speak about emotions, do you describe them as a mood you’re experiencing or a permanent state? For example, do you say “I am depressed” or “I feel depressed?” 
  • Do you intentionally use vague language in some situations? When you do, is it to avoid conflict?

Getting heart-articulate