In the novel “The Language of Flowers,” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (2011), the main character’s only connection to herself and the world is through flowers and their meaning. She communicates her thoughts and feelings using flowers, as they give her the distance she needs to feel safe. Each type of flower represents a different emotional state; for instance, she’ll give “Honeysuckle for devotion, Red Roses for love, and Asters for patience”. Of course, this is a book of fiction, and as beautiful as it may be to speak through flowers, we live in the real world. We must learn to use our words and the language of feelings to connect with ourselves and others. How can we do this?
The therapist’s question, “How does that make you feel?” has long been fodder for parody. Possessing the vocabulary to better describe our feelings enables us to be aware of the nuances of what we feel. This helps to regulate our reactions in a healthy productive way and better communicate with others.
Psychiatrist and mindfulness expert, Dr. Daniel Siegel, coined the phrase, “Name it to Tame it”. His assertion is that once you notice that you are having a strong emotional reaction, naming it allows for “your emotion to inform you and not overwhelm you”. Finding a vocabulary of specific words to describe what we are feeling and to speak them as we experience them gives us a “time out” to gain some distance from them. This “affect labeling” has been shown to decrease activity in the Amygdala which is the part of our brain highly involved with emotional responses – it makes snap decisions. When we press pause and name our strong emotions, our Amygdala gets quieted and our reasoning brain can get back online. This then allows us to be better connected with our feelings while having the space to choose how we want to act rather than react. In this calmer state we can ask ourselves, “What can I learn from this feeling?” As an observer of our feelings, we can see more clearly. If we know what we feel and can name it, we can be more intentional about making thoughtful choices and gain more control over our lives.
Here’s a vocabulary list of some feeling states to help better define our emotions:
“Aggression, Anger, Apathy, Anxiety, Boredom, Contempt, Depression, Disgust, Doubt, Empathy, Envy, Fear, Guilt, Hatred, Hope, Horror, Hostility, Hunger, Hysteria, Joy, Loneliness, Love, Paranoia, Pity, Pleasure, Pride, Rage, Regret, Remorse, Sadness, Shame, Shock, Suffering, Surprise, Sympathy, Trust”.
Try to name it and watch yourself tame it!