Is being able to put your feelings into words helpful in life? And are you at a disadvantage when you don’t develop your emotional vocabulary?
Yes – and yes!
Before we can even do that, we need to be able to name our emotions. And for many of us with traditional Western upbringings, this is a challenge.
This post talks about why putting your feelings into words is important, and gives a few techniques on how to improve.
Research on ‘affect labeling’
‘Affect labeling’, which is the technical term for putting feelings into words, has long been thought to help manage negative emotional experiences. It is the basis for talk-based therapy in fact.
Affect labeling has been shown to diminish the response of the amygdala (the brain’s anxiety response centre) and other brain regions to negative emotional images. In other words, naming our emotions may help with regulating them.
Health benefits have also been associated with expressing our emotions (a habit that comes more naturally to extroverts).
Writing about feelings is associated with better health outcomes for breast-cancer patients, people with asthma, and people who’ve experienced a traumatic event. And in a study of people who lived to be 100 years old, emotional expression was found to be a common trait.
And so expressing emotions seems on the whole to be good for us too.
Emotions aren’t completely personal
Although we tend to think of our emotions as personal experiences, they’re actually affected by the culture we are in.
The Germans, for example, have a whole load of words that elegantly describe emotions that we require clumsy sentences to describe. So the Germans can say things that nobody else can!
It is well known that the Greeks have an enormous range of words for love. And as we all know now from Hygge, Finland, Denmark, and Norway all have their own terms for a specific kind of coziness.
Perhaps the clearest example of a cultural standard that has affected all of us has been the obsession with happiness. The preoccupation with feeling happy – a relatively recent thing – has caused a selective compassion with our emotions, with a clear bias towards positive ones.
Our cultural over-value on happiness might be problematic. It can create pressure to feel upbeat and cheerful all the time.
Research on the concept of emodiversity suggests that stronger physical and mental health is correlated with experiencing a range of emotions, instead of just being happy or content all the time.
It means allowing yourself to feel sad, angry, irritable, bored, and frustrated.
All the things we’re told we ought not to feel.
How putting feelings into words affects relationships
I am sure you have figured this out already, but putting feelings into words is important when it comes to your relationships.
Feeling anxious about finding the right words to discuss our emotions makes us unnecessarily nervous about discussing them with our partners. We do not feel confident in our ability to make ourselves understood, which means we are likely to avoid conflict instead of seeing it for what it is – an opportunity to build intimacy.
Why else putting feelings into words matters
How does putting feelings into words and expressing emotions impact your personal happiness?
There are three things to mention.
Naming emotions helps you to understand their origin
Emotions do not happen in response to events, they happen in response to thoughts. Being able to name emotions helps you to see how the way you are thinking is creating the emotions. You learn that you can ‘control’ your emotional state to an extent from the way you think.
Our emotions have accompanying physical sensations. Those who practice safe emotional processing focus on bringing their awareness to the physical sensations of their emotions, instead of being caught up in thoughts.
This is a really powerful ability to cultivate – it really changes your life to give your emotions permission in this way.
They help you to know yourself
Being able to name emotions as they happen really helps you to know yourself as a person, and you likes and dislikes, wants and not wants.
Our emotions can and should help to guide our decisions.
Gives you more of a sense of their transient nature
Being able to easily identify your emotions gives you a sense of their temporary quality. That can also free you up from much suffering, especially if you tend to live in the world of your feelings. You’ll become more like an observer of your emotions and thoughts, than an experiencer. (Another name for this is ‘mindfulness’ by the way. I wrote a guide to how practising mindfulness changes your life here).
Anyone can get better and putting their feelings into words. Here are three things I suggest.
3 things that build ability to put feelings into words
It’s obvious, but your reading habit (or lack thereof) determines the extent of your vocabulary. Also, it can be comforting to read other people’s experiences, that give you insight retrospectively to emotions you felt but couldn’t understand at the time.
Try to develop a more feelings-based vocabulary by choosing specific content. If you don’t usually read books based on human relationships, then give one a try. For a specific book on the topic of emotions, try The Book of Human Emotions.
When you experience an emotion that you don’t understand, try to discover the name for it
Research about the relationship between words and emotions has shown that learning new words for emotions means you’re probably more likely to identify them in your own experience. And the more emotions you can translate from vague things into concrete terms, the easier time you have of it.
Reflect more on your feelings and discuss them with trusted friends
You’ll never get intimate with your emotions without being in the habit of reflection. This comes more naturally to introverts than extroverts. If you know you tend to avoid reflection of this nature, make an effort to build in more introspection. You can use rituals such as yoga or chilling listening to binaural beats to do this.
Also try discussing your feelings occasionally with trusted friends. This helps build confidence in communicating your feelings with others.
In summary, three key ways to build your ability to put your feelings into words:
- Read more.
- Investigate when you experience emotions that you don’t understand.
- Reflect on your emotions and discuss them with friends.