Your emotional vocabulary: How big is it?

This column originally was going to focus on “empathic accuracy” which means how well you understand and interpret other people’s emotions. The question at hand: when a spouse, friend or child experiences an emotion, how good are you at detecting it? How accurate are you?
But my research took a turn when I came upon Karla McLaren’s extraordinary work on emotions. Her central theme: if we wish to better understand our emotions, and the emotions of others, we need to expand our emotional vocabulary. It didn’t take me long to realize how limited mine was. When I’m having a moment, I use the words “anxious,” “frustrated,” “upset,” “overwhelmed” and “angry,” but that’s it. Five words. Not impressive.  
So I opened McLaren’s emotional vocabulary list and found (I’m not joking here) 303 words. At that moment I was overwhelmed, a bit anxious, a touch frustrated – no, no, I mean, I was embarrassed, humbled, pensive, unnerved and unsettled. Scanning the list, I realized it was time to more precisely define my emotions, to help myself and others (McLaren’s list is divided into seven major sections: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, shame/guilt, jealousy/envy, depression/suicide). 
Honor All Your Emotions
The list is formidable, but what impressed the most was how McLaren explained the role that each emotion plays (see 
Of sadness, she states:
“Sadness is the wonderful emotion that helps you let go of things that aren’t working anyway. Most of us avoid sadness as if it is the thing that created the loss in the first place. It isn’t. In its healthy state, sadness is evoked by the fact that you need to let go of something. Listening to sadness can help you let go of things that don’t work so that you can make room for things that do.”
Of anger, she shares:
“Most of us know anger only in its obvious, moody state, and I’d say this is due to the (deeply unfortunate) idea that anger is only negative, and is therefore something to be avoided at all costs. This enforced avoidance and resulting ignorance is not a very good idea, because anger helps you set boundaries, protect your sense of self, and take your stand in the world. 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.”
Every emotion has its place, serves a purpose. As McLaren says, our job is to “identify, work with, and regulate” our emotions. She notes: “The sooner you know what you’re feeling, the quicker you can take effective emotional action.”
If we embrace McLaren’s theories, it’s easy to see how our empathic accuracy will rise. But “empathic effort,” others argue, is just as important.
Explains Al Bolea, with Applied Leadership Development Program online at, “[Empathic effort] is about showing emotional support to another person … while [empathic accuracy] is about being correct in identifying a person’s emotional drivers.” Adds Bolea: “Maybe we can remove the burden from ourselves about being accurate and just put in the effort. That would surely help with the development of relationships.”
Don’t Always Trust Your Gut
And here’s another provocative thought: Don’t always trust your gut. Citing research from Jennifer Learner and Christine Ma-Kellams, Christopher Bergland writes, “Although most people believe intuition to be a better guide for accurately interpreting another person’s thoughts and feelings than systematic thinking – the opposite is actually true.”
Where do you stand? Are you more of an empath, who deeply feels other people’s emotions? Or perhaps you suffer from alexithymia (difficulty with labeling one’s own emotional states). Either way, embracing McLaren’s call can help.
You may still become cross or rueful, suspicious or vulnerable. There will be moments where you’re inspired and gleeful, jubilant and contemplative. But whatever you’re experiencing, you’ll now have a more refined way to tap into that feeling.
Already, I feel hopeful.


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