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An Exercise in Emotion

First, let’s recognize that some of us are illiterates when it comes to describing our emotions. We tend to use just the “primary colors” of emotions such as love, anger, fear, and the spectrum of sadness-happiness. They are instinctive. But guess what: they are not enough to describe the rich and varied lives most of us live in the Twenty-First Century.emotions

The first step of emotional literacy is to recognize emotions as an important form of mental activity, on par with thinking (cognition) that takes place in the frontal cortex; emotions just inhabit a different area of the brain called the amygdala, but are far from being minor in our overall functioning. Culture has sought to prioritize the various parts and functions of the brain, with horrendous consequences when we see what a mess our fight-or-flight world has become today.

The essential fact we need to retain is that all parts of our brain provide equally important services for a normal existence. As important as frontal-cortex intellect is, it cannot happen in a vacuum devoid of the rest of our brain functions without serious repercussions on our health, happiness, and ability to achieve full potential, or success, in our lives.

Thus, emotions deserve our fullest attention. And as just about everyone since Aristotle has had something to stay about emotions, I am adding my two cents.

In my coaching practice, I have observed that men and women have different relations to their emotions. Some of the differences are culturally or generationally directed. In my experience, the men who seek coaching are more willing to address their emotions than are, say, the husbands of my women clients. Women who seek career coaching in France often struggle to survive in an emotion-restricted Cartesian atmosphere, especially in French corporations, but also at home with their partners – mostly from Latin, macho and authoritarian cultures – who are not highly literate in their emotions.

Freeing the emotional elephant in any relationship takes courage but also some simple, learnable skills, like vocabulary enhancement.

To talk about emotions means accessing them, and that may be scary. For many, the “primary colors” of emotion – love, hate, sadness, happiness – are sufficient.

Refusal to discuss emotions – be it by men or women – may indicate that those people have not received permission at some point in their lives to explore their emotions; they may have had cultural restrictions against expressing them (“real men don’t cry”; “keep a stiff upper lip, girly”; “we don’t kiss friends in our culture”; “we don’t consult shrinks and coaches in our family”), and thus they lack even the means (vocabulary) to express certain feelings. This creates symptoms that we teachers, coaches, therapists and psychiatrists see every day in our practices.

The first step to freeing ourselves from emotional limitations is to just accept the fact that the limitations are self-imposed and not necessary, and then learn some relatively simple tools, such as developing an adequate emotional vocabulary, that will enable us to identify, describe, and evaluate our emotions.

Lack of emotional vocabulary has recently been proven to be a handicap for small children who have tantrums and emotional meltdowns just from the frustration of not being able to express their feelings. Parents would do well to introduce their small children to a variety of descriptive, nuanced and socially appropriate emotional vocabulary so that they – parent and child – can clearly identify and label what they are feeling.

Our problems are further compounded by a tendency to limit our expression of emotions to only one emotion at a time. It’s rarely that simple. Our feelings are often complex and deserve our time and thought to break them down into small blocks that are easier to deal with. Take this example: Someone says, “I am angry that I didn’t get that job!”, but what s/he really means is “… because it hurt my ego to be rejected, but I am also scared I may never get another job, have no money or status, and will be a failure, which will make me feel ashamed“.

In this example, a “simple” expression of anger includes a panoply of truly difficult emotions: disappointment, fear, and shame, all combined in a powerful, potentially self-destructive cocktail.

Consequently, I would like to invite the adults who read this article to check their own emotional fluency, in their own language, using the following list, which is far from being exhaustive and should be considered just a starter list. You can also fine tune your child’s stress by teaching him/her to refine descriptions of emotions more accurately as they arise.

For your convenience, the list of emotions is alphabetical and followed by the Plutchik Wheel of Emotions which groups emotions into convenient “families” and illustrates them on a spectrum.

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Which of the following emotions do you most often express? Which ones do you most often feel?

Noun form in EnglishUse in a phrase: 'I feel..'Translate to your languageWhat makes you feel this emotion
abandonmentabandoned
acceptanceaccepted
adorationadored
aggravationaggravated
agitationagitated
aggressivelyaggressive
amazementamazed
ambitionambitious
amusementamused
angerangry
annoyanceannoyed
appreciationappreciative
apprehensionapprehensive
adorationadored
arousalaroused
shameashamed
astonishmentastonished
betrayalbetrayed
bewildermentbewildered
bitternessbitter
blissblissful
(to have the) bluesblue
boredombored
calmnesscalm
cautioncautious
cheerfulnesscheerful
comfortcomfortable
compassioncompassionate
concernconcerned
confidenceconfident
confusionconfused
contentednesscontent
couragecourageous
crankinesscranky
crazinesscrazy
crueltycruel
curiositycynical
cynicismcynical
dejectiondejected
depressiondepressed
determinationdetermined
disappointmentdisappointed
determinationdetermined
distressdistressed
eagernesseager
embarrassmentembarrassed
enchantednessenchanted
enthusiasmenthusiastic
excitementexcited
exhaustionexhausted
expectationexpectant
exuberanceexuberant
fear/fearfulnessfearful
frustrationfrustrated
fulfilmentfulfilled
furorfurious
hurthurt
hysteriahysterical
indignationindignant
innocenceinnocent
pessimismpessimistic
pitypitiful

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion (1980)

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