What’s in an Emotion Word?
The upsides, downsides, and open questions about labeling your feelings.
Posted February 9, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- The stories that emotion words represent are part of a shared system of meaning.
- When you label your experiences, you make them meaningful in ways that others can understand.
- Labeling negative emotional experiences can reduce feelings and patterns of autonomic activity associated with distress.
Emotion words are handy things. They help you put your experiences into neat little boxes–wrap them up into packages you can give others to share your perspective. Telling a friend you feel “sad” may indicate feelings of failure, whereas “angry” would suggest you were wronged. Within each of these boxes is a short story not only about how you feel but why you might feel that way, what you might do about it, and more. This is because the stories that emotion words represent are part of a shared system of meaning. When you label your experiences, you make them meaningful in ways that others can understand.
So far, so intuitive. But what is truly handy about emotion words is that the boxes they create are a kind of present to yourself, too. Organizing your feelings with labels gives you mental clarity: once your feelings about an event in your life are in the box, so to speak, you can put it on the shelf and come back to it later. Or not. Either way, you are done with it for the time being. You have made meaning of your experience, and now you have a story to tell whoever needs to listen – including yourself.
The utility of emotion words isn’t limited to a kind of mental housecleaning. Labeling negative emotional experiences can reduce feelings and patterns of autonomic activity associated with distress. Studies have also shown that labeling negative images with an emotion word reduces activity in brain areas associated with detecting uncertainty or bringing in new information from the world. That information isn’t necessary anymore because the emotion word fills in the gap; it gives you the story to tell.
Emotion words can also help you tell stories about ever more nuanced or specific experiences. In my last post about expertise in emotion, I talked about how experts have expansive and complex knowledge about their domain of study. For painters or interior designers, this might be colors–knowing the difference between aqua, teal, and turquoise rather than simply green versus blue–and this domain of knowledge would be accompanied by a larger vocabulary. It is similar for emotion. Having more specific words can help you to have more specific experiences. Knowing that you could be “vexed” versus “livid” reminds you that there are different boxes for “angry,” each with its own unique set of feelings, contexts, and consequences.
The more boxes you have, the more ways you can sort your experiences. We can see this in the way that infants and young children learn about emotions–the presence of a word alongside a set of stimuli (such as evocative scenarios or expressive faces) suggests that these stimuli should all be put in the same box and makes it easier to sort future stimuli accordingly. Receiving information about emotion words even helps adults to differentiate more between their experiences. This is why I and others think that knowing more emotion words can help you grow your expertise.
So, should you pick up a thesaurus and start making flashcards? Not just yet. The handiness of emotion words, it turns out, might not be a “the more, the merrier” type. Reading the dictionary isn’t the same as putting all these ways of meaning-making thoughtfully into practice. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind:
- More words mean more stories. When you label an experience with multiple words–when you are “sad, angry, and also nervous”–do you know why? It could be that each of these words captures a perspective you are taking on the event. Maybe you are sad that you lost an opportunity, angry that someone undeserving got it instead, and nervous about what this means for your chances in the future. The experience is complex and can fit into multiple boxes. But without mentally pinpointing the ‘why’ of each word, this list may mean you are uncertain of your feelings, lumping them into a big negative mess. You are unsure which story to tell, so you are not sure what to do next.
- Word use reflects patterns of attention and experience. Sure, you may get a different sense from “ebullient” and “enthusiastic” when you read them in a book (or in this blog), but do they crop up in your own writing or conversations? The emotion words you actively use–rather than passively recognize–say something about the familiar or important stories to you. Just like the distinction between “teal” and “turquoise” stands out to a painter because they spend a lot of time around colors, a more diverse vocabulary for emotion suggests you spend more time engaging with your feelings. This is a good thing when these experiences are positive, but not so much when they are negative. Using a richer set of words for sadness, for instance, may come from the fact that you’re more often sad.
- Words don’t work alone. You rarely, if ever, label your everyday experiences with an emotion word and move on. Would you respond to being treated unfairly at work with “frustrated” or arguing with a dear friend with “hurt”? More likely, you describe these events to others in conversation or maybe to yourself in a diary or journal. There are other ideas and other processes at work beyond a simple label. Studies have found that social sharing and expressive writing benefit emotion regulation and health. These activities may involve emotion words, but are doing other things for you, like connecting you to others or helping you think through the ‘why’ and ‘what now’ of each event. The effects of each part of the storytelling are difficult to isolate.
- There are times when silence is golden. Have you ever encountered something so exquisite it left you speechless? That sunset or bite of food that took your breath away–how would it have changed your experience to have labeled that moment? If emotion words help down-regulate negative experiences, might they also reduce the intensity of positive ones? Indeed, there is evidence that this may be the case. Sorting feelings into boxes allows you to put them away for later; it psychologically distances you from your current experience. But if that experience is pleasant, maybe that distance isn’t desirable or even helpful. Even with negative experiences, labeling may serve to crystallize the feeling, making it more difficult to adapt. It is good to know when to use emotion words; it may also be good to know when not to.
Emotion words can help, but they can’t do everything, and they can’t do it by themselves. My advice is to keep learning new words but also learn about the stories they tell–the contexts in which people from your culture experience these emotions and the social and personal outcomes they are associated with. Pay attention to how you use emotion words in your daily life. Talk to people about them and write about them. And know that it is okay to leave some experiences unlabeled: out of the box for you to savor or consider, meaning yet to be made.
Hoemann K, Gendron M, Barrett LF. Erratum: Publisher Correction: Assessing the Power of Words to Facilitate Emotion Category Learning. Affect Sci. 2022 Mar 19;3(1):191. doi: 10.1007/s42761-022-00104-x. Erratum for: Affect Sci. 2022 Jan 6;3(1):69-80. PMID: 36048430; PMCID: PMC9382985.
Hoemann K, Gendron M, Barrett LF. Assessing the Power of Words to Facilitate Emotion Category Learning. Affect Sci. 2022 Jan 6;3(1):69-80. doi: 10.1007/s42761-021-00084-4. Erratum in: Affect Sci. 2022 Mar 19;3(1):191. PMID: 36046100; PMCID: PMC9382977.