The words we choose to express how we feel can undeniably impact how we relate to one another. In the words of the esteemed poet Rumi, “Raise your words, not your voice. It is the rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” As a marriage and family therapist, I see this very idea come to life in the therapy room on a daily basis. I have observed how words can act as weapons and cut as deeply as a dagger. I have also been witness to how the genuine use of words can help heal wounds and create space for understanding, growth, and connection. Words are powerful vehicles used for communicating what’s happening in our internal worlds.
You may be asking, what are emotion-words exactly? Well, the concept is fairly simple. Emotion words are the actual vocabulary we choose to express how we are feeling. While this may come naturally to some, others may struggle with identifying words that accurately describe how they are feeling in any given situation. We learn how to do this at a very early age. As children, we learn to identify and tell our caregivers when we are feeling pain, sadness, excitement, etc. And of course, as we grow and emotional circumstances become more complex, discovering how to adequately express ourselves in order to feel heard and understood is vital in all types of relationships.
Let’s enter the therapy room for an example. I worked with a couple where the partners were on opposite ends of the emotional expression continuum. The husband was well-versed in how to use emotion words to express himself (as if he invented the emotion wheel) and the wife would speak in more general terms, which still seemed ambiguous and left to potential misinterpretation. For instance, she would say she was “upset” or “agitated” when [this or that] happened in the marital relationship. Using words like “upset” isn’t clear and lacks specificity in describing the feeling. During an exercise where the couple was speaking directly to one another about their disconnected interactions, the wife was able to recognize that emotions weren’t really communicating how she was truly feeling; as the session progressed, she was able to say that she has been feeling disconnected and when she is disconnected, she really feels “lonely.” Having specific emotional language opened the floodgates for both partners and allowed them to connect and communicate in an authentic and meaningful way. It was as if her emotional vocabulary was lying dormant and suddenly awoke. These are the types of interactions couples are longing for and can truly create the space for authentic understanding and connection.
So, how do we increase our ability to communicate using emotion words?
What are the secret ingredients to match our words with what we are feeling on the inside? From my experience, I have found three concepts to be particularly important in improving emotional vocabulary with your partner:
- Access and express primary vs. secondary emotions
- Understand the intentions behind what you are trying to communicate
- Be mindful of your tone.
Primary vs. Secondary Emotions
Our primary emotion is usually what we feel first, then our rational brain kicks in and tries to make sense of the situation. This is a protective mechanism as primary emotions can often feel very intense and can be a bit scary to experience and share.
Many times in session, I will witness secondary emotions like frustration or anxiety in couples when they are discussing a distressing event or cycle within their relationship. If we zoom in, and take a deeper look at that frustration or anxiety, there’s often something more primal that’s trying to emerge. In most cases that primary emotion is fear; fear of the possibility of losing their partner. To accurately communicate this, it might sound something like “ I know I have been really anxious lately and I grow frustrated when we can’t talk through our issues and that scares me because I don’t want to lose you.”
Recognizing and naming primary and secondary emotions takes practice – be kind with yourself as you learn how to differentiate the two.
Communicate Your Intentions
So what are you really trying to communicate to your partner? You can give them a glimpse into your heart with the words you choose to speak to them. For instance, you may be feeling disconnected from your spouse or partner lately as busy work and family schedules often leave very little time for lengthy conversations about how we’re actually feeling. Therefore, often being able to “say what you mean, and mean what you say” is of the utmost importance. If you want to communicate that you desire more quality, one-on-one time with your partner, instead of saying “You never want to do anything with me!”, try saying “I’ve really missed spending time with you and would like to do something together, just the two of us.” Do you feel the difference? Ultimately, the intent is the same, but the second attempt takes a much softer and inviting approach which will likely elicit a more positive response.
Be Mindful of Your Tone
Paying close attention to tone when communicating our feelings can be just as important as identifying and using emotion words. Tone often goes hand-in-hand with intention. If your intentions are good, and not seeking to cause pain or hurt someone, then the tone will typically follow suit. Dr. Gary Chapman, author of The Five Love Languages discusses the importance of tone when we are communicating with our partner. More specifically, think about the difference in tone if one partner is making a demand instead of a request. A demanding tone may make the partner on the receiving end feel belittled, unloved, or discredited. Conversely, being on the receiving end of a request may make the partner feel more appreciated, respected, and cared for. To quote Dr. Chapman, “ A request creates the possibility for an expression of love, whereas a demand suffocates that possibility.”
Need more help?
Let’s face it, identifying emotions and expressing them can be hard work and may not come easily. If you and your partner are having a difficult time naming and discussing your emotions in an effective way, couples therapy may be a helpful next step. If you are ready to explore this further, we are here to help!
If you are ready to schedule an appointment and live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas, we can help. Contact us to get started. We offer virtual sessions only right now, but we are beginning to schedule in-person appointments starting in July.