There's a saying that goes something like "if you don’t know how to say what you mean, you won’t mean what you say." Knowing how to say what we mean is arguably one of the most critical life skills we can develop. Why? If we don’t know how to say what we mean, we can’t be understood. If we can’t be understood, we risk forfeiting one the most important experiences in life: connection.
Before we can hope to connect with others, we must first develop the language to express what we're feeling. There's an important distinction between feeling vs knowing what we're feeling. It's the difference between knowing *that* you're eating vs knowing *what* you're eating.
Language —like food— is instrumental to our wellbeing. Words are ingredients that have power to nourish or poison those we serve them to. This is especially true when it comes to communicating emotions that arise from difficult situations.
These days we seem to deploy an ever dwindling emotional vocabulary. How are you feeling? Good? Bad? Happy? Sad? Down? Up? Meh? K? …? Then there’s the rise of of emojis, which have further disincentivized us to find the right, like, words and stuff.
In a lot of ways, emotional competence does not come naturally these days. As palliative care physician Dr. Gabor Maté writes, "Emotional competence presupposes capacities often lacking in our society, where “cool”—the absence of emotion—is the prevailing ethic, where “don’t be so emotional” and “don’t be so sensitive” are what children often hear, and where rationality is generally considered to be the preferred antithesis of emotionality."
If we're not encouraged to engage with uncomfortable or painful feelings, why would we? Instead of taking the time to learn how to process and skillfully articulate our emotions, we try to get rid of them. The resulting inability to communicate what we’re experiencing, can be deeply frustrating and profoundly isolating.
We all want to be understood, but without productive ways to express ourselves, we default back to our lizard brain threat responses: fight, flight, or freeze. Our modern equivalent vocabulary roughly maps these instincts to: oppression, repression, and suppression, each damaging in different ways.
When we oppress —lash out— the damage is external. If we can’t find a way to be understood, we find a way to be right. In order for us to be right, they need to be wrong. No one likes being wrong, or having their feelings invalidated, so they’re likely to return the favor. As the saying goes, "Hurt people hurt people."
That’s how a small infraction quickly escalates into a hellish tennis match, lobbing accusations and evidence at each other in a game where, in the end, everyone loses.
When we suppress or repress our emotions, the damage is internal. For example, unexpressed anger can turn into clinical depression. Repressing strong emotions has also been shown to confuse our immune system to the point where it can start attacking us. In other words, it may cause chronic inflammation, which in turn, "leads to several diseases that collectively represent the leading causes of disability and mortality worldwide"
James W. Pennebaker was an American psychologist who studied the ways people express themselves through language. He published multiple studies which affirmed that writing about emotional problems or a traumatic experience led to both physical health and mental health benefits. Like exercise and nutrition, developing our emotional vocabulary should be viewed as a form of preventative healthcare.
When we deprive the body of something for too long, it lets us know. We get hungry or tired. When we don't eat or sleep, we get sick. Emotions work much the same way. Many difficult emotions are symptoms of deeper unmet needs. If those needs remain unexpressed, they remain unmet. Remaining stuck in a prolonged state of anxiety, stress, anger, other negative or emotions, can spread illness through our minds, bodies, and relationships. That is why language is so important, because nuance can help us diagnose the need.
Anger, for example, has many shades, all stemming from different needs. Rage can be the need for justice, whereas resentment can be the need for acknowledgment, whereas impatience can be the need for certainty, whereas irritation can be the need for space and so on. It’s important that we get clear on that language *before* we share it.
Journaling facilitates our emotional processing, helping us clarify what we’re feeling. A notebook is a patient and forgiving medium. It creates the perfect conditions we need to explore our feelings without hurting or confusing anyone while searching for the right words.
Then there are times where the right words simply don’t exist. What then? When it comes to capturing our emotions, language is an incomplete puzzle. John Koenig's has been gradually amending this puzzle one beautiful word at time through his touching Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.
Koenig’s project seeks to give words to nuanced emotional states that have remained unnamed. Even in the off chance you haven’t experienced these states yourself, they’re still deeply relatable. In other words, he’s able to make you feel emotions that you may have never had. Language and astrophysics have much in common in this way.
The way celestial bodies are discovered is often indirect. It’s the impact their gravity has on the orbits of the visible planets and stars around them that lets us know they must exist. Similarly, when we take time to explore our emotions, we may realize the visible ones are orbiting a more substantial feeling and/or need. These discoveries take time.
When we feel cornered, we’ll throw out whatever language we need to protect ourselves. Language deployed in this state becomes a weapon rather than a tool for connection.
Getting our feelings down on paper helps us slow down, and transition from a reactive to a more responsive state. In that state, we’re free to explore. This can help us realize that the words that first came to mind don’t align with what we’re actually feeling. This is the inflection point.
Though we may not be able to choose our initial emotions, we can choose how we react to them. We can try to fight them, which usually results in them taking over. Or we can invite them, by exploring them with our curiosity.
There are many powerful techniques out there to help us process negative emotions or stressful events through writing. Some of these include morning pages (Julia Cameron), expressive writing, journal therapy. One powerful technique to bring all of this together comes from the school of Non-Violent Communication. In his work, Marshall B. Rosenberg provides a way for us to both examine and express our emotions called O.F.N.R.: Observing, Feeling, Needing, Requesting.
Though originally designed to be used to facilitate productive dialogue in conflict situations, I find this technique incredibly powerful when I use each a writing prompt. When I'm experiencing some persistent overwhelming emotion for whatever reason, I break this format down and write about each.
What are you observing?
Being emotionally triggered by an experience is a good indication that you’re judging it. You’re no longer objective. Rather, the next time you’re get upset, try to take a step back and write down what you’re observing.
Are they lazy, or did they just not do the dishes? Did they attack you with their words, or did you feel hurt? Do they really dislike you, or were you just not invited to the party? Do you know how they feel, or did you simply make an assumption? The trick is to be very specific. You want to focus on the one event the set you off.
Thinking about what is objectively true is very unnatural for most of us. The question forces us to become curious, which helps us to shift from a reactive to a responsive state. This, in turn, can help us get in touch with what we’re actually feeling.
What are you feeling?
How does this situation make you feel? Are you angry? Frustrated? Disgusted? Betrayed? Take some time to explore. Try words on and see if they fit.
This is a chance to get clear with *your* emotions. This is a critical distinction. This is not about what you think other people feel, it’s about what you're feeling. So instead of “I feel like they don’t like me” you want to focus on how a situation makes you feel “I feel rejected.”
Don’t worry if you can’t pinpoint the exact emotion. The exercise is about flexing your linguistic muscle by getting as close as you can. The more accurate you are in defining your feelings, the better the chance you have of surfacing your need.
What do you need?
As we explored earlier, many of the challenging emotions that we choose to share, come from some unmet need. Once you’ve gotten some clarity around what you’re feeling, you can start to explore what you may need. Is it space? Closeness? Reassurance? Affection?
It’s not always obvious, so play around with it. I will write about needs until something clicks. Sometimes that click is loud, other times it’s faint. What matters is that it’s a starting point that can help me formulate a request.
What is your request?
If you’re looking to share what you’re going through, there must be a reason. There is something that you want from them. What is the desired outcome of this conversation? You can use your need as the inspiration for your request.
The trick is that you want your request to be as specific as possible. It should be actionable and doable. If it is vague, then it’s harder for your need to be met.
For example, if you need space, you want to avoid demanding space. Rather, try to make a specific request that involves them, like “Would you be willing to let me have Sunday mornings to myself?”
This request is framed without shame or blame. It’s framed as an invitation to an agreement, not a demand. An agreement is inclusive and empowers them to help you.
You’ve been late and unprepared for our last three meetings.
When someone is late and unprepared, it makes me doubt their commitment.
I need to be able to trust the people I hire.
Are you willing to show up on time fully prepared moving forward?
When I hear “I need space”
It makes me feel like I’m being taken for granted.
I need to feel appreciated in a relationship.
Are you willing to help me plan a schedule that lets you have the alone time you need, and the together time I need?
These examples are clear and concise, and puts the ball in their court. Now they have the power to accept or deny your request. What you'll also find is that they may have had no idea the impact their words or behavior. Your openness may be rewarded in kind. They may share information, insights, or alternative solutions that you would have never considered.
This format can be very effective, and I’ve found that getting to this level of clarity requires preparation. The way I prepare is by going through these steps in written form first.
Writing out each helps me feel into my answers. It’s often surprising what I discover in this process. It helps to get to the root of the matter.
The interesting thing is that I’ve found this approach just as effective for sorting out my inner conflicts. What am I observing? How does it make me feel? What do I need? What action am I will to take to meet that need?
This form of written inquiry has often helped sort out my values, my intentions, my schedule, and, ultimately, my actions. It’s a powerful way to use our emotions rather than being used by them.
It’s said that writing teaches how to think. Writing also teaches us to express what we feel. In other words, it’s the key to knowing to say what we mean.
When we know how to say what we mean, our communication becomes meaningful. Meaningful communication can lead to meaningful relationships. Meaningful relationships have been found to be the most reliable source of life satisfaction.