EXERCISE – Learn How to Verbalize Your Feelings Using This List of Emotion Words

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Knowing how to verbalize your feelings is an important skill that can be learned by working with a list of emotion words, like the one provided here.

Having a clear sense of how you feel in a given moment is not as easy as it might sound.

In a given moment, we’re likely to experience a mix of emotions, and our feelings are constantly changing. From time to time, we also use psychological defenses to protect ourselves from extremely painful or threatening emotions, making it even harder to pin down what we’re feeling.

For example, feeling shocked, stunned, or numb after receiving extremely bad news may be viewed as a self-protection mechanism that (at least temporarily) prevents someone from fully experiencing the overwhelming pain associated with it. In some cases, painful feelings may be avoided or suppressed for long periods of time, leading to chronic difficulties identifying and verbalizing emotion.

Emotions provide a window into our psychological needs (e.g., for security, belonging, companionship, self-esteem, or respect) and the extent to which they’re being met.

Thus, losing touch with your emotions can be quite disorienting and disruptive to daily life, insofar that it prevents you from identifying and attending to basic needs.

If you’re often confused by your emotions, don’t know what you’re feeling, or have trouble putting your feelings into words, try using the list of emotion words (provided below) to identify your feelings.

Here’s how to get the most of this exercise:

1. Think back to a specific example when you noticed yourself having a feeling, perhaps one that was distressful, confusing, or noteworthy for some other reason.

First, just try to narrow your feelings down on two dimensions: (a) Was the feeling more positive or more negative? (b) Did it involve high arousal (e.g., heart pounding, sweating, race of thoughts) or low arousal (e.g., slowed down, low energy, calm)

2. Now get more specific about your feelings using the list of emotion words (provided below), which are categorized according to their valence (i.e., positive or negative) and level of arousal (i.e., high or low).

High arousal, negative emotion words (e.g., angry, scared, anxious) are clustered toward the top, left of the chart (colored in red and orange). Low arousal, negative emotion words (e.g., sad, depressed, demoralized) can be found in the bottom, right of the chart (colored in dark green and blue). Positive emotions (of both high and low intensity) are positioned toward the middle of the graph, colored in yellow.

3. Select a few emotion words that might fit for you.

At this stage, you don’t have to completely own each word, so be open and receptive to different possibilities. Even if just a small part of you is feeling something, it could be helpful to honor and acknowledge that.   

4. Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few possible emotion words, try each of them on, almost like you would for a pair of jeans, and sit with it for a little while.

Give it a moment, and then ask yourself, ‘Does this fit for me at any level?’ If the answer is yes, that may be an emotion worth exploring further.

5. For each identified emotion ask yourself, ‘Is this a primary or secondary emotion?’

For secondary emotions, like frustration or bitterness, consider what it is about the situation that makes you so ‘frustrated’ or ‘bitter’? Are there underlying fears at play, perhaps of failure or that you won’t measure up in some way? Or maybe your self-esteem has been shaken by someone else, prompting feelings of hurt and rejection? Try to identify the primary emotion that seems to really get to the core of the matter.  

READ RELATED: Understanding Your Feelings: The Difference Between Primary and Secondary Emotions 

5. For primary emotions (e.g., fear, sadness, or hurt), consider what these feelings might have to tell you about your psychological needs.

For example, does this emotion reflect some unmet need for companionship, playfulness, reassurance, independence, or something else?

6. Develop a plan for how you might use your emotions as cues to let you know that you have needs requiring your attention.

There are a number of self-care and mindfulness exercises that can help you to better attend to your emotional needs.

Click to view Emotion Chart
















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Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual differences in two emotion regulation processes: implications for affect, relationships, and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 348-362.

Hofmann, S. G., Heering, S., Sawyer, A. T., & Asnaani, A. (2009). How to handle anxiety: The effects of reappraisal, acceptance, and suppression strategies on anxious arousal. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47, 389-394.

Timulak, L. (2015). Transforming emotional pain in psychotherapy: An emotion-focused approach. New York, NY: Routledge.