Learning a Stronger Emotional Vocabulary for Love
The concept of emotional granularity is helping me redefine how I experience and process my feelings
“I hate emotions,” I texted a friend. In my early 20s I had feelings for a boy, or thought I did — one can never be sure, maybe. “Emojis are cool, though,” she wrote back. Her humor was enough to break through my moping, though the underlying question remained.
Even with a longtime journaling habit, I felt lost at sea trying to understand what was going on in my own head and heart. Then, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should be able to understand my own self.
This one-way link between emotions and actions doesn’t exist
What I didn’t know then is that what I was taught about emotions is wrong. As an evangelical Christian, I believed that romantic attraction led to a relationship which led to a lifelong commitment; that it was a progression, affirmed by rom-coms and Disney movies. I thought emotions and actions had a direct relationship. If you knew what the emotion was, you could know what action to take. Emotion, action. Cause, effect.
I’ve since learned not only that this one-way link between emotions and actions doesn’t exist, but that emotions are much less definable than I once believed.
I want to organize my emotions into neat categories like the way I sort the silverware when I pull it out of the dishwasher and place it in compartments for spoons, forks, and knives in the drawer. But these aren’t all the types of love that exist.
C.S. Lewis defines the four types of love as: affection, friendship, erotic love, and the love of God. The New York Times column Modern Love, now an Amazon web TV series, features essays on love between people, categorized as romantic, familial, platonic, or erotic.
I assumed romantic love would always fit in the spousal category
Consider the number of words Eskimos have for snow, which mean nearly nothing to a native southern Californian like me, who probably knows more words for conditions of ocean waves (glassy, gnarly, blown out). Similarly, growing up in the Christian church, I assumed romantic love would always fit in the spousal category. If I felt romantic love towards someone, I felt compelled to pursue it. When a coworker referred to a cheating husband as “in love” with the woman who wasn’t his wife, I thought she was mistaken. I thought he could have erotic love towards this person, but it wasn’t real love.
I judged others, and when faced with my own emotions that didn’t fit into the categories I’d learned, I became confused.
In her book How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, introduces the term “emotional granularity.” We can train our brains to react more efficiently by giving ourselves more specific words for our emotions, like the Eskimos do with snow. Barrett suggests learning words from other languages, such as schadenfreude, which in German means “joy at another’s misfortune.” In addition, we can invent our own words, such as her relatable example of “chiplessness,” or the particular sadness that comes with running out of chips.
We cannot be so quick to know what we feel
The potential of emotional granularity as a strategy for improved mental health and relationships is huge. Someone who was taught anger was a dangerous emotion could come up with a new term for a healthier version of anger that would carry with it more appropriate forms of expression.
Barrett also describes how we feel emotions in our bodies, citing the time she felt warm and flushed on a date, initially categorizing it as attraction, only later to realize she was coming down with the flu. We cannot be so quick to know what we feel.
But wait — who decides what love is?
Barrett explains how emotions are like money. Real, but not really real. The Federal government system can influence the value of a dollar; it’s not set in stone. Money doesn’t have value other than what we as humans have agreed it will have (and quite a few of our systems would disintegrate if we did not all continue to respect this agreement).
It can be meaningless and forgettable, and still be love
Emotions don’t have a universal fingerprint. There is no set definition. As a society we aim to be on the same page when we say what love is (and tension ensues when we don’t get it quite right). That’s what happened when my coworker called an extramarital relationship “love.” My definition of love has now changed so that I can understand an extramarital relationship to be love, even if I consider any deception involved to be morally wrong.
I now know feeling an attraction doesn’t carry any responsibility. It doesn’t need to be affection, friendship, or erotic — it can be meaningless and forgettable, and still be love.
I start my morning journaling ritual with gratitude. I’ve found myself adding a practice I created after reading Barrett’s book that I’ll borrow as emotional granularity journaling.
Much like my angst over romantic feelings from years ago, I sometimes find myself baffled by my own emotions. When I wake up feeling “bad,” is it because of work stress, a dream I had, or am I merely mimicking a character’s emotion from a book I’m reading?
There is freedom in knowing emotions are not always knowable
Now I can look for more specific words to describe how I’m feeling, and when words won’t suffice, I make up my own. Sometimes words can’t capture it, but a song does. One romantic attraction felt like I was living Taylor Swift’s “Treacherous” for the first time, with a little bit of Camila Cabello’s “Never Be The Same.” Maybe not surprisingly, it didn’t end well. I was relieved later to have feelings for someone that were better captured by a Carly Rae Jepson song.
There is freedom in knowing emotions are not always knowable, that the words we have for emotions are simply labels, not perfect definitions. When my feelings don’t fit into the existing compartments, I no longer feel the need to respond with fight or flight. It’s as if I’m on a precipice but I don’t have to jump or retreat, I don’t have to decide. I can just be. Or make it up as I go.