Learning a Stronger Emotional Vocabulary for Love

The concept of emotional granularity is helping me redefine how I experience and process my feelings

Dani Fankhauser
Nov 18, 2019 · 5 min read
Credit: PM Images/DigitalVision/Getty Images

“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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Salve

The Salve is a progressive Christian lifestyle publication covering love, doubt, politics, and more.

Dani Fankhauser

Written by

Editor of The Salve, co-founder of Hiii, author of Shameless: How I Lost My Virginity and Kept My Faith (available on Amazon!).

The Salve

The Salve

The Salve is a progressive Christian lifestyle publication covering love, doubt, politics, and more.

More From Medium

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade