Have you ever considered the power of words in regulating your emotions?

While it’s widely acknowledged that emotions are multifaceted and can’t be instantly “fixed,” there are tools at your disposal to better understand and navigate them.

Book cover for One such powerful tool is your vocabulary. A rich vocabulary, particularly one abundant in emotional words, can be a game-changer in emotional regulation. Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her book “How Emotions are Made,” dives into this intricate relationship between words and emotions.

In this post, join me as I explore how expanding your vocabulary can elevate your emotional intelligence.


Understanding Emotional Intelligence

Dr. Barrett suggests that enhancing your vocabulary can boost your “emotional intelligence.” But what exactly does “emotional intelligence” mean?

You’ve probably heard that “emotional intelligence” is essential for your success in society because it allows you to understand the emotions of others.

Dr. Barrett defines it this way. She says that a highly emotionally intelligent person is an individual who possesses a rich array of emotional concepts and knows when and how to use them.


How Words and Concepts Shape Emotions

Your emotions are deeply tied to the concepts you hold. These concepts shape your perception of the world, influencing how you relate to your feelings and experiences. The more emotional concepts you have, the more granular emotions you can experience.

Consider moments when you felt an emotion you couldn’t quite name. That sensation of being “lost for words” isn’t merely frustration; it indicates an absence of the conceptual tools necessary to fully understand or articulate your feelings.

A lack of conceptual understanding can also lead to misinterpretations of feelings.

For instance, consider the sensation of nervous butterflies in your stomach. Without the right conceptual framework, you might interpret this feeling solely as anxiety. However, with a refined understanding, you could recognize this sensation as anticipation, excitement, or even eagerness. This shift in understanding, driven by your conceptual vocabulary, directly influences your emotional experience.

In her TED talk, Dr. Barrett discusses how students can be guided to perceive “anxiety” as “determination.” Students can be taught to reinterpret their physiological responses.

When they feel the sensations commonly associated with anxiety (like a pounding heart before an exam), they can be guided to perceive these sensations not as signs of impending failure or fear but as signs of eagerness and determination to face the challenge. By consciously relabeling the emotion with different words, they’re reframing their physiological state from a negative context (“I’m anxious because I’m not prepared”) to a positive one (“I’m eager to take on this challenge and do my best”).


Acquiring New Emotional Concepts 

So, how can you acquire new emotional concepts? A straightforward method is by expanding your vocabulary, especially with emotional words. 

According to Dr. Barrett, words act as seeds that sprout new concepts. By incorporating new words into your lexicon, you create a niche in your mind. This allows you to understand feelings and nuances that might have previously been beyond your comprehension.

Expanding Your Emotional Vocabulary 

Wondering how to embark on this journey of expanding your emotional lexicon? Dr. Barrett outlines three methods to enrich your vocabulary: 

1. Dive into diverse reading materials.

Dr. Barrett emphasizes the value of reading as one of the most effective means to expand your vocabulary, especially the books that diverge from your usual genres or lie outside your comfort zones.

2. Learn foreign words.

Introducing yourself to words from other languages can be a great way to build your emotional vocabulary, especially when they encapsulate emotions or concepts that don’t have direct English counterparts.


A well-known example from the German language is “Schadenfreude,” which denotes the unique pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune, a feeling not succinctly captured by any single English word.


Another example is the Japanese term “Mono no aware (物の哀れ).” This phrase speaks to the fleeting nature of life’s moments and our emotional response to their impermanence. It captures the nuanced appreciation and gentle sadness tied to the transient beauty of existence. Before encountering “Mono no aware,” you might express this feeling as a simple awareness of life’s fleeting nature. With this word, however, you can gain access to a deeper resonance of emotions intertwined with the beauty and sorrow of ephemeral experiences.


Next spring, as you find yourself gazing upon the pink petals of cherry blossoms carpeting the ground, if a complex emotion bubbles within, an emotion neither just of joy nor merely of sorrow, you might just be touched by “Mono no aware.”

3. Invent your own words.

Dr. Barrett also encourages you to invent new words through the process of “conceptual combination,” where you combine existing words to coin new emotional words and start using them with other people. 

She playfully offers “chiplessness” as the sensation you experience upon devouring an entire bag of chips unexpectedly. 

Taking inspiration, I’ve crafted a few of my own:

Mournjoy: A bittersweet mix of sorrow from a loss intertwined with the joy of cherished memories.

Laughpain: That moment when laughter is so intense it borders on physical pain. 

Wonderwhelm: The awe you feel when faced with nature’s grandeur, like gazing upon the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon. 

Crafting new words offers a unique way to clarify and categorize complex emotions. By sharing and using these invented terms with others, they can become integral elements of your emotional landscape. 

When you’re at a loss for words, consider combining terms to coin a new one. Not only is this exercise enjoyable, but it might also offer a delightful boost to your mood!



Just as your world is painted with a myriad of colors, your emotional landscape is equally varied and rich. 


Picture this: when I gaze outside at this very moment, the canvas of nature presents a mesmerizing array of oranges, yellows, and reds. Trying to capture this spectacle using only primary colors would do it a disservice. 


Similarly, navigating the vast spectrum of human emotions with a limited vocabulary constrains your understanding and experience. 


Dr. Barrett’s insights emphasize that just as you appreciate the myriad hues of autumn, you should also seek to grasp the nuanced shades of your emotions. 


By expanding your emotional vocabulary, you arm yourself with the tools to perceive, experience, and express the richness of life more profoundly.


Let’s continue our journey to expand our emotional vocabulary, thereby experiencing the richness of life and navigating its complexities with both precision and empathy!