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Thoughtscape: Entry #1 Changing Your Reality With Emotional Vocabulary

During our conversation on the Twenty Somethings podcast with Jesse James Keitel, we briefly touched upon language and its revolutionary qualities for promoting change.  During our discussion on the podcast I mentioned a paper I had been working on about how language works to regulate our emotions. This is an incredibly fascinating component of the field of linguistics taking place today so I figured I would share some more in depth information about the topic for you all to dig your teeth into.

Basically, your vocabulary changes your reality.  That’s right - the words in your mental vocabulary have the capacity to change the sensory experience of the world around you.  How does this happen? Well, it really goes back to simple biology. Imagine you were walking through the woods and you saw an object on the ground ten feet ahead of you.  It could be a snake, or it could just be a stick, but until you’re able to label the object, your body is having a physiological response that we’ve popularly labeled as “going into fight or flight mode.”  This is one part of the relationship that words share with regulating our psyche - studies have shown that if your vocabulary contains a word to identify an object, it eliminates the “unknown” stimuli that the object is giving off, and therefore your heart doesn’t start racing.

Ok, so that works with sticks and snakes, but what about emotions?

So emotions are weird and hard to express, right? The difficulty in understanding and expressing them arises primarily through the fact that emotions don’t not exist as concrete objects in our world, rather, emotions are considered to be abstract.  Abstract concepts often lack strong perceptual regularities that are present in their concrete counterparts (Lindquist 5). Perceptual regularities are things that everybody can agree upon. So think about the stove top being hot - no one is going to say it isn’t hot if they touch it and burn themselves - everybody has the same experience in regards to the stove top.  But emotions are experienced differently. Emotions are formed through the combination of two experiences: affect and exteroceptive sensations. Affect is the understanding of sensations from inside the body. This is the part of the body that allows for it to process what sensations are good or bad for it. For example, a racing heartbeat could be an effect that takes place in some situations.  Exteroceptive sensations are those that provide representations of information from the external world, outside of the body, which are then channeled to the body through the senses (Lindquist 2). For example, a loud noise would be an exteroceptive sensation experienced by the body. Both affect and exteroceptive sensations gain meaning as they synthesize to create conceptual knowledge. According to Lindquist, “conceptual knowledge refers to the rich cache of instances that populate what someone ‘knows’ about different categories” (2).  In other words, this is how we attach meaning to certain internal and external sensations. The conceptual knowledge associated with these experiences is how we develop emotional categories. For example, if one was a child and heard a loud noise when they were home alone and their heart rate started to race, then this person might categorize these sensations under the label of “fear.” Once this concept knowledge is acquired, people use the categorization of these sensations to make predictions and labels for their emotional states for most of their lives.  The problem is that humans cannot agree on a regularity for emotions because everybody obtains different variations of conceptual knowledge as they're growing up and having multitudes of experiences. Basically, what happy conjures within you might conjure a completely different experience in someone else. Woah, dude.

Well the only way to counter this is for all of us to start taking emotions and dissecting them into more specific categories - that is how words work, they are these verbal and written things that distinguish other objects from one another by slicing the world up. Woah. It’s true, humans have been using words for thousands of years to dissect the world into to smaller and smaller categories.  It is one big organizational system, and the more organized it becomes, the less objects fall under the scary label of the “unknown.” Let’s use happy as an example, go ahead and list all of the words that you know to describe happiness. Here’s a few:

Happy, elated, joyful, ecstatic, cheerful, content, delighted, gleeful etc.

They all mean happy right? Well not quite.  Sure, in common language they all convey a sense of well being, but each word holds a miniscule difference between the emotional states being described.  Ecstatic has a connotation of excitement and happiness, while contentment signifies an overall feeling of well-being. The problem is, most people’s emotional labels are binary.  If they are not happy, they are sad. If they are not angry, they are pleased. Whatever it is - people don’t have, or don’t use, enough words as they should to categorize their emotions.   

So why does this matter? Well, your lack of emotional vocabulary is probably distorting how you think you’re feeling half the time.  Let’s say you’re feeling anxious for an interview for a job that you really want. Your palms are sweating and your heart rate starts to go bo-dum-bo-dum-bo-dum.  In your experience, these physiological responses usually take place when you’re nervous. This is the conceptual knowledge embedded within you. But guess what? These same physiological responses also take place when someone is excited.  Remember, this is a job you really want, why not be excited?! But for years and years, you’ve experienced these physical responses in your body and have associated them with nervousness, which then turns into a cyclical process of being nervous because you think you’re feeling nervous and it all compounds and so on and so on and then you lose your mind.  Just kidding. But what if you could come up with a new word that embodies both the slight nervousness and overall excitement that you're feeling? What if you could reconstruct your conceptual knowledge of emotions? How would eliminating the negative connotation associated with nervousness change your experience of this interview? Well studies have shown it could be a tremendous shift in your experience.

A research study conducted by Elena Constantinou found that “assigning emotional labels has been found to reduce amygdala activation and increase inhibitory activation at prefrontal areas” (2).  So having an accurate label to attach to your emotional states will decrease that part of your brain that gets all loopy whenever you encounter something unknown to you. Furthermore, in the article Current Emotion Research in the Language Sciences, Asifa Majid describes the implications of the English metaphor ANGER IS HEAT.  Think “I’m heating up” or “I’m so mad I’m on fire.” Majid states, “linguistic metaphors are cognitively real.  Indeed, English speakers presented with anger-related words judge temperatures as higher” (436). That’s right - by simply associating anger with heat, humans perceive temperatures to be higher than they actually are.  This statement shows that the commonality of metaphorical statements that represent anger in the English language have actually altered the way people perceive their surrounding environments. This proves that, on some level, our metaphors and language sculpt our reality.

So basically, if you practice expanding your emotional category and getting more specific with how you label your emotional states, you can LITERALLY change your reality.  

Let’s review:

  1. Words are abstract and lack any perceptual regularities

  2. Everybody forms unique conceptual knowledge to understand their emotions

  3. Having more words to understand emotions widens one’s conceptual knowledge, and increases the chances of finding common ground with other people’s emotional states, which makes sharing and expressing emotions easier for everyone. Woohoo!  

  4. Widening one’s emotional vocabulary reduces brain activity in the part of your brain that makes you freak out whenever you mistake a stick for a snake

  5. It can also alter your sensory experience so you can stop feeling so damn hot whenever you're annoyed at your roommate for stealing your pint of Ben and Jerry’s

So, break out that thesaurus and dictionary and get to work, I promise it will make you feel GREAT.

Grant Crawford

Co-Host of Twenty Somethings Podcast


Constantinou, Elena, et al.  “Can Words Heal? Using Affect Labeling to Reduce The Effects Of Unpleasant Cues On Symptom Reporting.”  Frontiers In Psychology, Vol. 5, Article 807, University of Leuven, 22 July 2014.

Lindquist, Kristen A, Jennifer K. MacCormack and Holly Shablack.  “The Role Of Language In Emotion: Predictions From Psychological Constructionism.” Frontiers in Psychology.  Edited by Cornelia Herbert.  Reviewed by Frederic Isel, Annal Hatzidaki and Marta Ghio.  University of North Carolina. 14 April 2015.

Majid, Asifa.  “Current Emotion Research in the Language Sciences.” Emotion Review. Volume 4, No. 4, Radboud University, Oct. 2012.