Tuesday Tales: Can you explain your feelings? – Donna Thistlethwaite

Take a moment to reflect on today. How many different emotions do you think you experienced? Is it easy to name the emotions that came up for you? How broad is your repertoire when it comes to describing how you feel?

Many of us have a fairly limited vocabulary when it comes to our feelings which can certainly make understanding each other and giving and accessing support, challenging at times. If we aren’t able to recognise and name our emotions, how can we effectively talk to people about what we are experiencing or what we need more or less of in our life?

Recently I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart which explores 85 different emotions and experiences (thoughts that lead to emotions). Brene talks at length about the value of having a shared language to build connections with each other. She mentions a survey conducted with 7 000 workshop participants over the course of five years. The subjects were asked to list emotions that they could recognise and name as they were experiencing them.

How many emotions do you think they named on average?

I’ve been asking a few friends and workshop participants this question of late and have received responses ranging from 5 to 20? You’ve just read that Brene details 85 in Atlas of the Heart and the Moodmeter app, which helps us to recognise and record our emotions, contains a mere 100.

The average number of emotions amongst Brene’s survey participants was three – happy, sad, and angry. At this point, Brene highlights a quote from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Brene suggests that having access to the right words can open up universes and I know for sure it’s improved my life.

I haven’t always been great at recognising my emotions. Truth be known, I’ve probably achieved the equivalent of a Masters in avoiding, numbing, and repressing them over the years. It wasn’t until I became focused on thriving that I developed an interest in understanding myself, and therefore my emotions, more.

I’d like to say that expanding my emotional awareness and vocabulary was as easy as learning some new words but I’d be lying. It’s been a bit of a journey but the rewards have been well worth it. It feels great to be able to articulate to my family an array of feelings including: excited, disappointed, proud, energised, calm, overwhelmed, or worried, all the while contributing to their emotional awareness and vocabulary.

Here are a few of the steps I took on the journey in case you’re also keen to keep extending your repertoire around emotions.  I’ve attended courses such as NVC, read Permission to Feel along with anything written by Brene Brown, and I regularly check in and record my emotions in Moodmeter.

Can you imagine a world where we confidently and competently explain how we’re feeling to each other? Sounds amazing to me.

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Donna Thistlethwaite is a Brisbane-based speaker and trainer specialising in mental health and resilience. She is an accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor and Resilience at Work Facilitator with a passion for suicide prevention and for helping individuals, teams and organisations to THRIVE. You can find out about her next Mental Health First Aid courses here.

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