Emotional Granularity

Expanding Our Lexicon to Describe How We Really Feel 

My wife Judith and I recently completed our first real vacation in years. It was a road trip that took us from our home in Los Angeles, across the Mojave Desert, through southern Arizona and Utah and into Western Colorado. Our primary goal was to visit Zion National Park and then spend time with close family friends in the small town of Paonia, Colorado. Over 12 days, we drove and hiked through some of the most spec tacular geological wonders to be found on planet earth. It was awesome!

The drive in California includes long stretches through the Mojave Desert, which is spectacular in its own way, but is much the same mile after mile. To amuse myself, and to avoid being mesmerized by the Mojave, I told Judith about an interesting concept I had just learned, called “emotional granularity.”

The term and practice were developed by psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD. Dr. Barrett argues that emotions are learned, and that most of us are only taught to identify elementary emotions, like HAPPY, sad, and ANGRY. We are, in other words, emotional illiterates.

Dr. Barrett’s groundbreaking work encourages all of us to enhance our emotional intelligence by expanding our emotional vocabulary. The more ways we have to describe subtle differences in emotions, the more ways we can learn to express ourselves, and the better we can interpret the FEELINGS of others.

Rather than experiencing our spouse as being simply MAD, for example, we might ask politely if he/she is irritated, annoyed, MIFFED, injured, af fronted, appalled, disgusted, IRATE, outraged, URIOUS, or ballistic. The answer will help us determine whether to fight, flee, or freeze.

I recognize the need to enhance my own emotional literacy and have started researching lists of emotion words. Some of the more interesting lists include foreign words that have no equivalents in English, such as the German word SCHADENFREUDE (pronounced shaa-duhn-froy-duh), which is the pleasure we feel at someone else’s misfortune. Another favorite is the Danish word HYGGE (pronounced hue-gah), which describes the cozy, cuddly feeling we have when curling up in an oversized chair in front of a fire while sipping hot chocolate.

Some lists include new words that haven’t made their way into any dictionary… yet. MINDRAMP has its own neologism, the word “QUALONGEVITY,” which we created in 2009. It describes the ability to live long and maintain a high level of qualityof-life. Another neologism that caught my fancy is the word “BEDGASM,” the ecstatic feeling we have when we can finally lay down in our own bed after a long and arduous day.

Which brings me back to our road trip through the geological wonders of the western Rocky Mountains. Once in southern Utah the scenery becomes consistently STUNNING. Every curve reveals new displays of natural splendor. Bare rock faces, dramatic gorges, forested peaks, expansive mountain ranges. Every crest reveals a new jaw-dropping vista.

The magnificence of the landscape inspired the poet in me. At every new wonder I expressed my awe with well-crafted phrases like, “Oh, wow!” “Holy shit.” “HOLY MOLY!” Or, more frequently, I simply moaned an ecstatic, “Ooohh.”

My wife—remembering the neologism (bedgasm) and wanting to encourage the development of my emotional granularity—remarked that I was having “OOOHGASMS.”

That’s good. Ooohgasms!

But, even better, we soon realized that we were sharing “AWEGASMS.” The spectacular scenery evoked ecstatic feelings of awe and wonder that resulted in uncontrolled verbal eruptions of “oohs” and “ahhs.” When describing our vacation to friends we tell them we shared 12 days of multiple awegasms.

I LOVE our new word.

But there is still more granularity to be explored in the FEELING of awe. Awe has multiple meanings. It is defined as a “reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” Fear and wonder are two very different feelings. The awegasms I had in Zion were of the WONDER kind. The majestic cliffs and the kaleidoscopic hues have a grandeur and magnificence that is humbling and inspiring.

Later in the trip I experienced the fear side of awe, as we stood at the unprotected rim of Bryce Canyon and stared past the iconic “hoodoos” down into the valley floor hundreds of feet below. I don’t do well with heights. For me, the AWE inspired by Bryce Canyon included elements of ANXIETY, TREPIDATION, and fear.

Wonder and fear mixed again when our friend Madaleine, who is a worldclass rock climber, took us to one of her favorite climbing spots, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River in Colorado. Black Canyon’s “Painted Wall” is the tallest cliff in Colorado, stretching 2,250 feet from river to rim. Only El Capitan in Yosemite and Notch Peak in Utah are taller. As we watched the sun set, the black granite and schist rock face grew dark, ominous, and foreboding.

The thought of our friend Madaleine clinging to that sheer rock wall evokes a feeling of “NAWESEA” (awe + nausea). Admittedly, nAWEsea isn’t as good as awegasm, but the word does advance the granularity of my emotional vocabulary. It describes awe, coupled with ANXIETY, queasiness, vertigo, and squeamishness.

I can now explain the apprehension and anxiety I feel when my wife walks toward the edge of a cliff to get that perfect photograph. My EMOTIONAL vocabulary is more nuanced. I can express myself with greater emotional granularity, as in: “STOP! I’m going to puke!”

Michael C. Patterson is a consultant and coach who uses brain and mind sciences to optimize well-being across the lifespan. Michael and his MINDRAMP colleague Roger Anunsen have recently launched the MINDRAMP podcasts, Live Long & Live Well. You can subscribe to the podcasts at www.mindramp.org or directly at http://mindramp.buzzsprout.com.  

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