The case for working on your emotional vocabulary.
A day after Holi this year, my family and I were driving down from our home towards the city. My heart, head and soul were at peace, there was gratitude. A song called ‘Chidiya’ by someone called Tech Panda played on the stereo, and I had stars before my eyes (not the dizzying kind.)I was happy, but there was more to it. I just couldn't place the exact emotion I felt at that moment. It was a blend of many things. Cut to today, as I write to you, the idea of empathy is gnawing at my soul. This current crossroads is asking me to question whether am standing with someone out of empathy, compassion or plain old do-gooder-guilt. So this essay is brought to you by these two unanswered questions in my life.
My Alicia Sousa journal has a section for everyday ‘mood.’ Do you pride yourself on being a writer? Congratulations, this is where your writer-specific imposter syndrome will kick in. You will not be innovative on most days beyond ‘good’ ‘sad’ ‘mad’ or ‘lonely.’ I have come to notice, my emotional dictionary is rather limited. I read somewhere that on a good day, a writer will be able to communicate 1/10th of the pain he feels. The rest is for the writer to bear. Come to think of it, lack of emotional vocabulary might just be the reason behind it. Even the best of us don’t know if we are depressed, sad or just gloomy today. If I feel angry at my father for not getting my point across, is this the feeling of inadequacy or insecurity stemming from inadequacy? And importantly, is being good not the same as being nice?
Imagine a big ass salad bowl. There are layers to the salad, elements of crunch, mush and freshness. It’s a perfect salad. But say all of us are allowed a single bite of the bowl, our description of the same salad will differ by a margin. It might be crunchy for you, sweet for me and disgusting for someone else with bad luck in the bitten geography. It’s our truth, but it’s not the whole truth. Similarly, emotional vocabulary isn’t as straightforward. A couple of days of sad thoughts, triggered by unfortunate events isn’t depression. Nervousness over an imminent match makes you anxious but you necessarily might not suffer from chronic anxiety. To form a more nuanced decision about the salad, we will need more than a bite.
Currently, my life is hard. I have an unprecedented curve in my plans, individually and as a couple. In the process of dealing with this completely new experience of my life, I have focused only on what am losing in the process. Smarter brains in the psychiatry world have named it the ‘Spotlight effect.’ My tunnel vision has been on how difficult it’s for my husband, how unfair for us, and soap-opera level dramatic for me. As of a few days back, mind you it’s been a long gestation period, and I decided I need to shift the spotlight to what I can control. Today, I am sitting here, writing to you, a task that on the worse of days will shake me off my self-sulk. Small win? But I can vouch that this gestation would have been longer had I not chosen to deep dive and get the wordplay out.
The opposite of blocking emotion is to be curious about it. Knowing terminologies for what am feeling at a given time doesn’t account for dwelling. You don’t have to know it 24*7. But, the fact that you can name that emotion precisely, allows the people around you to help you with it. Most importantly, you will be able to navigate those feelings so much better. Next time that you’re anxious, you know a walk or a short exercise session can help. You don’t necessarily have to bank on sporadic phone calls to people, who might or might not have the emotional bandwidth to let you vent. Self-reliance is possible with education only, else we are as good as a toddler to spell it out.
A popular contention is that emotions don’t come with a guidebook. Of course, they don’t. You don’t refer back to your notes when you’re in a moment of distress. Just like a cup filled with steaming hot water needs to cool a little before you can touch it, every strong emotion has to be simmered down before it can be handled. Recall the movie ‘Mask’, where a wooden mask had uncanny control over a normal guy. The only time he could assess, and learn to control this overpowering lure of the mask is when he held it at a distance from him, consider the impact and then use it to control situations in turn. That’s precisely how any therapist will ask us to step back, have a third-party experience with ourselves and take control of the situation. However, in order to do that effectively, a handy word stock for your emotions is almost imperative. Chinese finger trap is a very good example of how ‘being in that feeling’ allows us to be free of it. The most helpful tool in therapy is to guide people to process painful emotions. You turn towards it, you feel it, you name it and these steps allow you to handle the distress better.
Another huge reason behind developing an emotional language is to stop this new mass market and capitalisation of trauma culture. We have standardised individual suffering and therapy is no longer personal, but political. Therapeutic language has allowed us to articulate trauma, abuse etc, but the aftermath needs more person-specific therapy than modern mass-produced, social media-propagated terminologies. ‘Confirmation bias’ - a tendency to selectively search, interpret and consider information that confirms your belief, is yet another side effect of such therapising. Instagram convinces every abuse victim that this checklist of emotions is what you should be/are feeling, every break-up is because the man lacks depth and nuance to understand you, and nearly everything is a parenting fault. If all fails, blame the genes. Recognising YOUR individual pattern and emotional behaviour, while naming the said emotion, separates your healing process from these factory definitions.
In 2021, Winfrey co-launched a series with Prince Harry, “The Me You Can’t See” on Apple TV+, discussing and highlighting her own journey as a child-abuse survivor. Lady Gaga and other celebrities of such stature have had their own experience with violence and trauma. Celebrities in turn have become role models as “aspirational” survivors. Winfrey has developed her own language of emancipation and redemption of “therapy talk.” So while TV and Instagram have definitively empowered us with a wider “mood board” [pun very much intended], has it also become a case study for Social-media-induced confirmation bias? However, traditional psychoanalysts towards the coasts often charge about a 100-dollars an hour, making mental health treatment beyond most pockets. So it is not surprising that people might look to celebrities, social media or trauma studies to find meaning for their pain and suffering.
Let me leave you here with a few conflicting thoughts, because as writers our job is to make you think. Poets and writers weren’t meant to provide answers, we simply created, in order to help society reach its thick desires and thoughts. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, hence deep diving into our emotions, and building a vocabulary seems to be the most logical thing to do. However, is all this ‘therapy-speak’ on socials today making us a selfish world with the main character's energy rebutting itself? Also, are we now rich in jargon, but poor in feeling our individual feelings and moods?
Bonus thought for you Here :)