The more I talk to people about emotions, the more I realize how paltry our emotional vocabulary tends to be. This is a problem, because descriptive words help us understand ourselves and the world around us. If we don’t have enough names for our emotions, it’s hard to get a handle on what we’re feeling when an emotion arises.
I’ve been looking at the work of cognitive psychologist who are finding that having a more precise vocabulary (for instance, having specific names for light blues and dark blues, as Russian speakers do) tends to make people quicker at identifying subtle differences. We’ve all seen that having a larger vocabulary makes us more articulate and more able to express nuance and subtlety; what is interesting is that a large vocabulary also helps your brain identify things more quickly.
This can be immensely helpful where emotion are concerned! The sooner you know what you’re feeling, the quicker you can take effective emotional action. I created the following emotional vocabulary lists in three nuanced categories (Soft, Mood State, and Intense) so you can become smarter, quicker, and more articulate with your emotions. Score!
This page contains the vocabulary lists and suggestions for working with each emotion. If you’d like your own streamlined copy of my Emotional Vocabulary List, you can download this PDF. It’s free!
Your Free Emotional Vocabulary List (PDF)
Now, let’s look at each emotional category and talk about how to work with the different emotions and the three different categories within those emotions.
Let’s Start With Anger
Most of us know anger only in its mood state, and I’d say this is due to the (deeply unfortunate) idea that anger is only negative, and is therefore something to be avoided at all costs. This enforced avoidance and resulting ignorance is not a very good idea, because anger helps you set boundaries, protect your sense of self, and take your stand in the world. Anger helps you protect your position, your voice, your standpoint, and your individuality. If you don’t have enough anger, you’ll tend to give up your position and your sense of self, but if you have too much anger, you’ll continually offend against the rights of others.
Anger is also concerned with justice; not only for yourself, but for others. Your anger can be evoked when you see someone being stripped of their sense of self, their rights, or their position. Anger is a very social emotion; if you can understand its nuances and subtleties, you can function more intelligently in your social world.
In the book, I separate anger into the categories of Anger, Rage, Fury, Hatred, Contempt, Disgust, Resentment, Boredom, and Apathy. In this list, these categories are reorganized under the master category of Anger.
Annoyed ~ Frustrated ~ Cross ~ Apathetic ~ Peeved ~ Irritated ~ Cranky ~ Crabby ~ Bored ~ Impatient ~ Critical ~ Cold ~ Displeased ~ Rankled ~ Detached ~ Indifferent
Mood State Anger
Angry ~ Mad ~ Offended ~ Antagonized ~ Bristling ~ Sarcastic ~ Aggravated ~ Arrogant ~ Indignant ~ Inflamed ~ Affronted ~ Resentful ~ Incensed ~ Exasperated ~ Riled up
Hostile ~ Aggressive ~ Livid ~ Outraged ~ Furious ~ Belligerent ~ Hateful ~ Appalled ~ Bitter ~ Ranting ~ Raving ~ Contemptuous ~ Disgusted ~ Vengeful ~ Vindictive ~ Violent ~ Irate ~ Menacing ~ Seething ~ Vicious ~ Spiteful
When you know you’re feeling anger, you can make intelligent emotional decisions about what to do with it. In the book, I suggest that you ask the internal questions when your boundaries and self-image (or anyone else’s) are threatened: What must be protected? and What must be restored? Anger brings you a great deal of energy, forcefulness, and focus. Asking the internal questions will help you channel that intensity into healthy action.
A reminder: constant anger — even the soft form — can be a sign of depression, especially in men. If nearly everything in your life evokes impatience, annoyance, irritation, anger, crankiness, indignation, sarcasm, and so forth, it’s time to check in with your doctor or therapist. Your friends and family will thank you!
Good Words for Fear
Because fear is our intuition — it’s the emotion that tells us when change is occurring, when we need to orient to something in our environment, and when we need to take action to avoid harm or injury, it’s really important to understand fear in all its forms.
In the book, I separate fear into Fear, Anxiety & Worry, Panic & Terror, and Confusion. In this list, my categories are reorganized under the master category of Fear.
Remember that fear requires that you check in and figure out what you’re being alerted to. Asking the internal question for fear: What action should be taken? (What should I do?) will help you identify and work with your fear in useful ways. If you can work with your fear, you can understand when it is healthy and appropriate, and when it is repetitive and unhelpful to you.
Alert ~ Hesitant ~ Pensive ~ Watchful ~ Cautious ~ Curious ~ Leery ~ Uneasy ~ Doubtful ~ Confused ~ Fidgety ~ Apprehensive ~ Shy ~ Concerned ~ Disquieted ~ Timid ~ Edgy ~ Disconcerted ~ Insecure ~ Indecisive ~ Disoriented
Mood State Fear
Fearful ~ Afraid ~ Suspicious ~ Startled ~ Unnerved ~ Anxious ~ Nervous ~ Worried ~ Alarmed ~ Shaky ~ Perturbed ~ Aversive ~ Wary ~ Distrustful ~ Rattled ~ Unsettled ~ Jumpy
Terrorized ~ Shocked ~ Panicked ~ Filled with Dread ~ Horrified ~ Phobic ~ Petrified ~ Paralyzed
If you experience repetitive fears, worries, or anxieties that don’t track reliably to actual dangers — and don’t respond to any actions you can take, it’s important to reach out to your doctor or therapist. Fear is a lifesaving emotion that primes your brain, your muscles, and all of your senses for action. If your fear is stuck in a feedback loop, you may become overwhelmed and exhausted by the activation it causes — which will activate more fear and eventually knock you into disarray. It’s important to be able to calm your body so that you can get back into a workable relationship with your fear. Fear has an irreplaceable job to do; therefore, it’s important to be able to work with your fear in healthy ways.
Tracking Happiness Through Your Life
Happiness is a lovely rest stop and a lovely emotion, but it’s not the only emotion you need. Each of your emotions has a specific purpose and a specific place in your life. One of the biggest tricks to learn with happiness is to let it come and go — and to not treat it as better or more important than your other emotions. Every emotion has its place.
If you treat happiness as your go-to emotion, you’ll suffer unnecessarily when your other emotions arise. You need anger, fear, sadness, jealousy, envy, guilt, grief, shame, and even depression (etc.) at times. If all you know and all you want is happiness, you’ll tend to avoid, ignore, suppress, or mistreat your other emotions, and then guess what? You won’t be happy very often.
What I notice in working appropriately with the supposedly “negative” emotions is that when we work with them skillfully, we often feel happy, contented, or pleased afterward. It is as if happiness arises to tell us, “Good job! You’re getting the hang of emotions now, aren’t you?”
In the book, I separate happiness into three categories: Happiness, Contentment, and Joy. In this list, we’ll look at them all together, just as we did with Anger and Fear, above.
Smiling ~ Upbeat ~ Peaceful ~ Calm ~ Amused ~ Open ~ Friendly ~ Encouraged ~ Hopeful ~ Inspired ~ Jovial
Mood State Happiness
Happy ~ Glad ~ Content ~ Optimistic ~ Cheerful ~ Joyful ~ Satisfied ~ Lively ~ Delighted ~ Rejuvenated ~ Pleased ~ Gratified ~ Excited ~ Gleeful ~ Merry ~ Playful
Elated ~ Exhilarated ~ Manic ~ Giddy ~ Euphoric ~ Awe-filled ~ Blissful ~ Enthralled ~ Rapturous ~ Jubilant ~ Ecstatic ~ Overjoyed ~ Radiant
In the area of intense happiness, I included mania to remind us that there can be difficulty in the area of happiness. Intense euphoric experiences are excellent and fleeting, and they can change your entire outlook on life. However, they tend not to mesh well with activities that lead to your everyday happiness and security, such as attending to your relationships, working toward difficult goals, and paying the bills. Intense euphoric happiness is excellent in its place, but part of its beauty is that it is (or should be) comparatively rare.
Looking at Sadness
Sadness is the wonderful emotion that helps you let go of things that aren’t working anyway. Most of us avoid sadness as if it is the thing that created the loss in the first place. It isn’t. In its healthy sate, sadness is evoked by the fact that you need to let go of something. Listening to sadness can help you let go of things that don’t work so that you can make room for things that do.
The internal questions to ask for sadness are: What must be released? and What must be rejuvenated? Remember to ask both questions; sadness is not just about loss. Sadness clears away things that don’t work so that you can make changes in your life and make room for things that do work.
Let’s organize some vocabulary to help you welcome the gifts that sadness brings you. In the book, I separate sadness into Sadness, Despair, Despondence, Grief, and Depression. These categories are reorganized here under the general category of Sadness.
Regretful ~ Disappointed ~ Disconnected ~ Distracted ~ Low ~ Listless ~ Wistful
Mood State Sadness
Sad ~ World-weary ~ Down ~ Melancholy ~ Mournful ~ Weepy ~ Grieving ~ Gloomy ~ Dejected ~ Downtrodden ~ Heavy-hearted ~ Forlorn ~ Sorrowful ~ Dispirited ~ Discouraged ~ Drained
Despairing ~ Bleak ~ Despondent ~ Depressed ~ Anguished ~ Inconsolable ~ Grief-stricken ~ Hopeless ~ Heartbroken ~ Morose ~ Bereaved
If you’re in intense sadness, or if your mood-state sadness is continuous and repetitive (and doesn’t respond to a good cry), it’s important to check in with your doctor or therapist. Sadness has a powerful physical component that drops you downward — and if it stays activated for too long, it can interfere with sleep, eating, and your hormonal regulation — which then leads to more sadness and more disregulation. Just as it is with any other emotion, sadness shouldn’t hang around forever. It should do its job and move onward. If it doesn’t, and you’re in a constant sadness feedback loop, please seek help.
Note for the grieving: Though grief is different from sadness, I’m including it here for ease of categorization. However, it is quite normal (and healthy) for grief to last a much longer time than simple sadness. This is because grief arises not merely when you need to let something go — grief arises when you have no choice about letting go, and when you’re losing something over which you have no control. Grieving is a slow and languid process that takes its own time.
If you’re grieving, re-read the grief chapter in the book, or contact your local hospice agency for grief support. In both of these places, you’ll find support for your grieving process, and you won’t be hurried or shamed out of your honest emotions. Grieving is a vitally important process — it’s not the opposite of happiness — and it takes its own time.
The Single Emotion Called Shame and Guilt
In the book, I take the word guilt out of the equation pretty quickly, because I see it as a weasel word in relation to shame. I know I’m unusual in this respect, and I’m not on a wild-eyed crusade to rid the English language of the word guilt! However, I do want to bring up the subject here so that readers won’t be confused by my inclusion of the word guilt in these lists.
Here’s an excerpt from The Language of Emotions on guilt and shame:
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GUILT AND SHAME
In my early teens, I read a popular self-help book that branded guilt and shame as “useless” emotions. The book presented the idea that we’re all perfect, and therefore shouldn’t ever be guilt-ridden or ashamed of anything we do. That idea seemed very strange to me, so I went to the dictionary and looked up “guiltless” and “shameless” and found that neither state is anything to celebrate. To be guiltless means to be free of mark or experience, as if you’re a blank slate. It’s not a sign of intelligence or growth, because guiltlessness exists only in people who have not yet lived. To be shameless means to be senseless, uncouth, and impudent. It’s a very marked state of being out of control, out of touch, and exceedingly self-absorbed; therefore, shamelessness lives only in people who don’t have any relational skills. Both states – guiltlessness and shamelessness – helped me understand the intrinsic value of guilt and shame.
Fascinatingly, in a dictionary definition, guilt isn’t even an emotional state at all — it’s actually the knowledge and acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Guilt is a state of circumstance: you’re either guilty or not guilty in relation to the legal or moral code you value. You cannot feel guilty, because guilt is a concrete state — not an emotional one! Your feelings are almost irrelevant; if you do something wrong, you’re guilty, and it doesn’t matter if you’re happy, angry, fearful, or depressed about it. When you don’t do something wrong, you’re not guilty. Feelings don’t enter into the equation at all. The only way you could possibly ever feel guilty is if you don’t quite remember committing an offense (“I feel like I might be guilty, but I’m not sure.”). No, what you feel is shame. Guilt is a factual state, while shame is an emotion.
Shame is the natural emotional consequence of guilt and wrongdoing. If we don’t know that and don’t welcome our authentic shame, we’ll be unable to moderate our our own behavior. We’ll continually do things we know are wrong — and we won’t have the strength to stop ourselves. In our never-ending shamelessness, we’ll offend and offend and offend without pause — we’ll always be guilty — because nothing will wake us to our effect on the world.
Guilt is a factual state, not an emotional one. You’re either guilty or not guilty. If you’re not guilty, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. However, if you are guilty, and you want to know what to do about the fact of your guilt, then you’ve got to learn to work with the information shame brings to you.
Okay, now that I’ve made that clear, forget it, because the word guilt will never leave our emotional vocabulary. It’s far simpler for people to use the weasel phrase “I feel guilty” rather than the more honest emotive phrase “I feel ashamed.” Luckily, we’ve got this following list so that we can have a more precise vocabulary for shame!
Hesitant ~ Flushed ~ Self-conscious ~ Speechless ~ Discomfited ~ Awkward ~ Humble ~ Reticent ~Abashed ~ Flustered ~ Withdrawn
Mood State Shame
Ashamed ~ Guilty ~ Embarrassed ~ Intimidated ~ Penitent ~ Regretful ~ Remorseful ~ Chagrined ~ Culpable ~ Reproachful ~ Sheepish ~ Rueful ~ Contrite ~ Humbled
Humiliated ~ Guilt-ridden ~ Guilt-stricken ~ Disgraced ~ Stigmatized ~ Mortified ~ Demeaned ~ Self-condemning ~ Self-flagellating ~ Degraded ~ Shamefaced ~ Belittled ~ Ostracized
Here is The Gifts of Shame post to help you understand the positive aspects of shame. The practice for shame is to understand it as anger toward yourself, hopefully for something you’ve actually done wrong — which means that you can make amends and change your behavior. In the book, I call this kind of shame “appropriate shame,” because it relates to something real and fixable: If your shame is appropriate, it will stop you from doing something you shouldn’t, and it will help you change your behavior and make amends.
However, there is another form of shame that I call “applied” or “foreign” shame, which comes from the shaming messages you pick up from others and incorporate into your life. Applied shame can be pretty toxic (especially if it relates to you not being good enough, smart enough, lovable enough, etc.), and the work in the book helps you identify applied shame and work through it so that you can get yourself into a better relationship with your own healthy and appropriate shame. Yes!!
The Unique Emotions Called Jealousy and Envy
In my book, I describe jealousy and envy as distinct but related emotional states:
Jealousy and envy are separate emotional states, yet they carry similar information: Jealousy arises in response to unfaithfulness or deceit in an intimate relationship, while envy arises in response to the unfair distribution of resources or recognition. Both contain a mixture of boundary-protecting anger (including hatred – so check your shadow!) and intuitive fear. Both exist to help you set or restore lost boundaries after they’ve assessed an authentic risk to your security or your position. If you can honor these two emotions, they’ll contribute tremendous stability to your personality and your relationships.
If your jealousy flows healthfully, you won’t appear obsessively jealous or possessive — rather, your natural intuition and clear boundaries will help you instinctively choose and retain trustworthy mates and friends. Similarly, if your envy flows freely, you won’t appear openly envious or greedy — instead, your internal security will allow you to celebrate the gains and recognitions of others (even when they’re undeserved) without ignoring your own need for gain and recognition. However, if you suppress your jealousy and envy, you’ll have trouble identifying or relating to reliable companions, and you (and everyone around you) will be disrupted by your disastrous attempts to bolster your self-respect and security by denouncing everyone else’s and grabbing everything you can get your hands on.
I call jealousy and envy the “sociological emotions” because they help us understand and brilliantly navigate our social world. Very few people share this view; our culture pathologizes most difficult emotions, but jealousy and envy seem to be targeted more universally than others. People who express these emotions are rarely honored; they are often called insanely jealous or green-eyed monsters, which throws these emotions into the shadows. That’s never a good idea, especially in regard to emotions that carry intuitive and protective information. Both jealousy and envy arise when you’ve detected a risk to your social and personal security. Shutting them down is like throwing a noisy smoke alarm out the window before finding out why it went off! When you stifle your jealousy and envy, you not only lose your awareness of the situations that brought them forward, but you lose your emotional agility, your instincts, and your ability to navigate through your social world and your relationships.
Okay, we know the difference between jealousy and envy, but most people lump the two together. In most dictionaries envy and jealousy are treated as synonyms for each other. I don’t like to squish them together like this, but the fact is that our vocabulary choices for these two unique emotions are completely intertwined (and tellingly paltry — I’d say that we do not want to name or own up to these emotions!).
Soft Jealousy and Envy
Suspicious ~ Insecure ~ Distrustful ~ Protective
Mood State Jealousy and Envy
Jealous ~ Envious ~ Covetous ~ Threatened ~ Demanding ~ Desirous
Intense Jealousy and Envy
Greedy ~ Grasping ~ Persistently jealous ~ Possessive ~ Resentful ~ Threatened ~ Gluttonous ~ Green with envy ~ Avaricious
*If persistent jealousy is a major stumbling block for you, please look into research psychologist David Buss’s excellent book on the sociological and biological necessity of jealousy: The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex. This is an incredibly eye-opening book that defends jealousy as a natural and accurate emotion – even while it chronicles the horrific abuses caused by the repression and incompetent expression of jealousy.
One fascinating finding Buss presents is that follow-up studies on couples who entered therapy to deal with one partner’s “pathological” jealousy uncovered clear instances of hidden infidelity in an overwhelming percentage of the cases (and clear instances of crippling amounts of internal insecurity in the rest). In each case, the jealousy was pointing to a truly endangering situation of external or internal insecurity and acting exactly as it should have – to alert its owner to serious threats to intimacy, loyalty, mate retention, and social well-being.
Tracking the Suicidal Urge
Suicidal feelings have a range from soft to intense, but if you are feeling any level of suicidal urges right now, don’t feel as if you have to wait until you’re in the throes of torment to reach out for help. If you can learn to catch your suicidal urges when they’re in the soft stage, you can often stop yourself from falling into the pit of desperation and torment. In the territory of the suicidal urge, your capacity for emotional awareness and articulation can literally save your life!
If you’re feeling suicidal here in the the U.S., you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Suicidal feelings can be very isolating, and this lifeline exists to give people the support they need to make it through the dark periods in their lives. If you or anyone you know is feeling suicidal, please let them know that free, safe, confidential help is available.
The TALK Lifeline is available in the U.S.; if you’re in another country, the International Association for Suicide Prevention has a list of crisis centers and suicide prevention centers throughout the world.
Soft Suicidal Urges
Depressed ~ Dispirited ~ Constantly irritated, angry, or enraged (see the Anger list) ~ Helpless ~ Impulsive ~ Withdrawn ~ Apathetic ~ Lethargic ~ Disinterested ~ Pessimistic ~ Purposeless ~ Discouraged ~ Isolated ~ World-weary ~ Humorless ~ Listless ~ Melancholy ~ Flat ~ Indifferent ~ Feeling worthless
Mood State Suicidal Urges
Desperate ~ Hopeless ~ Despairing ~ Morbid ~ Sullen ~ Desolate ~ Miserable ~ Overwhelmed ~ Pleasureless ~ Joyless ~ Fatalistic ~ Empty ~ Passionless ~ Bereft ~ Crushed ~ Drained
Intense Suicidal Urges
Agonized ~ Tormented ~ Self-destructive ~ Tortured ~ Anguished ~ Bleak ~ Numbed ~ Doomed ~ Death-seeking ~ Reckless ~ Devastated ~ Nihilistic
Please remember: when people are feeling suicidal, they’re not having a simple happiness deficiency or exhibiting a character flaw. Something very serious is going on. If you don’t know what to do, you can call the Lifeline suicide hotline as a concerned friend (1-800-273-TALK (8255)), and they’ll help you understand what to do. Here are some ideas from the Lifeline website:
How To Be Helpful to Someone Who Is Threatening Suicide
Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.
Be willing to listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether feelings are good or bad.
Don’t lecture on the value of life.
Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
Don’t dare him or her to do it.
Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.
Get help from persons or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.
Thank you for helping when people are feeling suicidal. Thank you for your emotional fluency and your willingness to reach out when others are in need.