Emotions 101: Improving Your Emotional Vocabulary

Emotions 101: Improving Your Emotional Vocabulary

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.

Robert Frost

We’ve covered a lot of territory in our series on Emotions! We’ve:

Separated fact from myth.

Learned what makes us emotionally intelligent

And along the way, we’ve emphasized the importance of doing small things each day to support our emotional wellness

Because, often, the small things can make a big impact.

In celebration of World Mental Health Day this week, we’re highlighting one of those things:

The words you use to describe what you’re feeling.

Read on for 3 places you can begin to improve your emotional vocabulary today:

1. Start with yourself

Maybe you’re a natural lover of words.

Or maybe they don’t come so easily for you.

But the good news is:

Either way, you can expand your emotional vocabulary with a little practice!


  • Pay attention. Take stock of your own habits and really focus in on which emotion words you tend to use most often. If you’re like most of us, you probably use the same kinds of feeling words over and over.
  • Brush up. There are many great lists of emotion words out there (like this one); pull one up and spend some time studying it. What do you notice? Anything that surprises you? Try to describe what you’re feeling as you read, using a word you don’t typically use.
  • Get in the habit. As you’re going about your day, pause to check in with yourself and note how you’re feeling. Pull up your list of words and identify a few that capture the emotion(s) you’re feeling in that moment.

2. Communicate with other adults

One of the most valuable functions emotions can serve is to signal when one or more of our needs is (or is not) being met.

Becoming aware of these signals is an important first step.

The next step is to take a healthy risk and communicate more effectively so our needs may be met.


  • At work: Think of a situation in which you felt a need of yours was unmet.
    • What was the need (e.g., creative freedom)?
    • What emotions resulted from this need going unmet (e.g., irritation, resentment)?
    • How can you communicate this need more effectively to a coworker/supervisor/etc. (e.g., “I could contribute to this project more meaningfully if I were allowed to try it my own way first, rather than having each step managed for me”)?
  • At home: Incorporate feeling words into your everyday conversations with your partner. The more you can keep the focus on what you are feeling, the more effective your communication will be. For example:
    • “I feel annoyed when you take work calls during dinner. I look forward to that time together, so when it happens often I start to feel really lonely
    • “When you dropped those donation items off for us, it made me feel so contented and cared for. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness…”

3. Help children build their own emotional vocabulary

When it comes to tuning into what they’re feeling, kids are remarkably intuitive.

It’s just finding the words to describe what they’re feeling that can be tricky.

Depending on a child’s age and developmental stage, they’ll need varying degrees of help putting words to their emotions.

The best rule of thumb is to start young, model emotional vocabulary words yourself, and then help them practice on their own right at home.


  • Model emotional vocabulary words. The next time you hit a red light in the family car, don’t just groan and fiddle with the sound system. Take the opportunity to teach your kids what emotional vocabulary looks like in real time. Say: “I’m frustrated that it’s taking a long time to get home” or “We’re running late, and that makes me feel nervous about missing my meeting.” Be as descriptive as you can. Ask if they have questions about the words you’re using.
  • Create a list of feeling words. Enlist your kids’ help in coming up with the list, decorating it, and deciding where to display it in your home. Make sure it’s visible and in a high-traffic area (e.g., kitchen, mudroom, kids’ bedrooms).
  • Read together. You can work emotional vocabulary into your normal reading routine by asking your child to guess how a character in the book is feeling. Ask follow-up questions, like:
    • “How can you tell?”
    • “Why might they be feeling this way?”
    • “What are some other words we can use to describe that feeling?” 
    • “What feeling is the opposite of what that character is feeling?”
    • “When you’re feeling _________, how do you show it?”

Enjoy this post? You might also like:

Emotions 101: 5 Myths About Emotions
Self-Compassion: 4 Ways to Start Practicing It Today
Habit Change in 3 Easy(-ish) Steps

Ready to expand your emotional vocabulary?