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Why words matter when describing your emotions

Background Story (shared with permission)

I run weekly meditation groups, both in-person and online. They always start with me asking ‘What’s come up for you this week? Which emotion would you like to work with?”

I don’t need the accompanying story of why the emotion is here, just the name of the emotion. It allows us to come into a meditative state, then tiptoe in to feel this emotion in the body as an alternate way to process and move through the feeling.

A few weeks ago, with the online group, I asked the standard question. One response came back, “I feel terrified”. It was a regular meditator and she felt comfortable sharing that it was in relation to an upcoming event. Somebody else agreed instantly with that feeling, for different circumstances going on in her world.

It’s the first time I’ve ever said no.

I will take somebody in to feel terror if I can be with them in person. I will take somebody in to feel this emotion online if it’s one on one. But I was not comfortable taking a group of people into an emotion which is, by definition, traumatic, without being able to hold them with the extra care I can only provide in a 1:1 or in-person session.

What I realised in the days after, is that neither of these people likely felt terrified. Both had a large amount of uncertainty about their immediate future, and they were very nervous about the ensuing outcome. There was also anxiety about all the things that could potentially go wrong, and where this might leave them. It was no doubt overwhelming them.

On the other hand, terror, in my understanding, is the deepest version of fear.

All these emotions are on the same plane yet separated by degrees of intensity or severity. I wasn’t willing to facilitate people feeling the most intense version of their fear without knowing I could provide appropriate support.

Why is this important?

Because semantics matter. The words you choose influence the way you feel.

Emotions are not simply a cognitive phenomenon; they’re not merely a process within the brain. Emotions are embodied. There is a visceral response in your body for every emotion you have.

For every emotion, there is a dynamic bi-directional conversation going on between your brain and your body. Each emotion arises as a felt sense in the body, and these physical changes are reported via feedback to the brain about how the body feels. The brain constructs a mental representation of the feeling. This is when we say, “I feel ……..”. This mental construct from your brain is then fed back down your nervous system into the body.

There is a communication loop that cycles and continues to alter and change as your perception changes.

My point

If you feel overwhelmingly nervous, or anxious about something, call it overwhelming nervousness or anxiety.

Your body is listening to your brain. Your body is on the receiving end of your conscious interactions with your brain, ie the thoughts, and specifically the words you use, to describe your own feeling. If you semantically upgrade the intensity of your nervousness or anxiety to terror, then that is what you’re contributing to this dynamic conversation within your body. And you’ll feel it.

Our culture is very loose with our words. I’m in that group too. I love to sprout sentences that are more like poetry and less about accurate grammar and semantics. My editor had a great time questioning me on all of my descriptions when she was editing On Path!

But I do appreciate that when it comes to our emotions, it’s worth teasing apart one descriptive word from the next to ensure that word we’re choosing doesn’t exacerbate the intensity of the source emotion.

And with this, may you go forth and be happy, or joyful, or content, or cheerful, or even delighted.


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