Ladies chatting emotional vocab article

Humans experience a broad spectrum of complex feelings, and these emotions contain data about ourselves and the world around us. On any given day, you may experience a wide variety of different emotions such as joy, irritation, calm, disappointment, pride, anger, love and excitement.

The emotions you experience may have very subtle differences between them, such as annoyance, frustration, irritation, anger and rage. Some may even be made up of subtle blends of simpler emotions, such as contempt, which is made up of elements of anger, disgust and even happiness.

You can also experience a combination of emotions in any given situation, that might even seem contradictory. For example, a mix of excitement, apprehension and sadness when moving to a different country. Or a combination of joy and fear at the birth of your first child.

Navigating this emotional landscape accurately and understanding the subtle nuances of emotions requires you to have a rich emotional vocabulary and use it effectively. Doing this will help you perceive, understand and communicate emotions, which are key areas of emotional intelligence. 

What’s more, developing a broad emotional vocabulary can help you manage your emotions. Putting feelings into words or simply being able to label them is used in several psychological therapies as it can regulate your emotions and supports your mental and physical health. Labelling your negative emotions allows you to disengage from them, and once disengaged, you can choose how to react to the situation, rather than being influenced by your strong emotional response.

How does it work?

Within the limbic (emotional) brain, there is a region called the amygdala, which is often triggered by negative emotions. Close to this area of the brain is the right ventro-lateral pre-frontal cortex (rVLPFC), which is responsible for articulating emotions, or ‘labelling’.

Research shows that when individuals label an emotional picture, or their emotional response to a specific picture, this activates the rVLPFC and reduces activity in the amygdala. This see-saw effect reduces the intensity of the negative emotion.

Thankfully it does not have the same effect on positive emotions!

Tools for Developing and Using Emotional Vocabulary

Mood Meter App (for iPhone and Android)

Mood meter

The mood meter app is a way of monitoring how you are feeling in order to identify patterns and contributing factors that impact your emotions. At regular intervals, you consider the nuance of your current feeling. (How pleasant or unpleasant do you feel, and how high or low is your energy?) .

You then tap the appropriate colour quadrant on the graph (see left) and view the emotion word associated with your plot, ranging from miserable to ecstatic, as well as noting what has just happened to impact that emotion. 

As the app provides all the words for you to select from on a scale of emotional energy, this helps build your your emotional vocabulary. It also gives you the opportunity to reflect on and record why you are feeling that way.

This information is saved, so you’ll be able to check back over time to see if there are any patterns visible in your ever-changing emotions.

You can learn more about the Mood Meter app here.




Consider keeping an emotional journal, and write in it when you are experiencing negative emotions. This is similar to the mood meter, yet is less prescriptive.

Writing down your emotions require you to label them, lessening their power.

If you are looking for somewhere to jot down your thoughts, check out our Inspire Action Journal.

Emotions Cards

Langley Group’s Emotions Cards are 150 colour coded cards each with a different positive, negative or neutral emotion word on them.

To develop your emotional lexicon, consider grabbing a pack and selecting a card at regular intervals that accurately describes how you are feeling.

The cards can also be used in a family setting to develop youngster’s understanding and use of emotions words. Try getting everyone in your family to pick a card before dinner that reflects how they are feeling, and perhaps a card that describes

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how they would like to feel. Then share why each of you have chosen your cards. You could take this one step further to develop perception of emotion, by picking a card that you think describes how other family members may be feeling, and having a discussion around this.

Facilitators at the Langley Group witness the ‘seesaw effect’ in action when they use these cards in group training sessions. As participants peruse all the cards on the table, you can often visibly see any negative emotions reducing in intensity. By the time they choose cards that describe how they are feeling and share them with the group, the number of negative emotion words you hear will be greatly diminished – an invaluable tool for a facilitator! 

You can learn more about the Emotions Cards here.

Emotional Scrabble

Emotional scrabble can help you work out how emotions progress in intensity, building your vocabulary along the way. For


example, if given the words on the left-hand column, could you work out the logical progression in energy as per the right-hand column?

Happy                                      Calm

Pleased                                    Content

Joyous                                      Pleased

Amused                                    Amused

Calm                                         Positive

Positive                                    Happy

Content                                    Joyous

This is one example. For more, consider our Intensity Cards, available through the Langley Group online shop.

And so… increasing your understanding of what emotions yourself and other people are experiencing, you will be better equipped to cope with those emotions in a more constructive way.

When you build your emotional vocabulary, you are building your resilience and emotional self-management.  

Next time someone close to you asks how you are doing, instead of responding simply with “ok”, or “fine”, try practising your emotional intelligence by choosing one (or a selection of) emotion words.

To learn more about this topic, have a read of the the books Social: Why our brains are wired to connect by Matthew D. Lieberman, and The Emotionally Intelligent Manager, by David R. Caruso and Peter Salovey.

To learn more join Learn with Sue for eBooks on topics such as 7 Ways to Apply Positive Psychology, 10 Brain Friendly Habits and How to Lead with the Brain at Work. Plus a range of tools to help yourself and others including questionnaires, values cards, posters and more.