Mar 19, 2020

Emotional Vocabulary

After my burnout, I went through some exercises to observe my own emotions, pin-point them as they happened, and make sense of how exactly they affect me. To do this, I needed to develop my vocabulary.

These days, we’re all kind of dealing with emotions that affect us in ways that we can’t understand. There are waves of denial, suppression, optimism, dismissal, constructive energy. Some people are trying to focus on the positive, or taking action, or taking it as an opportunity to do things in their life they didn’t prioritise before.

Some of us are using this time to introspect. So I thought I’d share some of the words I found useful:

Pressure - If you ever had a sinus headache, or felt dopey on a plane, you know the feeling of pressure. A strange thing about pressure is that if affects us before we realise it. I think emotional pressure is the same. When you “feel pressured”, at first, you don’t notice the pressure, but feel a bit at a disadvantage. Recognising pressure earlier helps you understand what’s going on, and either change your expectations or address the underlying causes.

Vigilant - So many English words relating to trust are overly dramatic. Sometimes it’s not a betrayal, it’s just a situation you have to watch with a slightly weary eye. To me being vigilant is more about being responsible and realistic, than being suspicious or freaked out. It has none of the emotional weight surrounding trust or panic.

Salamalekum is a mushed-up version of the Arabic greeting meaning, “may peace be upon you.” When I notice people are being a little antagonistic or aggressive, I try to remember they’re a person too. They’ve been hurt before, they have an inner voice talking to them, and their behaviour towards me might have nothing to do with me. I have this feeling of wishing them peace.

I encourage you to look within, hear your inner voice, and ask yourself what’s going on there? Find your own terms to describe it, and you’ll feel calmer and more connected to what’s going on inside.

For tastes, we have basic words like salty, sweet, bitter. But how do you describe the taste of steak, or a pineapple smoothie? I feel the same limitations with basic emotional terms like happy, sad, afraid and love.

Coffee hipsters develop a taste vocabulary: stone fruit, nutty, acetic, citrus, grain, metallic, papery, etc. And professional tasters can then use that specificity to pinpoint how to improve a brewing recipe, or even spot how to improve the bean processing and farming.

English has a rich vocabulary, but words meanings often “rot” through misuse. The effect is a lot of words with different meanings start to get used interchangeably, so they all end up with the same, fuzzy meaning. For example, responsibility, accountability, and fault actually mean different things, but often get used interchangeably – and we can see the effect of this muddy understanding. With emotional terms, we see ourselves fall back on over-simplifying and just saying we feel good or bad. Or feeling “positive” or “negative.” We can detect the emotion somehow, but can’t really grasp it or explain it.

With food, you might be okay to just say you like it or you don’t like it, but if you want to know why or how to improve the recipe, you need a better vocabulary. I wanted to understand my mind better, so needed the vocabulary to explain what was going on.

So here are some more words I found useful for myself, once I unleashed my inner word nerd. They don’t just describe emotions, but reactions and other feelings too.

Pensiveness - A reflective pause after a remorseful event or disapproved action. It’s something less than grief or sadness, but hinting in the same direction, triggering a bit of reflection.

Monkeymind - when my inner voice is restless, always talking to me, jumping from one topic to another. The term goes back to Qin Dynasty texts and I picked it up from some pre-recorded guided mediations. I use it to label the kind of stress mode when the monkey mind is going full-rant.

Amazement is a feeling that stands out to me when faced with massive powers or phenomena. That we’re “just a speck of dust in the universe” makes me feel amazed, just like looking up from a Manhattan street, or considering the massive collaborations like the European Union or how billions of us are training self-driving cars by proving to robots that we are not robots. (That’s what those RECAPTCHA forms do.) These are so massive. Amazement to be is not positive or negative - it’s awe and fear at the same time, so much that my intellect can’t comprehend and starts to check itself. Which is nice to realise, since that’s a good time to assess my model of the situation. (My way-cool friend Lane likes the Japanese word sugoi “used for things that were powerful without giving them a strongly positive or negative spin. Like Lightning or a tiger, which is powerful, and scary, but not necessarily ‘bad.’”)

Détente is the feeling of relief after a de-escalation. It’s usually used in geo-political situations, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I also found it useful to describe the feeling of relief you can seek when you’re caught in a conflict (internal or external) that you want to end.

Soul storm - A Millennial word that means a tough time in life that will change who you are. I learned it from a conversation with a student who’d just flunked out and was wondering what to do with her life. Being old, I know I got the wrong idea, like a dad saying “lit.” Urban Dictionary says soul storms are followed by rainbows.

Urgency - My experience as an entrepreneur taught me that fast, correctable decisions are more helpful than mulling a decision over for too long to try and get it perfect. But emotionally, this can become a crutch. A feeling of urgency is when a stressful situation makes you want to put a resolution plan into action, no matter how flawed it is. The feeling of doing anything helps to feel relief from the stress temporarily, “to kick the ball ahead”, but decisions made out of sense of urgency can come back to haunt you.

Deadlock is when you feel mentally stuck because of an internal catch 22. It’s when two separate emotions are feeding each other, effectively blocking you. For example, feeling urgency to resolve something, but then feeling too overwhelmed to make a good decision. If you could do something, you’d feel better, then have been able to make the right decision, but in your current mental state, you can’t seem to find it. I found being able to spot deadlock situations helped me realise it was time find a way to take the pressure off myself.

Self-compassion - I had to learn there are times where my compassion should be directed inwards. (I can be pretty hard on myself in tough situations.) Like treating 5 minutes of meditation as your own time for yourself, there are things you can do that are little gifts to yourself. This is a little deeper than retail therapy - I’m talking about letting yourself off the hook for an expectation because you can see it’s just not making you happy or is no good for you.

Serenity, admiration, gratitude and acceptance don’t describe emotions, technically. But they each result in fairly consistent emotional states, so I started using them to describe those emotions. Feeling serene, or beaming admiration, or peaceful acceptance so you can walk away.

Acrid - Emanating an antagonistic smell without any open or direct hostility. It’s sad, but this quite a common phenomenon in business these days. Someone is doing something you don’t like, or you feel is unfair, but you must “act professionally.” Everyone knows what’s going on, but nobody is being obvious or saying anything. I like having a word for this so I could spot it much faster. Sometimes, it helped see someone else doing it, and I (privately) showed compassion and a desire to understand their situation . Sometimes, I’d catch myself being acrid, then consider if there was a more constructive way to deal with the problem.

Drift - An avoidance instinct that’s calm but consistent. It’s like avoiding someone at a cocktail party, while still having a good time. I imagine a paper boat in the bathtub with a magnet in it. You can push the boat away with another magnet of the same charge, and it will happily just drift around. The problem with drift is it’s easy to rationalise your avoidance without confronting why. I worked with a few people who became so reliant on their sense of drift that they got lost in denial. On the other hand, I learned from them that sometimes it’s just time to let yourself float away towards other shores.

Flow - There’s been a lot of talk of “flow” from a productivity standpoint, and I like the emotional awareness that comes out of that. Feeling flow is that zone where you’re into what you’re doing and time passes quickly. Calm, focused and energetic. These days, I make more decisions that help me get to or maintain flow.

I picked up a few of these words from the book [A Mind For Business] and they were aha moments for me when I read a word I could relate to. Having the word was like putting a handle on a box, I could work with that emotion much better.

Some of these words were part of my regular vocabulary before. I just didn’t recognise their emotional aspects.

I’d love to hear what words you find for yourself. I might hear them and go, “oh yeah! I feel that too sometimes.”

The more I can label things, the more I can learn to understand them, so please share with me on Twitter at @saintsal

What am I up to these days?

I’m a new parent, and prioritising my attention on our new rhythms as a family. I’m also having fun with slow creative pursuits: making a few apps, writing, etc.

Work-wise, I’m trekking along at a cozy pace, with a few non-exec, advisory roles for cryptography and microchip manufacturing programs.

In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in starting the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.

Contact me

Books & collected practices

  • Peer Learning Is - a broad look at peer learning around the world, and how to design peer learning to outperform traditional education
  • Mentor Impact - researched the practices used by the startup mentors that really make a difference
  • DAOistry - practices and mindsets that work in blockchain communities
  • Decision Hacks - early-stage startup decisions distilled
  • Source Institute - skunkworks I founded with open peer learning formats and ops guides, and our internal guide on decentralised teams