How Language Influences Our Emotions

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Psychologist Robert Plutchik identified eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. These are the foundation of the “feelings wheel” (also known as an “emotion wheel”) that’s commonly used by therapists to build emotional intelligence, and many of us have a solid understanding of what these emotions are. We know them because we feel them as physical sensations in our bodies, usually as a result of something we are experiencing. What differentiates an emotion from a “mood” or a “feeling” is, according to the American Psychological Association, this “overt or implicit engagement with the world”. They define emotion as “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements.” Emotions come about as a reaction to something一but research into emotion has found that the very act of identifying and defining specific emotions has its own impact on our emotional landscape. 

Call Me By Your Name: Affect Labeling

Codifying feelings and emotions through language is called “affect labeling”. It’s what we do in counseling and talk therapy to make sense of the way we are responding emotionally to the things that are happening to us. It’s a common phenomenon that talking about our emotions takes the power out of them; when we recognize and legitimize challenging emotions, we are able to move through them with more ease and self-compassion. Writing them down in a journal, letter, or online space can have the same effect. Recent research into this phenomenon has found that processing negative emotions linguistically is less stimulating to the amygdala than doing so perceptually. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is extremely sensitive to threat or danger and is responsible for activating the fight or flight response. Psychologists aren’t clear on why this is so, but are exploring this as proof that affect labeling disrupts our physiological reaction to emotional stimulation with a ‘dampening’ effect that contributes to more resilience and better mental health. 

Words Have Power

Another way that language impacts the way we feel is in the words we choose every day. When our self-talk is positive, we feel more positive emotions. When our self-talk is negative, critical, or downright cruel, we feel more negative emotions. It’s why affirmation practices can be so powerful – self-talk gets hardwired into the brain to become entrenched beliefs. The subconscious can’t actually tell when we are being sarcastic or ironically self-deprecating, either, and it’s also listening to how we talk to others. Take the word “sorry”, for instance: being overly apologetic can impact our own self-esteem and negatively affect our emotional wellbeing. Language is the key to how our brains conceptualize the world, and it also creates and helps us define moral binaries like “good” and “bad”. It all gets cemented through the stories we tell ourselves and each other, and language is the foundation of storytelling. 

But What’s in a Name?

Emotions come as a spectrum, however, and they aren’t mutually exclusive. When we get “mixed feelings” about something, we’re usually referring to a confusing blend of different emotions, such as joy and sadness being experienced at the same time. To add to the nuance of language, different cultures have all kinds of words for emotions that don’t exist as concepts in other languages. The word “Hygge”, for example, is used in Denmark and Norway to denote an emotion associated with coziness and contentment within a specific context. When hygge gained popularity outside of these countries in the second half of the 2010s, it became something aspirational一and for many people, reframed the very concept of happiness (or, at least, what signified “feel-good vibes”). Hygge presented an alternative idea of happiness: not as something aggressively positive and perpetually ecstatic, but something quieter and more, well, “hyggelige”. Having the language to articulate an emotion that we otherwise couldn’t pinpoint can increase our emotional intelligence, and give us more of life’s texture to play with.   

Broaden Your Emotional Vocabulary

Here are some emotional concepts from different cultures around the world that don’t have a direct translation into English:

  • Schadenfreude (German):  Experiencing joy or pleasure in another’s misfortune.
  • Han (Korean): A collective angst characterized by resentment, bitterness and a yearning for revenge, but also the hope of resilient endurance. 
  • Kilig (Tagalog): The flutter of excitement associated with romance. 
  • Jijivisha (Hindi): The desire to live a long, indomitably full life. 
  • Tarab (Arabic): An ecstatic or mesmeric state induced by music. 
  • Jamani (Swahili): While this expression can be translated as “My goodness!”, it’s an exclamation used to express everything from immense surprise to deep empathy, wherein someone can use it to emphasize how they are connecting to what someone else is saying. 
  • Wabi-Sabi (Japanese): The art of accepting and finding beauty in transience and imperfection. 
  • Saudade (Portuguese): The feeling of longing, melancholy, yearning, or nostalgia for someone or something that you love and is either absent and may never return, or that you never had or never existed.
  • Yuánfèn or 缘分 (Mandarin): The fateful coincidence that brings two people together, like an unseen binding force connecting people who were predestined to meet.
  • Commuovere (Italian): To feel something incredibly deeply, where something – usually a story of some sort – can move you to tears. 
  • Loskop (Afrikaans): When someone is being or feeling exceptionally absent-minded and forgetful – literally, it means “loose head”. 
  • Razbliuto (Russian): The sentimental and tender but somewhat empty or absent feeling that you have for someone you once loved, but no longer do.

Regardless of how we choose to express our emotions – and as wonderful as it is to find new ways to share how we feel – doing so can be a key part of developing our emotional intelligence. Using language to help us process our emotions and understand ourselves (and each other) better can help us better empathize with others, defuse conflict, overcome internal and external challenges, and be a boon to our mental health and well-being.


All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: The Role Of Language In Emotion; Putting Feelings Into Words; Affect Labeling Increases The Intensity Of Positive Emotions; Processing The Emotions In Words

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