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Words Matter

Words Matter

by Amy Neiman, LMSW

I was a fairly dramatic child. Well, my parents might disagree and say I WAS a dramatic child. I had big feelings and emotions and was wanting to get them out. I “loved” this. I “hated” that. There was no in-between. My mother used to say things like “Amy, your feelings can’t be wrong but let’s think about how you are expressing them,” or “Amy, ‘hate’ is a very strong word. Is that really what you mean?”

As I reflect on these phrases now, I see that my mother was saying what I have come to realize: Words matter. In a world full of words, many of us struggle to find the right ones, especially when describing our emotions. As you can probably guess, the most common “feeling” words we use are happy, sad, mad, and fine. “How are you?” “Fine. How are you?”

When we answer “fine”, we may be content, but we may be feeling overwhelmed or lonely, but almost as if we are on autopilot, we give the rote answer “I’m fine”

Words are important. Being able to identify how we are feeling and appropriately express those emotions can help us feel more in touch with ourselves, improve our relationships with others, and help us discern next steps for many situations.  Ahhh, but it takes work and practice to learn how to uncover the word(s) that accurately describe our current emotional state.

In therapy, I have been known to ask a client to hold an object and describe it to me. I get some funny looks and, at first, hesitation. It is round, hard, and yellow. But then we pause and take time to really look at it. Think about texture, detail, and uses. Then I ask them to go home and during the week, walk around, and describe objects they see.

Soon they are realizing that there are lots of ways to describe items in our daily life. “Look at that tree. It is tall. The leaves are vibrant, green, and fresh. It moves gracefully in the wind. The shadows of the sun bring contrast to the colors. I haven’t noticed before how the bark is different colors of brown, gray, and white.”

Starting with physical objects gives us practice at using descriptive words. It teaches us to pause and think deeply about what words we are using and if they are true to what we are describing. Once we get used to describing objects more thoughtfully, the next step is to turn inward and pause when describing our feelings.

Am I sad or am I feeling isolated or guilty? Am I mad or am I feeling embarrassed or frustrated? Once you can accurately name your feelings, then your conversations with yourself and others become deeper and truer. If I am your partner, friend, or family member, I am likely to respond differently if you tell me you’re feeling stressed instead of “fine”.

A feelings wheel is a fabulous tool to have. There are tons available on the internet if you just Google “feelings wheel” but a good place to start is . This one was created by Geoffrey Roberts and is free to download and use.

Expressing what and how we are truly feeling can be difficult. It takes practice and, yes, vulnerability. Be patient with yourself.  While it may not be easy at first, I can promise that when you are able to answer the question, “How are you?” with your authentic feelings – “You know what? I’m feeling a little overwhelmed today.”  The response is almost always going to be more helpful- even from a stranger in the elevator. “Is there anything I can do to help?” or “I’m really sorry. I hope your day gets better.”

Counseling from CJFS is confidential, and it is often covered by insurance. To learn more, visit , email or call 205.879-3438.