Developing a Vocabulary of Feelings

In learning the process of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), I have experienced frustration in clearly articulating my feelings. Part of the problem is that I do not have the vocabulary I desire. In the past, if someone asked me how I felt, my usual response was just "OK." Or maybe "good" or "fine." That was it and seemed sufficient. No one ever inquired or requested that I be more specific. I also grew up in a household where feelings were not discussed openly, and so I never developed any skill in using feeling words in my everyday conversations. My experience is very common. We live in a "domination system" where there is an expectation that you suppress your feelings, and get on with your work, no matter how you feel. Virginia Satir recognized the problem in her practice of family therapy, and formulated a statement of human rights called the Five Freedoms. According to her declaration, one of your basic rights is "The freedom to feel what one feels, rather than what one should feel." I feel liberated when I exercise this right.

To help myself learn more feeling words, I did some research into feelings (emotions and affect), and developed my own study aid, formatted into three tables which I would now like to share with you. My work is inspired by the NVC Feelings Inventory and other tables and classification schemes for feelings, most notably the tree structure suggested by Parrot (2001). While researching this topic, I ran into an unusual word: "alexithymia," which is defined as the inability to describe emotions in a verbal manner. How interesting that there is such a medical diagnosis! Fortunately, it is not a fatal disease, and can be cured by learning the vocabulary of feelings, paying attention to your emotional state, and then developing your skill in using feeling words in everyday conversation. It does take practice, and even a bit of courage, since many people are unfamiliar with sentences that begin with:

"I feel ........"

The first table gives the "good" feeling words, and the second table the "bad" feeling words. I put quotes around "good" and "bad" because these words indicate judgments, and are not really feeling words. Feelings just are, and no judgment regarding them as good or bad is necessary or desirable. Instead of classifying a feeling as good or bad, in NVC, feelings are classified as either "feelings that are experienced when our needs are being met," and "feelings when our needs are not being met." An analogy is to think of feelings as the warning lights on your car's dashboard, indicators that some of your needs are not being met, or being met, as the case may be. Examine the tables, and instead of saying "I feel good," strive to more accurately describe how you feel. This will make your language more accurate, powerful and colorful. Also, congruence between what you say, and your facial expression adds to your honesty, sincerity and realness. Even the word "bad," when accompanied by the appropriate inflection, means a "good" feeling, so one caveat, is that nothing is set in stone.

In terms of organization, the left most column of the first two tables has what I consider the most basic emotional states. The second column divides each primary feeling word into several more specific categories. Finally, in the third column, I have tabulated as many synonyms as I could, for each specific category. For the primary feeling words of happy, sad, angry and scared, I have also graded these feelings into three levels, strong, moderate and weak (and color coded them too). The second table is roughly the antonym of the first, although the opposite of loving could be considered indifference, rather than hate. Unfortunately, the tables cannot capture every nuance of expression. Consider the two statements "I feel irritated," and "I am experiencing irritation." Both express feelings but the second expression seems softer, less blaming, so expressing yourself this way could have advantages, such as in the business context. Even going in a round about manner to describe feelings can defuse an otherwise sticky situation. So for example, even though you are feeling irritated, starting with "I am experiencing a tightness in the throat," might pique the curiosity of the other party and help with the connection that is desired.

The third table includes words which appear to describe affect, but actually describe how we interpret what others are doing to us, such as in the statement: "I feel abandoned." In the context of nonviolent communication, such words are called "faux" feelings. Rather than using the word "abandoned, try to get to the root feelings, and say "When you left, I felt scared, vulnerable and angry." Another example would be the statement "I feel used." This statement is sure to get you into an argument, and again is not a statement conveying feeling, but rather what you think the other person is doing to you. The third table also includes words that are really judgments (labels, criticisms etc.), such as in the statement "I feel stupid," when you might be wanting to say "I feel embarrassed." And finally, another nonfeeling statement begins with the words: "I feel that ...." which really means "I think..." One goal in nonviolent communication is to develop the skill to make these distinctions, and improve our use of language so that more feeling words are used when making statements about feelings.

If you are a teacher, one fun way to introduce the topic of feelings is to have your class brainstorm on the words. It is very much like inventing. Write on the blackboard the sentence: "I feel __________" and ask the students to complete the sentence and call out any feelings they can think of as fast as they can while you list all the responses on the blackboard. Remember, in the brainstorming process, there is no judgment. Just write the words down and give lots of encouragement. The main thing is to have fun! Beside feeling words, you will also get the other responses, such as "faux" feelings or judgments. This is all perfectly OK. These responses can all be leveraged, if you ask questions like "What does it feel like to be used," where you might get additional responses that really are feeling words, such as hurt or angry. As a second exercise, which does require critical thinking and discrimination skills, ask your class to group the words/responses into different categories, and suggest some of the distinctions discussed above as possible categories. So now I proudly present to you my color coded feeling tables! Any feedback would be welcomed, especially new words to add or suggestions for changes.

Table 1: Feelings when needs are being met

Table 2: Feelings when needs are not being met:

Table 3: "Faux Feelings and Judgments"

NVC Feelings Inventory
Radical Compassion:Feelings List (.pdf)
NVC Academy Feelings Inventory
Mood and Emotion
Basic Emotions
3000 Feeling Words
Roget's Online Thesaurus
The NVC Model
Developing a Vocabulary of Needs
Table 4: Basic Needs
The cause of our feelings

Carkhuf, R. R. and Anthony, W. A.(1979) "Commonly used affect words" reprinted in: Cormier, William H. and Comier, L. Sherilyn, (1985) "Interviewing strategies for helpers" Brooks/Cole Publishing, Monterey, CA, pg. 99.
Ortony, A., & Turner, T. J. (1990). What's basic about basic emotions? Psychological Review, 97, 315-331.
Parrott, W. (2001), Emotions in Social Psychology, Psychology Press, Philadelphia
Rosenberg, Marshall B., (2003) Nonviolent Communication: A language of life, Puddledancer Press, Encinitas, CA, pg.43-46.

Last updated 31 August 2006
Copyright © 2006 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.
E-mail: yen@noogenesis.com