Feeling words

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

If you’re ever struggling with a feeling, try to put it in words. Words will reduce the feeling to a manageable intensity. It’s a magic trick they do. But watch out; words will trick you, too.

A single word cannot fully convey a feeling
If you’re about to meet your girlfriend’s parents for the first time, you might notice butterflies in your stomach. If you say you’re anxious, you have found a word for those butterflies. Now you can talk about feeling anxious and do something to calm down. But watch out, if all you say is you’re anxious, you’ll miss that you’re also excited. Excitement would get those same butterflies fluttering but mean you’re about to do something promising, as well as scary.

Finding words for your feelings is great; but be sure to hear from all the words before you choose just one.

Words mean more than one thing
If you try to communicate your feelings with words, there’s going to be a lot of confusion if you assume your words always mean one thing. Look up your words in the dictionary. You’ll see more words, synonyms that sort of mean the same thing, but don’t. Then if you look those words up, there are more words. You can never find the feeling itself in the dictionary. The feeling in itself is beyond words.

Words are like suitcases: they mean nothing by themselves, but hold a bunch of things inside that you must unpack. Some words, like love, carry more baggage than others; they’re a trainload of freight cars that all need to be unloaded before you ever know what love means.

Words have personal meanings
In the same vein, the words you choose will mean something different for you than they mean to others, even the same words. For instance, anger is apt to call up some vivid images to someone, who as a kid witnessed his father angrily beat his mother. He’s not likely to see anger as an ordinary expression of irritation. Us shrink-types get excited when we hear the words depressed, anxious, and psychotic; thinking in clinical terms when what you really mean is sad, apprehensive, or weird. Tell us you were suicidal during a recent trip to an amusement park and you might get hospitalized when you were only talking about taking a ride on an insane roller coaster.

The meanings of words change
When people say they’re sorry, it used to mean they had sorrow; now it’s used in place of guilt. What are they saying when they say they’re sorry? Often, they are saying they’re sorry they got caught. They are not saying they’re guilty.

Mad has been replaced by a new term, mental illness, and mad has gone on to mean angry. When anger became mad, it lost its legitimate righteousness and became one more irrationality. When madness became a mental illness, it became something for doctors to cure and not something for you to avoid on your own.

Entitled is a word that causes confusion. It used to mean you could claim title to something; you had a legal right that no one could justifiably take away. Entitled used to convey an appropriate self-assuredness, a legitimate confidence, a solid boldness, and a willingness to command. Now, the word calls into question the validity of those feelings; you believe you have the right, but really don’t. It means others find you pretentious.

Is it any wonder we’re so anxious, when the very moment we feel most secure, we are compelled to doubt?

How did entitle lose its title? I don’t know, but the same thing is happening to entitlements, which used to be what is due. They call Social Security an entitlement, but as the word, entitled begins to mean not entitled, Social Security will be something budget balancing politicians can cut.

I’m not saying the meaning of words can never change; I’m just saying you gotta keep an eye on them when they do.

Words are metaphorical
Most words began their life as metaphors, but the original image has faded. Amazed began with a person lost in a maze. Amused, meant they were in contact with a Greek Muse. There was once rage in courageous and depressed felt like being squashed by a press. The detestable failed the test and the ecstatic were static no longer.

I’ve written before about how there are real feelings and metaphorical feelings. Disgust is a great example of this. Real disgust is when you eat some bad food and want to puke. Metaphorical disgust is what some used to say they felt when they saw gay people kissing. Seeing gay people kiss will not make you puke, unless you call it disgusting; then you might just puke because you talked yourself into it.

Words are always metaphorical in that they’re never the real thing, except for being real words. They’re standing in for something else: the feeling itself. Words and feelings never match perfectly. However, words do have the power to evoke a feeling that was not present before you used the word.


A little straight thinking and straight talking is needed here; but, when words are so tricky, how can anyone think straight? Well, often we don’t and it’s our use of words that screws us up. It makes us mad, in the old sense of the word.

Watch what your words are doing to you. I hear people say all the time they can’t do this, they can’t do that, when they really mean they haven’t been able to. Try it out yourself and see if you can tell the difference.  I can’t stay on a diet; versus I haven’t been able to stay on a diet. One shuts the door on change, the other leaves it open.

There are a lot of words to watch out for that aren’t feeling words. We is really sneaky. It implies we have far more in common than we do. Any form of the word to be should be suspect, as in I am, he is, you are, we are, they are. They suggest far more consistency than people ever show. Always never happens and never is always rare. Need is often confused with want. But is the shiftiest character of the lot, since it negates anything that came before.

But, here’s the problem with communicating without words: we can’t. Never. We always need to do it. You’re entitled to use words. You’d be mad if you didn’t. Then, you’ll be sorry.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

One thought on “Feeling words

  1. I love this! It’s not preachy like usual posts about mental health issues and I like the points that are made about words and their simultaneous evolution based on the current context.

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