The 30 Million Word Gap by Age Three. As in any study that comes out with initially shocking findings the study done by Hart and Risley has been further examined for the underlying causes that go beyond low socio-economic status and “word poverty”. However the study still highlights that education goes beyond schools – the ability to learn “fluency” in any language also requires an environment that supports the growth of the characteristics you wish to see flourish – whether it is actual words, or something a bit more nuanced, but nonetheless related – Emotional Vocabulary.
Emotional Vocabulary goes beyond knowing that there are nuances to sadness, such as morose, depressed, dysthymic, bleak, blues, off day, tearful, hopeless, emotionally fatigued, and… I could go on… just as there are similar varieties for anger and happiness, and fear…
Emotional Vocabulary is also the capacity to see the signals of those emotions in ourselves and others from both non-verbal and verbal cues. Emotional Vocabulary is the ability to use just the right tool at the right time to guide our fear, anger, joy, or sadness to develop our capabilities to be greater human beings and to also use those same feelings to promote effective action that assists the world.
For a moment I think about the teenager who is constantly talking about how terrible their life is. They have not yet developed the capacity in themselves, or in the context here, their emotional vocabulary, to see that these feelings of sadness, anger, and fear that get triggered is their heart’s way of signaling to the brain that it know they are capable of more. It is the heart’s way of signaling to the brain that they want to find a solution.
Their reaction, to rail and complain against the world, to sink into despair, to engage in violence, to potentially end their own lives, is because they have, at this juncture, a limited emotional vocabulary. Does this seem to simplistic.
Let me elaborate further. Emotional Vocabulary is a form of mastery. It is mastering the signals that show up internally or those from others, and recognizes those symbols as a code for translation. For those with less Emotional Vocabulary, the responses are limited. Hide. Fight. Flee. Joy can be as threatening, sometimes more threatening than the other emotions and it can also engender the same responses: Hide. Fight. Flee.
For those who have a greater mastery to Emotional Vocabulary options open up in the worst of situations. Victor Frankl found freedom and hope in the Holocaust Death Camps where he himself underwent horrific experiences. He did not detach from his emotions to survive. He dove into hope and gratitude, even empowerment. He realized that his thoughts, at least these, were his own.
I recognize for myself that great depression can show up in my life on any given day. Part of it is the biological wiring I have. Generations of family struggling with anxiety and depression. I suspect this is the case for many families. In mine, it is simply documented and understood. There is power in this. In understanding that depression, a sense of great helplessness, hopelessness, failure, and even despair may show up tomorrow for no discernable reason.
The thing is, I grew up in a home that emphasized having a large emotional vocabulary. I then read books, went to seminars, did my own therapy, did life coaching, and started my own groups where I taught the material at least once a month. Because emotional vocabulary is a very “niche” thing. Like a doctor who leaves the field, after a year or two some of the professional “jargon” is going to disappear. If he returns to the field it will be easy to access, but knowledge he took for granted before, may not be easy to obtain in a moment of need should it arise after he has been out of the field for even just six months.
Emotional Vocabulary takes years to develop. If you are the teenager or adult who is constantly saying “I hate my life” or “I’m forty and a failure”, simply recognize that the conversation you are having with yourself today will determine the person you are tomorrow. It gives you guidance for the life you are creating.
If the conversation instead is “Wow, that did not work today, what can I do differently today to feel more hopeful, grateful, joyful” and you then take action on THAT, you are beginning to develop just the start of an enriched emotional vocabulary that will bring you very different results.
And yes, there is a lot more to it. Like I said, I’ve been studying how to develop my Emotional Vocabulary for years. I have studied it enough to be grateful for the times of depression that signal for me a time to reassess and reevaluate, am I on the path I want to walk? I am grateful for those moments of anger which I see as times to reassess and reevaluate my own values and the things most important to me. I am grateful for those moments of fear which often tell me I am either moving the wrong direction on the path of life or I am in fact on the verge of an amazing breakthrough to obtaining the life I want, and I have learned that Joy is to be enjoyed, not just pursued or created for others.
The real key, if there is one, is to seek out others who also want to develop their emotional vocabulary. Who seek to be “Masters of their own lives” by developing mastery in the area that affects each and every one of our decisions. It doesn’t have to be therapy, seminars, books, life coaching, or workshops. Although I think those places are great places to start. Because it’s in the seminars and workshops that you’ll meet others on that path. It is from the books, therapy, and life coaching, that you will be guided to a myriad signposts and tools that assist in making the path easier to assess, follow, and ultimately create.
In closing. I think on the path of Emotional Mastery there is a huge word gap between those who develop it daily and those who do not. It is not determined by social economic class – although for those experiencing community trauma on a daily basis there are a lot of things deter people from developing a rich emotional vocabulary; however across classes there is child abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and even simply disinterest in learning skills that may “rock the boat”. One could even argue that in some communities developing an emotional vocabulary, at least in the short run, could be a survival issue – compassion in a gang environment could be fatal. Beyond that though even in most family environments, in the short run I can think of dozens of reasons NOT to develop an emotional vocabulary of any depth. In the long run though, I can’t imagine a more rewarding daily practice. For mastery of one’s own emotional vocabulary and the ability to quickly and easily translate that of others means that in any situation, we do in fact, become captains of our own destiny.