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Language Shapes Emotion posted May 2, 2017

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The language we use to describe situations in our life affects how we experience those situations. In the field of cognitive psychology, several theories have been advanced as to the role of our thinking and evaluation of situations plays in determining how we feel.

According to the James-Lange and the Schachter-Singer Theories, events happen to us and our bodies are physiologically stimulated by those events. Then, after understanding the reason for this arousal, we experience an emotion. This process can take place instantaneously and often without our conscious awareness.

Event —> Bodily Arousal —> Interpretation/Reasoning —>Emotion

Another theory, put forth by Richard Lazarus, says that events happen to us, we think about them, and then we feel emotions and bodily arousal at the same time.

Event —>Thoughts —> Emotion & Bodily Arousal

Although each of these theories has their strengths, each assumes you think and label what is happening to you before you experience emotions. Additionally, the emotions you feel are based on your thoughts. The words you use habitually to describe situations you face influence the emotions you habitually feel.

Let’s give an example of the theory in practice. As you go about your days, you take in the world through your senses. You hear different variations of sound in pitch, volume, tone; you see various colors, depths, you smell difference scents. To deal with this massive amount of information, your brain starts to recognize patterns and develop rules of thumb to label sets of events. These rules of thumb, or simple procedures, are called heuristics and they enable you to quickly process what is going on.

Imagine if you saw a massive dog running down the sidewalk barking at you and you did not immediately label this as a dangerous situation and run for safety. Imagine if instead, you took the time to think, “Okay, there is something running at me, it looks large, it is emitting a sound, it must be a dog. What does it mean if a large dog is running at me barking? This must mean that it is angry or rabid. I should avoid this situation.” If you took the time to go through all that reasoning, you would be dog food. Fortunately, our brains use heuristics to combine and label sets of information. In this situation, most brains say “danger” and most people attached to those brains seek to avoid the dog.

Heuristics have tremendous implications for emotional control. Since you use words, even without realizing, to label situations and sets of information before you experience emotions based on these words, you can change your emotions by changing these words you use to describe situations.

Different words carry different meanings. Consider the difference between how it feels to be “bothered” versus how it feels to be “enraged.” Different words bring up different memories, images, emotions, and create different physiological effects on your body. Those words that you habitually use, you habitually feel, and you come to experience yourself as having those habitual emotions as part of you.

Since you feel emotions after you label your experiences, you can change your emotions by changing the words you use to label your experiences. You are moved to feel different ways from the words of others. Words of your friends can encourage or jest, words from advertisers can arouse your desires, words from leaders can motivate or inspire you. To take control of your emotional life, you should take responsibility for the words you use to describe your emotions so you can develop the emotional resources within yourself that you desire. If others can affect your emotions, you surely can affect your own emotions with conscious effort.

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