Sometimes we have experiences that impact us, but we have difficulty putting words on it. In fact, some conceptualizations of trauma essentially speak to the lack of verablization as being a driving component of trauma’s tendency to haunt us. In fact, there is a real satisfaction in finding the words to describe a feeling, even when it isn’t a traumatizing one. Which is why I was delighted to stumble across The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a collection of words to describe all those feelings you have but haven’t named. I’m sure everyone will find some that resonate. But that raises the question: once you find it and relate to it, you can identify it differently, but were you actually feeling it even before it was named?

Lisa Feldman Barrett has been making the rounds on podcasts lately (you can hear her on Invisibilia, for the more applied version, or on Brain Science, for the more academic version) talking about how we construct emotional experience, and how that emotional experience in turn constructs how we perceive the world around us. Emotions are based on assumptions which become self-fulfilling prophecies.

A key idea that is that we (human beings) have created these emotions. They are concepts that give us a handle on the world, and help us decide what to pay attention to and what to do as we move through our lives. They are tools, and they are not right or wrong, except insofar as they help us live our lives well. When two people come together to form a partnership, there is often work to be done in translating our languages of emotion, and some of it can be quite surprising. Couples find that different things make them angry or hurt or happy, and the same thing can make one person sad and the other person happy. Perhaps if we see this as work in translating rather than figuring out who is right and who is wrong, then we can make space for real connection and dialogue.