Using Words to Contend with Feelings

The use of words is often least appreciated when mastering feelings.

In infants, feelings are experienced as bodily sensations, pleasant or unpleasant, and are communicated through bodily actions (screaming, crying and as motility develops, in kicking, pushing, hitting and running).  Older babies and young toddlers become aware of specific feelings through their interactions with their parents.  They respond to changes in the mood of the parent, and the mother and father feels empathy and compassion with the emotional states of the child.   

Young children do not, however, easily recognize that certain sensations within themselves represent definite feelings like anger, sadness, or happiness.  Their vague inner turmoil prompts immediate action or need for the parent, and may indeed overwhelm them temporarily as they disintegrate in a temper tantrum, a screaming episode, or a heap of helpless despair.

Nursery school aged children often do not know clearly what they feel.  Instead, they may become irritable, whiny, tired, listless, restless, agitated or aggressive. They may still experience bodily discomfort.  For example, Paul (a four-year-old boy) almost threw-up when I prohibited his mistreatment of a toy.  “You make me sick,” he shouted.  Paul was angry at me but did not experience his anger as originating from him.  Paul did not realize that he was responsible for his angry feelings, not me.

When a person does not know clearly what is felt, he or she cannot be master of his or her own feelings.

An individual cannot then recognize and tolerate feelings sufficient to stop them from becoming overwhelmed, or from discharging feelings in actions that might lead to trouble.  As a result, it becomes difficult to decide what best to do about feelings; keep them to oneself, share them with a friend or do something about the situation.  Each and all of these processes are greatly facilitated if there is a name, or a word, for one’s feelings which can be used to represent inner sensations of the different feelings.

The verbal symbols, “I am mad” or “sad” or “envious,” help us to assess what is going on inside us.   This is the first necessary step toward understanding what causes our feelings and what we had best do about it.  The words also enable us to better contend with our feelings by substituting verbal expression (in thought to ourselves or aloud to others) for physical discharge.

It is not a way of getting rid of feelings, nor do we need to get rid of them.  Feelings are not poisonous.  Appropriate expressions of feelings in words means being in charge of them, being master of them, knowing them, experiencing them inside and choosing a purposeful way of channeling them.

A person decides when to tell, whom to tell, how to tell and why to tell.  This is how words for feelings are used as a personality tool to contend with feelings.


Barney Greenspan, PhD

Dr. Greenspan is currently in full-time solo independent practice (Meridian, Idaho) as a clinical psychologist, child/adolescent psychoanalyst and zen practitioner with clients at all developmental stages.