Lately in my NYC anxiety therapy practice, it occurred to me that we use one word–anxiety–to talk about so many different kinds of experiences. This includes angst, dread, worry, fear, panic, agitation, aggression, stress, nervousness, jitteriness, distracted, impulsive, manic, unsettled, concerned, alienated and excited. The list could go on with probably triple this amount. There are also emotional experiences that many would find similar to anxiety that we don’t even have words for–the experience of longing and parts of grief that are nervous and unsettling, for instance.
When laying these words (and lack of words) out, we recognize that there are so many experiences attempting to be made sense of by this one word. We often talk about these experiences in very simple ways, as in “Oh, are you feeling anxious?” In clinical language, we have a few words beyond anxiety, and yet, most often, we use the word anxious and lump these experiences together.
Anxiety Is Also Understood As An Individual Experience
We also relate to anxiety and similar terms as an individual experience. But, there are also collective experiences of anxiety like a family that is nervous about Dad losing his job, a community frightened and worried about increasing violence, and a country panicked and uncertain about its future under a new political leader. When we attempt to describe these collective experiences of anxiety, which we don’t do enough, we are forced to stretch the meaning of these individuated words to make sense of these very different experiences.
This Linguistic Gap is Bigger Than Anxiety
All these examples of how we talk about anxiety show that our emotional language is problematic across the board. Yes, we would benefit from more words to give expression to our emotional lives, but perhaps what’s revealed even more broadly is the limitation of how we understand emotions themselves.
The idea that I could say, “I’m anxious” and it would accurately represent my lived experience and also have meaning when located alongside someone else’s understanding of anxiety is silly when we examine it. In some respects, how utterly absurd to think there could possibly be a linguistic corollary to every emotional experience we have.
There Will Never Be A Perfect Word For All Our Emotional Experiences
The trickier part is: I’m not sure that if we had 1000 words or 10,000 words to express our emotional experiences that the problem would be much better. The problem, ultimately, is our insistence on understanding language as purely representational. When I say, “I’m sad” or “I’m anxious,” we understand this as an expression of, independent of my statement, what is and what is not known to the listener.
But, what if we came to understand descriptions of feelings as more like the tossing of a ball or the opening line to a knock-knock joke. In other words, if we gave up the idea of words perfectly representing internal states, we could understand a conversation about and around feelings as an invitation to co-create. We can allow the opening of “I’m sad” or “I’m anxious” to be the beginning of two or more people being curious and creating something new together. We can create our emotions, not simply just uncover and define them. This allows for so many possibilities.
Creating (or Co-Creating) Emotions With Others, Including Your Therapist
As strange as it may sound, we can create emotions. On the surface, this sometimes looks like making up new names for how you feel. But, all of this is built on the idea that how we talk matters and it matters tremendously.
Take the experience of anxiety. It exists in you–you generate the feelings, the thoughts and the language (or the absence of language). You make feelings just as you make poems or artwork. Sitting in a therapist’s office (or anywhere), creating new ways of doing feeling (with someone else who is not trying to judge, fix or even, understand) actually changes the feelings. You, and the therapist, are literally creating something other than what was. And that is incredibly valuable.