2017.01.06 Happy - or whatever that feeling is? - new year

Do you have access to your full emotional vocabulary in your new language?

Many people who have to function in a different language than what they grew up in either struggle with identifying their emotions - simply because they don't know the words - or sense a difference between the emotion they want to name and what comes up when describing it in their new language.

For the first problem, having a nuanced vocabulary, this list of emotions may be helpful. You can also explore the more interactive Atlas of Emotions.

We usually know the five "primary" emotions: Joy, anger, sadness, disgust, and fear. If you have watched the Disney movie "Inside Out" it illustrates these emotions wrecking havoc on a family's relationships. Along with surprise these central emotions are generally showing up on people's faces in a way recognizable across the globe - although how readily people show their emotions depends on culture and context.

Americans emote more readily than, for example, Scandinavians in both facial expressions and voice intonations. Because of this difference, Americans may find Scandinavians unfriendly and cold while, reversely, we may find Americans both charmingly enthusiastic and a bit immature.

From a healthy emotional point of view, knowing more than the five primary emotions is useful. If we don't identify our emotions correctly, we may respond to them in a manner that is neither helpful in the situation, nor keeps us connected with other people.

If you automatically go to "angry" if you are annoyed, confused, disappointed, irritated, embarrassed,..., you may come across as too hostile and negative. There are other ways of getting out of a confusing or irritating situation - like asking clarifying questions or saying "hold that thought, please" if you get disturbed in the middle of doing something else.

Besides, for all emotions there are graduations - they are more a "dial" with which to tune up or down the thermostat that an "on-off" switch.

As if emotions were not difficult enough to handle in and of themselves, handling them in a foreign language can feel disingenuous or inauthentic. (Oops, it seems that I succeeded at finding feeling words not included on the list. They probably belong in the "confused" category.)

When we first experience emotions, we don't even have a language. But as we develop our first language, we usually haven't learned to control or to hide our emotions. For brain cells there is a rule that "what fires together wires together." Consequently, expressing ourselves in our native language may feel more emotionally authentic because the words and the emotions they correspond to are "hardwired".

For the "average immigrant," juggling two or more languages means that the prefrontal cortex is constantly assessing whether to use one or the other language. In human evolution, the prefrontal cortex is the newest part of the brain and the seat of reasoning. But that is not where our strongest emotions sit - they typically start forming in the older parts of the brain. Since multilingual people have more activity simultaneously going on in the reasoning part of the brain, we may be a little removed from our emotions. It can feel as if we are watching ourselves.

On the plus side, emotions may be a little more under control. Experiments have shown that people actually come to better decisions when they think in a foreign language, because they don't "shoot from the hip" as readily.

On the minus side, we may appear and feel less authentic because we "think too much."

There is not much we can do about it - except by paying more attention to and becoming more aware of how we actually feel. The example above revolving around "anger" was chosen with an explicit agenda because the message people, particularly boys, receive growing up in the U.S. culture leaves a lot of room for anger but very little room for discussing emotions. I hope readers will reflect on the list (and share it with their children).

Even though most of us try to spend as little time as possible with challenging feelings, the more adept we are at pinpointing how we feel, the more likely it is that we can take proper action and resolve what bothers us.

On a more upbeat note: I wish all readers a joyous, optimistic, serene, content, and emotionally aware 2017.