Tools for describing feelings

For several years I’ve taught a summer course at the University of New Hampshire for kids from poor backgrounds who are preparing for college. The course is called “Success Studies” and it’s a combination of personal development and study skills. Basically I teach the kids how to use their minds effectively.

One strategy that’s particularly helpful for teens, but which actually applies to all of us, is refining and expanding our vocabulary for feelings and emotions. (Buddhism makes a distinction between feelings and emotions, but we’re not going to go into that here. I’ve explained the distinction elsewhere).

I’ve found the following two lists, which come from Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to be very helpful in expanding a feelings vocabulary:

How we are likely to feel when our needs are being met

absorbed, adventurous, affectionate, alert, alive, amazed, amused, animated, appreciative, ardent, aroused, astonished, blissful, breathless, buoyant, calm, carefree, caring, cheerful, comfortable, compassionate, complacent, composed, concerned, confident, contented, curious, delighted, eager, ebullient, ecstatic, effervescent, elated, enchanted, encouraged, energetic, engrossed, enlivened, enthusiastic, excited, exhilarated, expansive, expectant, exultant, fascinated, free, friendly, fulfilled, glad, gleeful, glorious, glowing, good-humored, grateful, gratified, happy, helpful, hopeful, inquisitive, inspired, intense, interested, intrigued, invigorated, involved, joyful, joyous, jubilant, keyed-up, loving, mellow, merry, mirthful, moved, optimistic, overjoyed, overwhelmed, peaceful, perky, pleasant, pleased, proud, quiet, radiant, rapturous, refreshed, relaxed, relieved, satisfied, secure, sensitive, serene, spellbound, splendid, stimulated, surprised, tender, thankful, thrilled, touched, tranquil, trusting, upbeat, warm, whole-hearted, wide-awake, wonderful, zestful.

How we are likely to feel when our needs are not being met

afraid, aggravated, agitated, alarmed, aloof, angry, anguished, annoyed, anxious, apathetic, apprehensive, aroused, ashamed, beat, bewildered, bitter, blue, bored, broken, chagrined, cold, concerned, confused, cross, dejected, depressed, despairing, despondent, detached, disaffected, disappointed, discouraged, disenchanted, disgruntled, disgusted, disheartened, dismayed, displeased, disquieted, distressed, disturbed, downcast, downhearted, dull, edgy, embarrassed, embittered, enraged, exasperated, exhausted, fatigued, fearful, fidgety, forlorn, frightened, frustrated, furious, gloomy, guilty, harried, heavy, helpless, hesitant, horrible, horrified, hostile, humdrum, hurt, impatient, indifferent, intense, irate, irked, irritated, jealous, jittery, keyed-up, lazy, leery, lethargic, listless, lonely, mad, mean, miserable, mopey, morose, mournful, nervous, nettled, numb, overwhelmed , pained, panicky, passive, perplexed, pessimistic, rancorous, reluctant, repelled, resentful, restless, sad, scared, sensitive, shaky, shocked, skeptical, sleepy, sorrowful, spiritless, startled, suspicious, tepid, terrified, tired, troubled, uncomfortable, uneasy, unglued, unhappy, unnerved, unsteady, upset, uptight, vexed, wary, weary, wistful, withdrawn, woeful, worried, wretched.

It’s good to use these lists in order to be more precise about how we’re feeling. All too often we just say we’re feeling “okay” or “not so good.” And people often use the same terms all the time! Being more descriptive helps break the sense I talked about elsewhere that your emotions are fixed and unchanging.

4 Comments. Leave new

I suffer from depression and anxiety on occasion. Your list of words is so descriptive, especially today. I am hiding out with lights off and curtains drawn and desperately trying to find something to help me cope. Help me not to cry. i am hoping to find some answers in meditation


Hi Colette,

I hope you found the lists of emotional states helpful. Have you talked to a medical professional about your anxiety and depression? Meditation can certainly benefit many people but it’s important to develop a strong safety net, and that includes friends, doctors, therapists, and sometimes medication.

I wish you well as you ride out this period of suffering.


You say in this article: “Buddhism makes a distinction between feelings and emotions, but we’re not going to go into that here. I’ve explained the distinction elsewhere” Can you please direct me to that other article? I’m very interested in how they are different.

Thank you!


Sure. Here are a few articles that touch on this:

I’ve always taken more care to define feelings than I have with emotions, so in case I don’t explain what emotions are, I think of them as cognitive responses intended to lead to action. Feelings tell us whether things we’re perceiving are threats, opportunities, or neither, while emotions tell us what to do in response to those feelings.


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