The English language has a particular quirk to it, in that – in comparison with other languages – it tends to have far more nuance and subtlety to it. There is not just one word for things like ‘good’, but dozens. Each one gives a slightly different flavour to the sentences, and it makes us highly competitive in Scrabble.
But this onslaught of vocabulary comes at a price. It makes it far more difficult for others to learn how to speak it. English as a Foreign Language is a class studied the world over, and many other regions just don’t understand why we need so many different words to say the same thing. The contrast is seen when you try to translate between English to another – especially something such as Chinese which is a character set that encompasses whole notions, not individual syllables.
The reasons behind having a million different ways to say the same thing are numerous, but a significant one is the fear that we will be misunderstood. If you think about it, getting the wrong word in the wrong context can start arguments, or be considered offensive, so it is understandable that we will be a little bit sensitive to use the right word to describe what we mean. Of course, the fact that this relies on the other person knowing the words you are using means that sometimes, trying to be clearer causes more confusion. My mum used to say she needed a dictionary to talk with me sometimes, as I loved playing with words and learning new ones. So in my quest to be more precise with what I was saying, I ended up causing more misunderstanding.
Why am I talking about language when this blog is about guilt? Because our need to refine our language significantly impacts our ability to communicate how we feel. Guilt is particularly affected by this as it is not considered a ‘nice’ emotion to feel or inspire in others, so we use other words to describe how we feel. This makes it easier for us to skirt around awkward follow up questions, When people I am talking to know my subject matter, they tend to spend a long time trying to convince me that they do not feel guilty (even if i haven’t actually ever asked them whether they do or not). But they don’t like the word ‘guilt’, so, as they would naturally be inclined to drop the ‘G’ bomb, there is a pause, a look up to the sky and eventually they use a different word to explain how they feel. We both know the word that they should have used was ‘guilt’ but they couldn’t leave it with that.
In recent years there have been huge advances in talking about mental health and words such as depression or anxiety are now used without as much of the stigma associated with it. And that is wonderful but I do feel we need to do the same with our emotional health, and that starts with calling out the emotions we are feeling without scrambling around for a softer word. I can talk to 10 different people and to me they are struggling with guilt but they will all reference some other emotion. And if I mention that they might feel guilty, I get accused of putting words in their mouths.
Am I? I’m well aware that the more you focus on something, the more you see it and as someone who studies guilt, I’m more pre-disposed to see it. It is the lens that I think makes the most sense not just from how people are feeling but also by how it changes their behaviour. Often, the description of how they feel aligns closely with guilt, but the negative connotations of guilt mean they will slide past that, grabbing any other word instead – then argue that it is more accurate.
Guilt as an emotion is difficult to deal with – by design. It is meant to compel you to take action and as such, can make life feel very uncomfortable. We can feel quite defensive and sensitive when it is brought up – and it is sometimes used as an attack on people when you want to shut them down “Stop trying to make me feel guilty!” But we need to talk about it more, use the word more, so that it loses that power to upset and disrupt us, and lets us stay clear in what we actually want to say.