The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
I wonder if he would have said so if his native language wasn’t German.
Whether one agrees with it or not (I personally do!), there’s modern neuroscience that backs important portions of this up. Particularly the idea that naming what we feel gives our life a unique way of containing and processing emotions.
This happens to a point where our amygdala—that’s the fear center of our brains—is soothed if another person accurately describes how we are feeling. Sarah Peyton, the well-known neuroscience educator and author of Your Resonant Self describes at length how our capacity to name things brings about unique power. It allows us to heal and feel things through and helps us to return to equilibrium. Even more so, she explains, if we name our experience as accurately as possible.
For most of us, that’s not easy—knowing the difference between feeling angry, irritated, and enraged is not something most of us spend time with. Yet, when we do, a whole new world can open up for us.
In my work as a coach (I work in both English and German), over the course of working with about a 50:50 split in English and German speaking clients, I observed something magical. In German, certain words exist that describe some of our human experiences so accurately and precisely that I’ve marveled at how much it helps us to express ourselves.
I wanted to offer some of the unique wisdom of some of these words that don’t have an exact counterpart in the English language.
I hope they offer some insight and wisdom for you about your own life:
Literally: The courage in feeling pain.
This is one of my favorites. “Weh” means pain and “mut” means courage. Together, they form a unique word that most of us experience when we’re looking back at an experience, knowing that it was beautiful and also that it is time for us to move on and look forward.
There is something striking about acknowledging both the pain and also the courage in the same word to me. Whenever something ends in our lives, be it a love or friend relationship, a job, a life of a loved one, we may be clear about the fact that it’s now time to move on. Yet, it also acknowledges that there is pain in this parting, in this ending of old things and beginning of new things.
Since in coaching I frequently encounter people in transition, I’ve offered this word before, wondering if they are feeling “wehmut”—a kind of pain and yet courage that it is right to move on. Naming this experience in itself often provides deep relief to us.
The next time you come to an end in your life, see if wehmut strikes a chord with you and let it help you to make space for both the pain and also the courage to move forward.
Literally: The unpacking of something that is wrapped.
When we’re faced with moments of growth, we often tend to think of ourselves getting bigger in some form—that is what growth is, after all. But the German word for growth gives this an additional, new meaning. This “getting bigger” also has a component of something being unraveled, most importantly, of something that is already within you.
The image that comes to mind with “entwicklung” is that of a plastic wrapping around me that I’m turning to come out of as I become completely unwrapped and unraveled, and something brand new is revealed.
Thinking about growth in this way allows us to turn inward with more ease, and we can wonder: What wants to be unraveled here? What newness within myself wants to be revealed to me from this experience?
Literally: To be together with oneself.
Lonely is often a word that has a negative connotation, and it does in German too. But the word in German has often struck me as powerfully revealing of something else. What it literally means is: to be one (word root “-sam”) with one (“ein”). In life, we often do most of what we do socially, because we can’t stand being alone with ourselves. Now, we are social mammals and being in community is important. Yet, if being with others is always a kind of running away from being alone with ourselves, then that doesn’t serve us well.
Whenever I see the word “einsam,” I use it as a reminder to ask myself: Is it possible for me to be together with myself in this moment? And to even find joy and connection in that? By meeting, feeling, and greeting myself with a smile on my face, as if there were already a large community within me. That’s not always possible. But sometimes, it is.
Literally: The voice of a situation.
I’m giving credit to my high school English teacher who once marveled at this word and how there’s not something that accurately describes it in English. I agree with him! The same word is used to tune your guitar (“stimmen”) as well as for the human voice (“stimme”).
What it describes is how we feel inside as a whole, putting all differing inner voices and emotions together. Or to describe the same on the outside, for a landscape or a party.
What makes this word powerful in my experience is that it allows me to see which voices are not speaking or that I would like to have more of a contribution to change the overall atmosphere or “stimmung” of my inner or outer world at any given moment. This brings back agency and relief.
When my mood is dark and sad, adding the voice of “grief, gentleness, allowing” brings a new tone to it, gives it room to breathe, and allows it to move.
Entschuldigen, To Say Sorry/ To Apologize
Literally: To remove guilt from oneself.
To me, this is one of the most challenging words in the German language. It’s caused me both grief and pain, as well as a great deal of realization and insight.
The challenging part: This word is as frequently thrown around in German as is “sorry” in English. A lot of interactions I witness and some that I also partake in go like this: Someone does or says something that triggers some irritation, pain, or other difficult emotion in someone else. Now, immediately, the other person “de-guilts” themselves by saying “sorry” out of that exact guilt or shame that was triggered.
In my experience, this helps no one. Not the person who is feeling some pain, sadness, or irritation. Nor the person who is now feeling guilt and shame. It’s like a coat of paint over a situation where both sides probably would have liked understanding, to be listened to, and to be heard. Of course, this isn’t always easy, but looking closely at it and at the words we’re using in a particular situation can be powerful.
The inspiring part: On the flip side, engaging with this word over years has also brought me a great realization. This is actually a point where the English language is more accurate than German and my long life in the United States has helped me a lot.
The word regret, I think, is a far better and more powerful one than to “de-guilt” or “entschuldigen.” Thanks to this word, my aspiration in life is: When I do or say something that triggers pain in someone else, I first attend to this and any accompanying emotions within myself too. I listen to them and offer empathy, wondering if they feel a certain kind of pain after hearing me or seeing me do something. Then I ask myself what I feel—maybe sadness, because I would have liked to be understood differently, or guilt/shame, because I would have liked to stay in more harmonious connection with that person.
Then, and only then (in theory!), can I reflect on the fact that with what I know now, I would have acted differently, and if it calls for it, offer my regret about what I’d said or done. Not from a place of guilt and shame, but from a place of healthy regret that doesn’t come with a layer of self-directed anger or criticism.
Not an easy thing to do often, and yet, one of the most powerful ways to reconnect after a break in connection.
Literally: To be in an upright posture.
I love this one too. In particular, since my training in trauma therapy has taught me a great deal about the body, its meaning, and the associated feelings of its postures.
To be truly upright, with strength and clarity, and not as a shield or armoring, takes a great deal of courage. Frequently, I notice situations where I can either recoil, agree, and please the other person, or I can step right into that fear and become upright, strong, and sincere to offer my opinion or truth about something in a way that I hope will serve them. Observing how my body feels and wants to move in either case is fascinating to me.
And it’s taught me a great deal about having trust in my own body to guide me toward how I want to live my values in the world; it tends to encourage and reassure me with the strength I get from leaning in, uprightly, when something is important to me.
Literally: To have courage for life.
I love this word in particular for how it is used in everyday language in German. When something important happens to you in your life, you can have renewed “courage to live your life” or “lebensmut.” Optimism is one thing, but this word in my experience much more accurately describes how I feel and what I want to do. That is to live my life again, courageously.
The same is true when “lebensmut” is lacking in my life. This often gives me a simple math equation to solve: Since “life” is still there, the only thing that isn’t is “courage” (“mut”). It then brings me to the question: Where in particular am I lacking courage in my life? Is it courage to say something to a friend, boss, lover, family member? Or to do something differently or new in my work or my life?
Whenever I look at it from this angle, it becomes quickly obvious which part of life I’d like to face more clearly to step back into my power.
Sinneswandel, Change of Heart
Literally: The (somewhat slow) transition of our senses.
One of the most beautiful expressions in German. What this speaks to is, first and foremost, the fact that our lives are not constant. And what we experience through our senses, particularly our emotions, is always in motion.
In The Lord of the Rings, one of the opening lines is: “The world is changed.” In German, it says: “The world is in transition (wandel).” A much more accurate phrasing in my mind. The word “wandel” also doesn’t mean fast, jumpy changes. But it speaks more to the slow, gentle turning of a wheel that continues to bring about new insights, new moments, new facets of life.
When I think of this word in German, it relaxes me. It brings me relief to know that first, it is possible that my senses and their impressions have changed. And that I can have a look at them now and see how they have done so. I have the image of a prize wheel in my mind that at first spins fast and then slowly comes to a standstill, and eventually settles on that which is revealed by this moment—only to be turned again and to land on a new experience yet again.
Literally: That which sprung forth from the very beginning.
Wow! Just look at that, what a word. I can marvel at it all day. It carries with it such a long arc that almost adds a level of mysticism. The phrase “back to the roots” is “back to the ursprung” in German. This word offers a gentleness and a wisdom that most things that I don’t understand may be because I don’t know all the details and variables that contributed to things being the way that they are today.
When I let this word land within me, it gives me a chance to reconnect to elements that might have been present at a way earlier time that led people to make decisions or think a certain way that are unclear to me from looking at something through the eyes of today.
The question that this word invites me to return to is: What elements am I missing that might have happened a long time ago that led to this?
Literally: To be worthy of love.
I’ll end with this one as it inspires me to look upon the world through the literal meaning of this word. That at the end of the day, this is what we all wish to be seen as and want. And luckily, in my view, this is also who we are, no matter what we ever do or say: to be worthy of love.
We may not always feel that way, and we may not always have the sense that others see us in this light or that we see others in it. Letting this word land within me, even though it is most often used as a slightly upgraded version of the word “polite,” brings a smile to me.
You, my friend reading this, are “liebenswürdig” through and through, whether others believe it or not.
~ the above is adapted from the original at leowid.com.