Learning Emotional Literacy


How do we make best use of emotions when they arise? How can we turn them into useful allies instead of pesky interference from the body?


As a culture, we’re not big on identifying, naming and allowing for our own emotional responses to stimuli. We seem more prone to suppress emotions until they become unbearable to hold in, and them act them out in undesirable behaviors or until they become calcified into negative mood states and physical maladies. Wouldn’t it be nice to prevent that calcification and allow our feelings to flow through us instead?

I think that as early as possible, we should teach children how to identify their feelings accurately, tolerate them, and express them appropriately. Many children are taught that when they express their emotions, they’re being “bad” or “naughty.” Really, they are doing their best to let the grownups in their lives know that something needs paying attention. We need to teach them better ways of expressing their feelings that are age-appropriate. If we teach them that their feelings are wrong, they grow up suppressing them or acting them out and can’t enjoy life the way they’re meant to. It’s up to us to help them turn their emotions from these powerful forces they don’t understand, to acceptable and even helpful signals in their bodies that they can make wise decisions about.

Emotions are there to alert us to something that’s happening within us or in our environments. They can be powerful allies that protect us from harm, allow us to enjoy life, and grieve our losses. We don’t have to fear them anymore than we fear breathing, digesting food, or going to the bathroom. They are a natural, healthy part of our bodily systems and we need to make space for noticing and experiencing them. We don’t need to act on them all the time, which some people mistakenly think is part of this equation. Instead, the more mindful we are of them, the better we can decide what to do with them when they arise.

Since many of you reading this blog may not have had emotional literacy training as kids (since you’re probably at least a teenager, if not older), it may be harder to make up for what you didn’t get as kids. Nonetheless, I believe it’s never too late to learn how to deal with emotions in a healthy way. This is by no means a comprehensive piece on how to achieve emotional literacy, but I can put out a basic map of where your journey might lead you.

First, you need to be able to identify when emotions are coming up. Some people don’t know the words that go along with the feelings, so you might want to familiarize yourselves with the basics. Of course there are sad, mad, happy, scared, the strong emotions that most of us are able to identify readily. But if even that seems foreign, then you can start with what’s happening in your body.

Mindfulness is a good place to start. When you feel tightness in your chest, your arms feel like moving outward, and you feel flushed in the face, what might that be expressing? If you feel like hurting someone else or hitting something then you’re probably angry. If you feel a fluttery sensation in your stomach, your breathing is restricted or rapid and shallow, and you feel light-headed as a result, then you’re probably experiencing fear. These are just two examples of matching physical sensations with emotions that can signal to you that your emotions are activated. Sometimes, people can just describe what’s happening in their bodies at first. That’s fine, it’s a good place to start. As you become more emotionally literate, you start to link the feeling names to the body sensations… and then you’re cooking with gas!

Next, you notice what you tend to do when emotions get activated. You notice that you might snap at people when you’re mad, cry when you’re sad, or avoid certain situations when you’re scared. This awareness allows you to take the next step, which is noticing what the consequences of your behavior are, and deciding if they are helping you or hurting you in life. If your tendency is to self-harm or drink alcohol when you’re angry or sad, then that probably isn’t helpful in the long run. If you tend to lash out or snap at people, which results in losing friendships or hurting other important relationships, that is also a behavior you might want to discard. It’s not that you judge or insult yourself for having these behaviors. You simply notice them and what effect they have on your life.

Next comes the exciting part. Once you notice which behaviors go with which feelings, and which you don’t want or do want, you can start to make informed decisions about what you want to do when the feelings come up. When you get mad at someone, you might pause and say, “I’m feeling angry. I know this because my fists are balled up and I’m feeling flushed in the face. I want to hit this person, but I can’t because I’ll get in trouble. I also want to yell at them but that will damage our relationship. What can I do instead?” This is an important juncture in your decision-making ability that signals a more sophisticated level of emotional literacy. Instead of acting out (hitting, yelling) or acting in (self-harming, saying mean things to yourself), you can express your anger directly but respectfully. You might need assertiveness training to learn how to do this, but it’s great that you can get to this point when you can make wise mind decisions (to use a phrase from Dialectical Behavior Therapy). When you observe your feelings nonjudgmentally, you have a better chance of making decisions that will benefit you and the people around you.

Therapy can be a great place to start the process of gaining emotional literacy. It’s a safe place where you can risk expressing feelings that you might have learned were “unacceptable” or “bad” by your caregivers growing up. It’s helpful to identify these feelings, especially long-buried ones, with someone else’s help. It doesn’t feel quite as lonely and scary that way. When you have emotional literacy, you can do deeper levels of therapy more easily and resolve trauma and grief with more self-assurance that you won’t get swallowed whole by the feelings that come up. It’s also helpful for everyday life, keeping you from getting in trouble with people in your life like your boss, partner, friends, etc. If you need help achieving emotional literacy, please give me a call. I’d love to help.

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