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.

Making Space for the Vulnerable


When I think of mothering, I think of protection and nurturance of ourselves and each other when we’re at our most vulnerable. Our culture does not look kindly upon people who are different, vulnerable, or sensitive. We value instead independence, self-reliance, and sturdiness. However, without sensitivity and vulnerability, we cannot enjoy intimacy, love, and openness to new experiences. A world without vulnerability and sensitivity would be a very harsh, sterile existence, I believe. On Mother’s Day, I hope that we can make space for the sensitivity in ourselves and in others.
How does one go about taking space for the vulnerable? I believe that all behavioral and conscious change starts with paying attention first and foremost.

What are the tendencies towards not making space for it? Impatience, judgment, harshness, and certain expectations all can hamper our making space for the vulnerable. We must that just as we are sensitive and would not want to be treated certain ways, other people are also sensitive in their own ways. Impatience comes up quite a bit when other people are not doing what we think they ought to, especially with children. However, we can be impatient with other adults. When we soften our gaze on other people and remember that everyone needs time and space to grow and learn, we can start to change this tendency.

Judgment is ubiquitous in our culture as well, and it’s very tempting to fall into thinking of other people who are different as inferior. In a divisive environment such as ours, it can be very easy to classify people into them and us, excluding people without perhaps giving them a chance to explain whether coming from. We may still hold onto our beliefs that we hold dear, yet give other people the respect of allowing them to feel and think differently from us. Instead, we can remember that we all struggle, we all falter, and we would not want to be treated as harshly as were treating either ourselves or the other person. What does the person in that moment need? What could help them achieve their goals and be a better person? How can you facilitate and nurture that in yourself and others?

Similarly, when we feel harshly towards other people and are in aggressive mindsets, we can ask what it is that we need to make more space for the other person. Anyone in the 12 step recovery culture knows the phrase HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely and tired. We can check in with ourselves and see whether any of these conditions is fueling our aggression and harshness. Then we can lovingly take care of ourselves so that we can maintain kindness and compassion towards ourselves and others.

In cultivating mindfulness and self-compassion, we learn to be kinder to ourselves and to others. Without this, the world is not a very pleasant place to live. How empowering and exciting it is to know that each of us has the opportunity to become a beacon for nurturing, compassion, and positive growth. When enough of us develop this within ourselves, we spread the light of awareness and create a nurturing environment for all of Earth’s inhabitants.

Us and Them


human family.


It’s very easy to get caught up and hating people who have heard us. The natural tendency is to either fight the person or avoid them, and this is what the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous systems set us up to do. It makes sense in terms of survival, especially when we were much more vulnerable and society was a lot less sophisticated. We also developed a sense of “us versus them” that helped distinguish people who are part of your hunting tribe or clan in prehistoric times, from people who were possibly a threat or from a competing tribe. However, in this increasingly small world of ours, I don’t think we have the luxury of adhering to this knee-jerk reaction to people who are different from us.

If you ever observe very young children, they have very polarized views as they learn how to distinguish themselves from other people. At around two or three, they start to say things like “that’s mine!” And “no!” This is perfectly natural for that age and it helps us draw boundaries before our brains are more sophisticated. Our parents, if they’re doing their job well, help us learn how to smooth out the harsh edges of these strong declarations. They help us learn that we have to share and that we have to think about other people’s feelings when we speak our minds. Some people are able to make the transition into more sophisticated ways of thinking and interacting, while others, sadly, don’t. It’s natural to have strong preferences and to want to make your life comfortable for yourself based on those preferences and desires, what isn’t healthy is expecting that everyone else would here to those preferences and that the people who don’t are against you.

I see a lot of families where one person in the family is different somehow from others, in either the parents, siblings, or spouses can’t understand why that person is acting differently. If the person is acting differently is being destructive or inconsiderate of other people, then there is good reason to speak up about it. However, sometimes people are shamed just for being different in temperament, lifestyle choice, personality, or something they can’t help. This is very unfortunate because then that person feels outcast from the very people with whom they’re supposed to be able to be comfortable. When I work with such families, I try to help people understand that while you might not like the behavior of the person with whom you live, that doesn’t mean that the whole person is damaged, tainted or wrong. You can address the behavior you don’t like without shaming the person are making them feel unloved.

Similarly, I would argue that all of us on the planet are in some way related to each other. Were all sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and so on. What would it be like if we were able to differences with respect, dignity, and curiosity rather than hatred, separatism, and shaming? Certainly, there are behaviors that are violent, exploitive, and hurtful; I don’t condone such behavior and think we should do everything in our power to eradicate such behavior. But if we don’t approach it with curiosity, we don’t know why it’s happening and we can address it effectively. I believe it’s possible to use our more advanced parts of our brain, like our prefrontal cortex, to reason, use language, and remain open to many possibilities. When we get caught up in the emotional parts of our brains and stick with the binary us versus them mentality, we miss the boat in many ways. We don’t get a chance to understand why people commit violence, why people exploit each other, and what can be done to change that. Who hasn’t made mistakes in their lives and then things they later regret? Who hasn’t heard someone inadvertently or on purpose in their lives? If we of all made mistakes, should we all be bitterly condemned and outcast from society? Worse yet, should we all be treated like dangerous criminals? I am not naïve enough to think that there isn’t a need for prisons and punishment; I do believe, however, that we need more tools in our toolbox to address behavior that we find objectionable.

So the next time you have a strong reaction to another person or their behavior, you might want to consider where they’re coming from and what might be motivating it other than “evil” or “stupidity.” Remember that the person might be doing their best and may need more skills and more knowledge in order to act in a way that’s more considerate and kind to others.

Healing in The Now


Whether we’re suffering emotionally or physically, no one really likes to suffer for very long. This is natural and normal, and I never would blame anyone for wanting to get better quickly. However, sometimes the desire to get better becomes a permanent stance of impatience that can actually thwart our efforts to get better. If he comes a cool paradox in which we strive so hard to not feel the way were feeling, that we make ourselves more miserable. Living in the future too much distracts us from what we can do in the moment to make ourselves feel better.

I know a lot of people who have emotional or physical problems, both professionally and personally. I have been in that boat, and struggling with a chronic illness is never A fun thing. I have also noticed that the people who live well and feel better quicker, do not get caught up in how fast their healing. They’re not competing against other people who also suffer to see who gets better fastest and in the best way. We have what is called bio individuality, which means that each have a unique body chemistry that interacts with our emotional and spiritual selves, as well as the outside world. What works for one person may not work for another.

There are some things, like alcohol and cigarettes, that probably don’t work for most people to create optimal wellness. However, some people might do very well on them diet with a lot of meat and rich foods, while someone else might feel better if he mostly vegetables and fruit. The point of this is that if we find something that works for us, it doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else who has health problems or mental health issues. We need to be careful about how we talk about our health, not just for others’ sake but also for our own sake.

What do I mean by this, when we think of ourselves as inadequate because we have a mental or physical condition, and we get angry at ourselves for not progressing further, it rarely serves us. If it motivates us to action, such as exercising more, eating better, applying ourselves rigorously to what our doctors recommend, then it can be helpful. However, what I usually see is that people’s impatience and anger at themselves turns into a self-destructive pattern of self- rebuke and low self-esteem, sometimes even depression. It’s natural and as I said before to want to get better. When it turns unhealthy is when we get so bogged down in impatience and anger, that we ignore what we can do in the present moment to improve our well being.

Sometimes there isn’t a lot we can do in the moment, at least from a medical standpoint. They may be taking our medications as prescribed, going to therapy your physical therapy, eating the way we’re supposed to, but the internal work that needs to be done falls by the wayside.

What is this internal work? It’s noticing what’s going on now in our body, mind and spirit. If that sounds to ethereal an abstract, what I mean is that we can observe how were moving, how were thinking, and how we’re feeling emotionally. We can use that data to make decisions about how we care for ourselves. That is a better use of our time and energy than getting angry at ourselves for not being healthier. Anger at ourselves is only useful if it motivates us to protect ourselves order energizes us toward effective solutions. Please keep this in mind next time you find yourself getting frustrated with yourself for not being healthier, happier, more productive, etc.

Acting from your Center


Keep your relationships from becoming destructive by holding onto your center and doing what you know to be right.


“Even if everyone else is not doing good, I alone will. Even if everyone else is doing wrong, I alone will not.” – Master Chin Kung, Heart of a Buddha

Sometimes when people around you are acting in a way that tempts you to reduce your own behavior to their level, it’s hard to hold on to what you know to be the right thing. I see in human relationships reciprocity that can sometimes be damaging and disturbing. What I mean by this is that one person will hurt the other, and instead of inquiring about why the person did this or trying to understand the context of the behavior, retaliation ensues. In couples, this can be retaliatory affairs or insults. In families it can be trans-generational physical or emotional abuse. In communities, it can result in gang violence or political maneuvering that hurts both parties ultimately. At the level of international affairs, it can lead to war and corruption. And all these instances, the knee-jerk reaction that comes from the limbic system is to get that person back. How dare they hurt me! How dare they render me powerless? The temptation is very strong and it takes a lot of work and discipline to train our brains to pause, reflect, and consider our options in a rational way.

Think of it time that you’ve been hurt by another person, or even by a group of people. What were your choices at the time? Do you feel like you did the right thing in that moment for all consider? Did you protect yourself adequately? Sometimes we do need to take action and act firm and strong in order to protect ourselves. However, sometimes what seems like protection actually gets more violence or pain. It can be very confusing in the moment to distinguish between the two. Another thing to consider is whether, upon reflection later, he will still think that was the best choice for you. We regret having acted this way, simply you think, “I wish I would’ve acted differently”? I know that in my life, I’ve spoken in anger more than a few times and regretted it later. It can damage relationships or even end up, and you can’t unsay what has been said. The tide of pain and suffering is very hard to turn on your own. But when I work with children I see that many times, the children know the right thing to do in the moment they’ve been hurt. But their ego makes it impossible for them to do that right action. We are all doing our best, wherever we are. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t train ourselves to use our prefrontal cortex more actively in our decisions. For those of you who aren’t familiar with your marvelous prefrontal cortex, it can act as breaks on acting out from the steam engine of our emotions. For more information about how it works, click this link: http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/i/i_08/i_08_cr/i_08_cr_dep/i_08_cr_dep.html.

We need to learn to find our center. The center in my mind, is the place where I observe what is happening within me and outside of me. I’m able to detach a little from my emotions and use reason. Things may distract me momentarily, but I can stay calm and consider all the things that I need to do in this situation. Unlike the ladies in the picture, I can avoid conflict if it is unnecessary and use my words if necessary, to diffuse potential harm. Not everyone is blessed with a healthy prefrontal cortex or with training and discipline already in place to develop the prefrontal cortex. However, if you have it, you might as well make use of it. Some disorders, like attention deficit disorder and people with brain injuries to their frontal lobes, need extra help in this area. They may act or speak impulsively and have a hard time finding their center. For most of us however, we are capable and fortunate enough to have this wonderful capacity at our disposal. Some people develop their center – finding capabilities through meditation or prayer; others can do exercises to develop the capability.

Once we learn to pause, reflect, and consider our options we will not be swayed by what other people are doing. We will know how to protect ourselves from being damaged or hurt, but we will not flowing mud at the offender. We will hesitate before harming the other person, not because of anyone’s value or level of deserving, but because we don’t want to be that person. You know, the hothead who always gets and arguments and says nasty things? That path leads to loneliness, heartache, and alienation from other human beings. Is that the life you want for yourself? I have learned that I don’t want that for me, and I try to help my clients avoid that path as well.  if you would like to learn how to improve your relationships and hold on to your center , please call  661-233-6771 .

Free-Floating Anxiety


Many people come to me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is characterized by worrying about a whole host of things, almost all the time. It interferes with sleep, digestion, happiness and over-all well being. The curious thing is that once they think one problem that causes anxiety is solved, they can’t leave it well enough alone. Their thinking is dominated by “what if” thinking, as in “what if the choice I made is not the right one? What if the solution I chose doesn’t work?” This can be very exasperating not only to the person who has anxiety, but also for those around him or her. The person with anxiety often seeks reassurance compulsively from the people closest to them, and often to dissatisfied by the reassurances. This can cause problems in relationships, which further adds to the list of stressors that lead to anxiety.

The interesting thing about the anxiety is that even if you have conclusive evidence that the problem you’re worried about is solved, then like a flock of birds seeking a different resting place, the anxiety flies off to a different destination and then bingo! There’s your new problem to solve and fret over. Again, it’s frustrating for the person with anxiety because he or she thought that by being diligent and fretting over that one item, their anxiety would go away, but alas, it doesn’t. I often ask people in this predicament how worrying solves their problem at hand. They often say that it makes them alert to the loose ends that could fall by the wayside. I see the logic to that, but often anxiety and stress at this level does the opposite of what people want it to do. Instead of being a progenitor of proactive problem solving, it paralyzes them (boy, are there enough p words in that sentence?). There is such a thing as eustress, which is enough stress or tension to be alert and proactive, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed, helpless and scared.

Think about times that you’ve had an issue and solved it without feeling anxiety. Now ask yourself, did the problem get solved as well as it does when you felt anxious solving a problem? Does anxiety actually do what you want it to, or is it just flooding your body and mind with stress chemicals and putting more mileage on your heart? Is it a worthwhile use of your energy, or could you perhaps be just as productive without it? Ask yourself this every time you start feeling anxious about an issue or problem. How is this energy serving me? Is it accomplishing what I want it to do? Can I solve the problem without it? Let this be your mantra and see whether it can help you declare independence from worry. Worry, like angry expressions and sadness, are not just emotional expressions — they are habits. Like any habit, you need to be mindful and dedicated to break yourself of it. Are you willing to try this today?

Give and Take


People in relationships can have trouble with this concept. Many times one person will either give too much or take too much. People who give too much can be uncomfortable with receiving love and effort, while people who take too much may feel no need to give to the other person. It doesn’t just happen in the physical ream; it can be expressed emotionally too. Unfortunately, when we’re used to giving emotionally we can become very drained if we’re not getting anything back. For instance, if a person is always having to listen to another person and does not get much chance to talk or be heard, or he has the sense that the talker is just biding time while seeming to listen to him until the talker can talk again, it can be very irritating. It can be draining to be around that dynamic if you are always having to listen, or if you feel that you always have to make conversation with the other person and they put forth any effort.

One thing you can try if you’re in that position is do the opposite of what you’re used to doing, and see what happens. Does the other person notice the difference in your dynamic? If you are always talking, start listening more; vice versa, if other people have to drag information out of you in conversation, try initiating conversation. See how this changes your relationships, and remember that we all like to give and receive. Unfortunately, some of us are conditioned from childhood to either give without receiving or receive without having to give.

Valentine’s Day is a day to remember our connection to other people, not just romantically but all close relationships and friendships. What are you giving in your relationships? What are you receiving? Do you feel like there is reciprocity in your relationships, or does it feel one-sided often? This is a good day to reflect on your involvement with other people, and to make changes for the better in your relatedness to others and yourself.

More about mindfulness


My last post mentioned mindfulness as an approach to goal-setting. But there are many more benefits to mindfulness than what I mentioned. Please watch this video by Dr. Daniel Siegel to learn more about the research on mindfulness and how it benefits us and the world around us:

I hope you enjoy it!

A little at a time


This is the time for resolutions and I hope that whatever you want for yourself in the new year, you achieve. However, I think that in our culture of instant gratification, it can be very easy to expect to get final results quickly and give up when we don’t get that.

I prefer a mindful approach to accomplishing what you want to get, which involves being aware of your moment-to-moment actions and really being present in all that you do. I think a future orientation is useful in that our dreams help provide motivation, which fuels the creation of our destinies. But we also need to pay attention to what we’re doing NOW, because that is what we actually have control over and what will make the real difference in whether or not we reach our goals. Everything we do, from weight loss to quitting a bad habit like smoking, to making more money, to being a better mom, dad, husband or wife, involves moment-to-moment decisions. That takes sustained awareness, which is hard to achieve if our minds bounce around from idea to idea, always craving and seeking novelty. That’s what brains do, but there seems to be more and more research pointing to how useful mindful meditation can be for training ourselves to be aware of what we’re doing, thinking and experiencing.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever you go, there you are, talks about only having moments to live. This is true if you think about it closely: we don’t have the future, we don’t have the past anymore. All we have is this moment, so why not be fully present in it and not waste it being somewhere else mentally (like on the future, wishing for something that hasn’t come true, or in the past, regretting the decisions we made to get where we are now)?

Try a little experiment: write down a goal on a sheet of paper and what you think it takes to accomplish this goal. What tasks do you need to do that lead up to this goal’s fulfillment, and what can you do today to start that process? Now close your mind a minute and think about what is going on right now. You might say, “I am thinking about my goal. My heart is pumping a little more and I feel excited. I like the idea of getting this. I have a sense of possibility.” Then look at the first thing that you need to do and decide to focus your attention on THAT, rather than on the end-point. If it is something complex that will take a little time, like losing weight, then the more you are aware of each step of the process, the more you will be assured of success. Bringing yourself back to present awareness again and again, every time your mind strays or your purpose flags, is the difficult, disciplined part of goal accomplishment.

So, instead of picturing yourself strutting down the beach with a great body that everyone else notices, focus on how you feel right now. Are you hungry? When was the last time you ate? If it’s time to eat, what do you have to eat? Is that the best choice for a healthy, happy you? When you pay attention to the present, you actually make better choices, and you’re more thoughtful and grounded about what you are doing to get from point A to point B. Instead of a heady fantasy that seems out of reach, your resolution can be filled with deeply satisfying moments of full presence in reality. It’s worth a try, right?