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.

A Piece of Me Went With You


Losing a loved one is hard enough, but when you feel as though a part of you died too, it makes it even harder to cope with the loss. When you’ve lost someone you have known for many years and very intimately, your personality is influenced by that person, and vice versa. Sharing a life together, as family members and spouses do, makes it hard to distinguish where your personality is distinct from the other person’s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you have good boundaries. If you know your own mind, your own wants and needs, and are comfortable setting limits in order to protect yourself from unwanted intrusions, then having parts of another woven into the tapestry of your personality can be a welcome addition. Sometimes a mellow person can take the edge off their angry, sharp-tongued mate, or a bold, assertive family member can encourage their loved one to be more self-assured and outspoken. These bits of the other person shine through in the tapestry when necessity calls for it, and also when we make a conscious choice to emulate that loved one’s best qualities. Sometimes it’s automatic and unconscious, however; we are influenced without even knowing it. Of course, in the case of family members influencing each other, there is a genetic component that is also unconscious and at times mysterious.

I often hear from clients who have lost a spouse or long-term lover, “I can’t ever be the same again.” I can understand where it might feel as though that’s true when you first lose someone, but I think it’s a limiting belief that in time is not necessary. It creates worry, anxiety and adds to the pain of grief. In some cases, the loved one’s death does change a person’s personality, and not necessarily for the better. However, I think that personality, and being in general, is fluid.

We generally are not the same at 20 as we are at 10, or at 30, 40, 50, and so on. There are some fundamental qualities like introversion or extroversion that usually remain stable over time, but I think bringing conscious awareness to how we behave and treat ourselves and others makes a huge difference in whether our personalities and psychological health becomes stuck or not. Pain of loss or trauma can make people feel stuck and stunt their development, but if worked through it can be transformative in a positive, healthy way too.

When I hear someone say, “I will never be the same,” I think that may be true but not necessarily for the reason you think. Since personalities change over time anyway, you very well may never be the same. But the death is only part of the picture of your development as a person. The pain of the person’s death will shape your experience as a human being, no doubt. Yet it isn’t necessarily a permanent change and the pain itself will probably morph over time from intense, sharp and burning to a muted, softer ache. At first you might find yourself wanting to be alone all the time, or feeling angry and very prone to tearful outbursts after the loss. As that dissipates and becomes less painful, you might find it acceptable to be around people again. You might even crave others’ company, and that’s okay too. The more you can see what you’re going through as part of an ongoing process, the less alarmed and fearful you need to be about the changes you’re going through.

Ultimately, you get to decide the person you want to be. When you first lose someone, very little feels within your control. This might include your personality and what you feel was taken away from you when you lost your loved one. With time and consciousness, however, you can restore those parts of your loved one and who you were when you were with them, and maybe improve upon those aspects as well. If you would like help working through this type of loss, please give me a call: 661-233-6771.

Don’t let fear boss you around


What prevents you from keeping resolutions? Fear of the unknown is often a main culprit. Don’t let it win this year.


The main holidays have passed by and there’s only one left, the holiday that makes people hopeful and determined to change their lives: New Years Day! I’m not sure why this particular day was chosen as the beginning of the year, but it has and we often make promises to ourselves and others about how we’re going to change for the upcoming year. Commonly, the promises involve change in behavior — doing more of or less of something. But when it comes time to keeping these promises, we sometimes give up when it gets hard to keep the promise. At that point, it’s not really a promise that we’ve made at all; just a mild suggestion to ourselves. It can be discouraging if we keep having resolutions and then not following through with them, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t change that pattern from this point forward.

One of the things that keeps people from making changes in their lives, even if we know that the change is necessary and will improve our lives drastically, is FEAR. It’s not necessarily rational that we fear positive change, but we do anyway. For example, if we want to lose weight, we have to give up some things in order to get the desired result. It’s not so much about giving up particular foods themselves that invokes fear, but relinquishing the status quo. Even though the status quo may be uncomfortable and unhealthy, it is familiar. And we like keeping our equilibrium, even if it hurts us.

How many times have you made a suggestion to a friend, saying something like “Hey, why not giving up doing drugs/drinking too much/going out with mean people/etc?” only to have them say, “Yeah, but…”? We are afraid to give up what we know because we like to be in control of things. And what could be more out of control than trying something new? We don’t know in advance how it will be to weigh less, date someone kinder to us, go to a party sober, or exercise on a regular basis. But when you think about it, how much of life can really be accurately predicted anyway? Perhaps it’s not control that we’re clinging to, but the illusion of control.

This year I invite you to consider what will happen if you don’t make the positive changes you promise yourself. How will you feel if you keep doing what you’ve been doing all along? Is that picture scarier or less scary as what you’re proposing to change? How much do you want the results of the changes, and how much do you want the results of not changing? Play a movie of each outcome in your head, with you as the star. Which feels better to you? Which feels worse? What are you willing to do or experience in order to have the “better” movie? I hope that you can use this idea to get very clear about what you want and make sure that your actions are influenced by realistic factors. Fear of death, disease and pain make sense to me; fear of the unknown is based on a nebulous construct of our own imaginations. We make the unknown scarier than it has to be. Don’t let fear push you around this year.

What’s at stake?


Sometimes people who have had numerous bad things happen to them think of themselves as unlucky, especially in relationships. They may feel that they have to put up with negative behaviors or inconsideration from others because if they don’t they will either lose the person in question or be rejected by that person. This is very unfortunate because not only does it deprive us of getting what we want in relationships, it also blocks us from having a true, intimate exchange with others. Sometimes the other person is truly incapable of being reasonable or hearing critical feedback without rejecting us, but often I think we may not even give them a chance to prove whether they are as unreasonable as we assume they are. Even if the other person has been negative or defensive in the past, does not mean they will always be that way. I think we owe it to each other to at least try to communicate our needs and feelings to the people who matter to us, if nothing else to gain practice doing so and being assertive. If our fears come true and we lose that person, either from rejection or a fight or worse yet, death, we have given them a chance to respond to us and we have spoken our truth. I see so many people who never told people how they really felt about them, only to have that person die without being able to resolve their differences. This is a painful position to be in, and I hope you do not have to live through that.

It is possible to express yourself in a way that honors yourself and the people to whom you’re speaking. If you need help with that, you might want to read Marshall Rosenberg’s excellent book, Nonviolent Communication. You can also seek the counsel of a mental health professional; I would be happy to help you learn to communicate your needs and feelings, as well as listen effectively. What’s at stake is not just losing relationships, but making strained relationships better and clearer. The choice is always yours to make.