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 are 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 then 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 are 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 cannot enjoy life the way they are 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 do not have to fear them any more 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 do not 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 children, it may be harder to make up for what you didn’t get as children. 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.

Identify your feelings

First, you need to be able to identify when emotions are coming up. Some people do not 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 is 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!

What pushes your buttons?

Next, you notice what you tend to do when emotions get activated. You notice that you might snap at people when you are mad, cry when you are sad, or avoid certain situations when you are 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 feel angry or sad, then that probably is not helpful in the long run. If you tend to lash out or snap at people, you may lose friendships or hurt other important relationships; that is also a behavior you might want to discard. There is no need to judge or insult yourself for having these behaviors. You simply notice them and their effect on your life.

Conscious choices!

Next comes the exciting part. Once you notice which behaviors go with which feelings, and which ones you want to keep or discard, you can start to make informed decisions about what 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 provides a safe place where you can risk expressing emotions that you might have learned were “unacceptable” or “bad” by caregivers growing up. It is 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 will not get emotionally overwhelmed. Emotional literacy is 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 would love to help.

Making Space for the Vulnerable

Instead of being upset with ourselves when we feel scared or unsure, we can make room for these qualities in ourselves and others.

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.

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 .

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?

Thanksgiving Reflections


In the face of tragedy, loss and trauma, it can be very hard to see the silver lining or be grateful for very much of anything. It may seem that we have lost so much, and that we will keep feeling the pain of loss forever. As mentioned before, sometimes we can experience extra sadness around the holidays because we are reminded of the people we no longer have on this planet, people who were close to us. The holidays are often celebrated with family and it reminds us of loneliness and heartbreak. Around this time of year I am reminded of my father’s passing, and how young he was to lose his life and vitality. At the same time, I am grateful for the relatives who are still alive, who persist in their struggles and with whom I can still experience closeness and joy.

Alternatively, for people who grew up in abusive and/or homes with addicted family members, the holidays can bring up a different kind of pain. We may be reminded of violence in our homes, seeing people hurt or neglected, or forced into situations where we felt out of control. How do we find peace when the holidays remind us of dysfunction and disconnection, you might ask.

As trite as it may sound, we can be grateful for the fact that we have survived our childhoods. We can be grateful for the wisdom that we have gained from surviving those situations. We can feel sympathy for the younger versions of ourselves who had to endure that pain, while still feeling relief that we are safer now. We have control over our lives. If someone mistreats us, we can walk away from the situation. If we can’t, we can figure out a way to do so in the future. We have more resources, physically and psychologically, to escape dysfunctional relationships and situations. We now know that we don’t deserve to be mistreated or lonely. We can make different choices that lead to better outcomes for ourselves. All these ways we empower ourselves are gifts that may not seem obvious on the surface, but we need to bear them in mind when contemplating trauma and loss. If we don’t remember that life is dynamic and flowing, and that we are not sad or scared or angry forever, we risk remaining stuck and suffering longer than we need to.

I try to make it a point to find at least five things for which I am grateful each day, throughout the year, so that Thanksgiving Day is every day. Does it work to pull me out of a bad mood 100% of the time? I wish I could say yes, but realistically it’s more like 80-90%. Nonetheless, if I don’t do it I feel despondent and cynical, and I can’t afford to do that. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “we only have moments to live.” This means that we only have the present moment to live in, and we have a choice as to whether to make that moment enjoyable, pleasant, and wholesome, or negative and depressing. Feeling gratitude and keeping that in the forefront of our minds is one way that I have found to be in a more pleasant moment.