Becoming Emotionally Literate
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?
Emotional literacy is a term used to describe a set of important psychological functions that help us get through life. It involves self-awareness of our feelings, the ability to manage our emotional responses to things, and the capacity to put ourselves and other people’s shoes, i.e. imagine what the situation would be like for them as well as for ourselves. This allows people to handle their feelings as they arise and interact successfully with other people. Emotional literacy allows people to act maturely in emotionally charged situations, and while it may appear to be in short supply these days, it is a skill set that we can all develop to improve our lives.
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.
Observing the situation from others’ perspectives
As difficult as this can be, this skill can make a huge difference in the world. The world is made up of many different people from diverse cultures, backgrounds, lifestyles, and worldviews. Sometimes people do and say things that we don’t understand and we may or may not get offended by this misunderstanding. It is very tempting and easy to jump to the conclusion that others are wrong and we are right. We can take comfort in this false assumption and our egos can be assuaged by it. However, emotional literacy helps us consider situations from multiple perspectives.
We may be missing information about the situation that would change our minds if we knew it at the time. There might be some painful circumstance that causes a person to act in a way that we consider wrong. The ability to consider all these factors helps us get along with other people better, because we are not just operating as if the world were custom-made for our wishes and preferences. Sometimes other people need understanding and sometimes we will need the same patience and consideration. What little change can make a huge difference in your life? Developing this skill with your family, friends, romantic partner, workmates, boss, and people in the larger community as well. This skill does not mean that we relinquish our power to others, but simply that we not react defensively or automatically to differences of opinion with rancor and severe upset.
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 non-judgmentally, you have a better chance of making decisions that will benefit you and the people around you.
Psychotherapy 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.