How Emotional Literacy can Help us in Everyday Life
This morning, without wearing my glasses, I tried unsuccessfully to read the labels on some bottles. Although I knew that the bottles each contained either shampoo, conditioner, hand cream or shower gel, without my glasses I didn’t know what product was in which bottle. It could be said, therefore, that I didn’t have the literacy to understand what to call each bottle or how to use the contents in a way that would be useful for me.
Because I couldn’t see what was in each bottle, an attempt to use a bottle would potentially have been a hit and miss activity. Through its contents, the bottle would have determined the outcome, rather than me choosing the outcome. Would I be washing my hair or putting hand cream on my hair? Only the bottles could control that, because I didn’t have the ability to understand the contents and use the bottles effectively.
When I finally put my glasses on, I was able to understand what was in each bottle. Now, instead of unwittingly putting hand cream on my hair, I could deliberately choose a bottle, using the contents in a way that was useful for me. No more hand cream in my hair instead of shampoo! I would be leading the interaction with the bottles and therefore the outcome, through the power of deliberate choice.
Looking at my early learning of emotions, I think it was very similar to reading labels without my glasses. I could name emotions when I experienced them in a heightened manner, yet I couldn’t name them if they weren’t so obviously present. I could understand how I was likely to react from a given emotion (such as anger), yet this was controlled by the emotion rather than being led by me. It was also seen by me as the only possible way to react and, so, some emotions became suppressed for fear of what I might create from them. This, I think, is how emotions such as anger became labelled as “bad”; we are used to seeing people unwittingly take action from the predisposition of anger and we blame the emotion rather than learning how to deliberately choose the path that we would like to take from an emotion.
With my initial emotional learning, the outcome from my various emotions was, I think, somewhat hit and miss. I went where an emotion seemed to lead me. I didn’t necessarily understand why I was experiencing the emotion. I didn’t understand what it was trying to tell me. I didn’t consciously choose how to use the emotion in a way that might serve me.
If we are open to learning about our emotions, then we create the possibility of achieving emotional literacy, which I think is like putting on our glasses to read the label on a bottle. All of a sudden, we can make deliberate choices about how we use the contents of the bottle or, in this case, our emotions.
What is Emotional Literacy?
Emotional literacy is being able to identify, understand and use our emotions in ways that serve our interactions with ourselves and others. When we develop our emotional literacy, we start to become curious about the emotions that we are experiencing in each moment. We seek to understand what the emotion is telling us, or what action it is predisposing us to taking. We gain an understanding of what it is taking care of for us and, from there, we can see how the emotion is serving us. We can watch and understand an emotion, rather than letting it consume us. This opens us up to making conscious choices, just like reading the labels enables us to choose how we use the contents of the bottles.
“Being emotionally literate is to be able to handle emotions in a way that improves your personal power and the quality of your life and – equally importantly – the quality of life of the people around you. Emotional Literacy helps your emotions work for you instead of against you. It improves relationships, creates loving possibilities between people, makes cooperative work possible, and facilitates the feeling of community”.
–“Emotional Literacy: Intelligence with a Heart” (Steiner, 2003)
This all sounds very lovely, and we often hear about using our emotions effectively in the work place. However, how do we use emotional literacy in everyday life and why would we want to?
An Emotional Literacy Example
Last week, my 12-year old daughter and I were involved in a car accident where, fortunately, no one was injured. While we were waiting at the scene, the person who had run the red light, hitting two cars, was very apologetic. In what seemed to be a very heartfelt manner, she said “I’m sorry”. The other driver and I accepted her apology. The person then kept repeating “I’m sorry”. We kept accepting her apology.
Some time later, this person was still saying “I’m sorry”, and my limit had been reached. They had failed to stop at a red light, running into two cars at 80 km/h. In my mind, the drivers of those two cars had been putting aside our own needs to make sure that the at fault driver was reassured and had her needs taken care of. I didn’t want to do that any more. I wanted to take care of me and consider my needs.
I felt myself becoming quite annoyed, and also angry. In annoyance, we don’t like something and we want it to go away, so we are predisposed to withdrawing from participating in the situation. In anger, we feel as though something is unjust and so our predisposed action is to punish the source of the perceived injustice.
When I am angry, I tend to punish the source of the perceived injustice by verbally lashing out. I felt my mouth start to open to say something cutting to the driver. However, because I had seen the signs of anger, I was able to pause first, asking myself what outcome I wanted, and making a conscious choice about what to do next. I chose to be compassionate and say “Really, it’s ok. We can’t change that it has happened, so please don’t beat yourself up. No one was hurt, and that’s the main thing”. Then, I used the annoyance to remove myself from the situation by talking to my husband about how to arrange a tow truck. After doing this, I was able to let the annoyance and anger go. They had served their purpose, and it wasn’t going to be useful to keep living from them.
My actions, I hoped, had taken care of the driver’s need to feel reassured, while also taking care of my need to disengage from further acts of reassurance. Because I hadn’t allowed my emotions to lead me, I was able to lead myself to an outcome that served that particular interaction.
Later, my daughter commented that she was scared of travelling in cars because the accident had shown her just how dangerous a car could be. We were able to have a conversation about fear and anxiety and how, while it might be useful for us to be more aware of the dangers of cars, it might not be useful to live in total fear of cars. We spoke about the other emotions that might be useful, and how we could use the fear and anxiety in a way that was helpful.
This, I think, is the power of emotional literacy in everyday life. When we can notice and understand our emotions, we can use them as signs to help us take care of whatever is within us that needs to be taken care of in any given moment. We can do this in a way that helps us to best serve our interactions with ourselves and others.
Relearning the Role of Emotions
In the past, we have all learned various ways of dealing with emotions. Some of this learning may be useful, and some of it may not. To set the scene for emotional literacy, it is important to consider some basic foundations that may differ from the earlier emotional learning to which most of us have been exposed.
1. Emotions are not good, bad, right or wrong.
All emotions serve a purpose. They each exist for a reason, usually to tell us something about the situation that we are experiencing. If we didn’t experience anger, for example, we wouldn’t know that we have interpreted something as unjust. If we didn’t experience fear, we wouldn’t know that we perceive a known danger. If we didn’t experience sadness, we wouldn’t know that we have experienced a loss. In serving a purpose, emotions can’t be right, wrong, good or bad. They just are.
2. Emotions are signs
Emotions are a sign that something within us needs to be taken care of. Just like a street sign tells us something, an emotional sign also tells us something about the interaction that we are having with the world in that moment. For example, uncertainty is a sign that we don’t know which option to take. Gratitude is a sign that we are seeing life as a gift. Just like not reading a traffic sign could lead to difficulty and suffering, not reading our emotional signs can also lead to difficulty and suffering.
3. Emotions predispose us to action
Because emotions occur to help us take care of something, they predispose us to specific actions. It is these predispositions that we tend to judge as good or bad because we see these as the emotion, rather than understanding what the emotion might be trying to tell us. As an example of predispositions, anger predisposes us to punishing the source of the perceived injustice. Doubt predisposes us to questioning what we are doing. If we don’t notice the signs of these emotions, we will most likely go down the predisposed path of the emotions. We will be doing this unwittingly, which means the emotions are leading us, removing the possibility of deliberate choice.
4. Emotions occur in every moment, even when we don’t notice them
Even while typing this article, I am operating from an emotion. I may not know what it is until I pause to notice it, however there is an emotion present. Traditional emotional learning, I think, has us believing that we only experience emotions when we see heightened responses to situations. Given that emotions help us to take action, however, they are always present, informing the actions we take in each moment.
Practising Emotional Literacy
When we understand these basic guidelines, emotions become something that just are, rather than something to be judged. We move away from suppressing or avoiding our emotions, and move towards using them in ways that serve us.
It won’t be possible to become emotionally literate overnight. Like anything, emotional literacy is something that we achieve through practice. The more that we open ourselves to learning about our emotions and the more that we practice emotional literacy, the greater our chances of improving the quality of our interactions.
Here is a simple practice for starting to notice our emotions, gain emotional literacy and open ourselves up to choice about the actions that we take. If it is useful, you may want to keep a diary of your observations during this practice:
- Pause and notice the emotion that you are experiencing in a particular moment. What name are you going to give that emotion?
- Observe the emotion quietly and without judgement. What is it telling you?
- Observe the action that you feel yourself wanting to take from this emotion. What is it?
- Observe how the emotion is helping you. What is it that it is taking care of for you?
- What actions could you take that may help you to achieve a useful outcome while also taking care of you and holding yourself as legitimate? (Examples might be: making a request to someone, respectfully declaring a boundary, saying no, finding another emotion, or something different).
This practice can be applied in a random moment, to gain an understanding of the emotions that you tend to experience. It could also be applied during a situation or after a situation, to help you learn how you might respond resourcefully.
Bringing it all Together
Our emotions inform the way in which we interpret every situation, yet we often don’t realise that this is the case. We don’t notice that we are treating Person X with disdain and that they may be picking up on it, or that we feel rather inferior when interacting with Person Y and so we become arrogant. Rather, we apply labels that we think of as truth to people and situation without taking the time to understand what emotions we are experiencing, what they are trying to tell us, and how they informing the actions that we take. Similarly, we often don’t pause to understand what emotions other people might be operating from.
Emotional literacy allows us to understand and appreciate, without judgement, that we are all operating from different emotions and that those emotions are informing our actions. Emotional literacy also allows to to make conscious choices about the direction that our interactions take as we become familiar with our emotions and come to understand the actions that would most usefully serve the interaction at that time.