What is Emotional Literacy?

What is emotional literacy?

To answer this question, let’s first look at what is meant by literacy.

When we have literacy in a particular language, we are able to use that language in a way that serves us. We are free to choose the words and grammatical distinctions of that language to read and write in a way that helps us to participate and communicate in the world. We are able to make conscious choices about the words that we use in any situation, choosing words that serve us and moving away from words that we feel may not be useful in that moment. Our literacy provides us with the freedom to make choices about the actions that we will take using the words and grammatical distinctions that we have available to us in that language.

Emotional literacy is similar. It is the ability to understand our emotions, what they are trying to tell us, and what behaviours they are likely to bias us towards, giving us the flexibility to choose how we use those emotions.

When we become literate about our emotional spaces, we are able to label them. We are able to notice in the moment that we are experiencing them. We are able to understand why we may be experiencing them and what they are telling us. We are also able to understand the actions that we are most likely to take from them. This then frees us up to understand how we are going to take action using the emotions that we have available to us.

What are Emotions?

Much of our early learning of emotions is that some emotions are good, and some are bad. Anger is one of those emotions that receives bad press. The result of this, I think, is that people then start to feel that it is wrong to experience emotions such as anger. However, is it really the emotion of anger that is bad, or is it that we don’t like the actions that we typically tend to associate with anger?

When we see a street sign, we don’t immediately assess it as right or wrong. Rather, we acknowledge its appearance and we try to understand what it is telling us. We then make a conscious decision about the action that we would like to take next. If we don’t see the street signs, we keep going how we were going.

Similarly, one interpretation of emotions is that they are a sign that there is something within us that would be useful for us to take care of. Each emotion has a predisposed action attached to it. If we don’t take notice of the emotion that we are experiencing, and we don’t take care of the thing that the emotion is telling us to take care of, we will follow the predisposed action.

This is, I think, a very useful interpretation, represented in the diagram below.

Emotions-Traffic Intersection - v1.0 20200125

An Emotional Literacy Example: Anger as a Sign

Assume that Person X has not honoured their commitment to meet a customer deadline. As a result, the deadline will most likely be missed. Assume also, that Person A is experiencing anger as a result of Person X’s behaviour.

Many of us, while growing up, were told not to be angry. And so, much of our early learning of anger is that it is bad. This, I think, is unfortunate. All emotional experiences are legitimate. Not holding anger as bad removes the legitimacy of our experience of anger as an emotion. 

Thinking about it, it is perhaps fair to assume that society doesn’t interpret anger itself to be bad. Rather, society has formed an assessment regarding the actions that we tend to unwittingly take from anger; the actions that anger predisposes us to taking don’t always lead to favourable outcomes.

How might this change if Person A was to think of anger as a sign in their experience with Person X not meeting the customer commitment?

What could anger possibly be telling Person A?

According to “The Unopened Gift: A Primer in Emotional Literacy” (Newby & Nunez, 2017), anger tells us that there has been an injustice for which someone or something is to blame, and the source of the injustice must be punished. The anger then predisposes us to punishing the source of that injustice. This doesn’t mean that anger “makes” us punish others. It means that anger tends to bias our actions towards punishing the source and, if we don’t realise that this is the case, our actions will most likely be geared around punishment.

When we think of life’s experiences, we could argue that it is useful for us to know when we perceive that an injustice has been done. If we don’t know when an injustice has been done, then we would potentially move forward through life, suffering the repercussions of injustices without realising that we were experiencing them in the first place. We need something to alert us to the injustices of life. And so, we have anger.

What if, in this example, Person A took a moment to notice their anger? What if they acknowledged it, named it, and understood why they were feeling it? What if they identified the injustice that they perceived as having been done? At this point, there is potential for Person A to see that they perceive Person X to have committed an injustice by not managing their commitment to a customer deadline.

It can be argued, then, that the emotion of anger has served Person A by giving them a sign that an injustice has been done. Now that Person A has a consciousness awareness of this injustice, they have potentially increased their possibilities for action. In addition to moving forward and trying to punish they could, perhaps, see some of the following actions as possible:

  • Making a request to Person X that will see the commitment managed appropriately
  • Making a request to the customer about extending the deadline
  • Having a conversation for accountability with Person X regarding the mismanagement of commitments
  • Make a declaration that the deadline can’t shift and then perhaps a request about how it might be possible to meet the deadline.
  • Shift to another emotion, such as curiosity, to try and understand what happened and what might be useful as a next step.

Being aware of what it means to be angry has now potentially enabled Person A to take action that is supportive of a constructive relationship, allowing the situation to be managed, and objectives to be achieved. And, in achieving this outcome, anger was potentially quite useful.

This is a goal of emotional literacy: to understand when our emotions are serving us and when they are not serving us, and to use this understanding to take further actions that do serve us.

Why Emotional Literacy?

In everything we do, we operate from an emotional space. We will be operating from in-the-moment emotions and more long-lasting and enduring moods. Each of these predisposes us to action and so, without emotional literacy, we will potentially go through life unwittingly following the predisposed actions of  each emotional space. This may or may not serve us. Regardless, we are not making choice but, rather, allowing our emotions to choose our actions for us.

Emotional literacy brings choice and, with that, potentially less suffering and waste in our interactions with life. 

Emotional Literacy – Some Final Thoughts

When we become emotionally literate, we can creatively use our understanding of our emotions to increase the possibilities for taking actions that serve us. This, I think, increases our resourcefulness in life.

For a final word on emotional literacy, I would like to share the following from “Emotional Literacy: Intelligence with a Heart” (Steiner, 2003):

“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”.

Newby, D. and Nunez, L., 2017. The Unopened Gift: A Primer in Emotional Literacy. USA: Daniel Newby.
Steiner, C., 2003. Emotional Literacy: Intelligence with a Heart. Fawnskin: Personhood Press.

Image by Christian Dorn from Pixabay

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