Enhancing emotional literacy

Mindletic

7 min read

Nowadays an increasing number of people emphasize the importance of emotional literacy. However, the misunderstanding between the terms “emotional literacy” and “emotional intelligence” is common. In this interview, social psychologist Sigita explains these concepts, highlights the ways to enhance one’s emotional literacy, and stresses the benefits of this trait. 

Sigita acquired her master's degree in social psychology and has counseled foreigners living in Turkey privately since 2013. Also, she leads workshops on stress management, self-love as well as practices dance and movement therapy. Sigita is interested in women empowerment and equal rights. She was the head of the Psychology department and counseling psychologist in the Onar organization.


What is emotional literacy? How is it different from emotional intelligence?

The term emotional literacy was first introduced by Claude Steiner in 1979. It is a spectrum of emotional abilities which improve the quality of one's life and the lives of people around them. It includes an ability to understand one’s own and others’ emotions, it also promotes listening and empathic skills. Most importantly, it is made of the ability to handle emotions, especially by constructively expressing them.  The term “emotional intelligence” was first mentioned much earlier in 1964 by Michael Beldoch, who described it as a  person's capability to recognize and deal with emotions.Scientifically speaking, emotional literacy is a social definition with a focus on relationships. The social aspect is important in providing the ability to communicate emotions and understanding them in others. 

The main aim of emotional literacy is to facilitate relationships, while emotional intelligence is a more individualistic construct. C. Steiner claims that emotional literacy is “a heart-centered emotional intelligence with a moral and political compass”. In comparison, emotional intelligence can be used for wrongdoing such as manipulating people or terrorizing them. In general, emotional literacy is centered on the emotion of love, cooperation, and the common good. 

What determines an individual’s emotional literacy?

The proper social-emotional education by parents at home or teachers at school and preschool, the absence of unaddressed major psychological problems and traumas, and normal brain functioning determine the high level of emotional literacy. Some character traits such as shyness or impulsivity might be heritable or partially heritable, however, the development period is enormously important regarding how the child will learn to handle emotions and express himself/herself. 

I would like to give a few examples of how the lack of emotional literacy might develop. Firstly, McDougall argued that the parents' neglect or indifference to the baby's facial expressions could be the first step to developing inadequate emotional awareness. Later on, parenting problems such as parents’ inability to understand and appropriately react to their child's emotions can influence a child's capability to recognize emotional expressions. The big mistake parents might make is to tell the child harshly not to cry, be sad, or angry. If the child hears such words repeatedly and gets intimidated, he/she might learn that it's bad to feel and eventually block out emotions from their awareness. Moreover, if the parents are constantly shouting, the child might become either too sensitive and overemotional, or numb. Everyday hurtful events might be caused not only by parents but also by bullies at school and sometimes even friends. If they accumulate, they cause emotional difficulties. What is worse,  some children experience serious emotional traumas such as parental abuse or alcoholism. 

People's psyche responds to uncontrollable psychological trauma by psychological defenses. One of them is emotional numbness - it protects from painful emotions, nightmares, and flashbacks. The other is active defensiveness which might turn to over defensiveness, which means seeing enemies everywhere and creating unnecessary fights. However, these defenses also create walls that might separate us from loving, amazing people and pleasant emotions such as joy, love, and happiness. Even later in life during adulthood, there are plenty of experiences that might affect the way we feel and express our feelings - especially in  romantic relationships and marriage. Also, I would like to note that there are cultural influences that might be factors as well - different cultures have different emotional profiles - some are over reserved and some are over-expressive.

How can we enhance emotional literacy?

There are different ways: parents could learn how to teach their kids social-emotional skills, more schools should implement social-emotional education programs, and adults and parents themselves should work on self-development.

I will give some tips for what parents could do to develop emotionally literate children. Most importantly, parents should talk about emotions with their children. They should include emotion-describing words in their daily language and encourage their children to speak about their feelings. When their child is emotional, they should identify his/her emotions, explain what he/she feels, tell them that it's normal to feel this way in such a situation, not to criticize or judge how the child feels, accept the child's emotions and then try to solve the problem. It is equally important to teach children to recognize emotions in others. Pictures of emotion-showing faces could be shown and the child could be asked how the person feels and how he/she knows that. Parents could explain a variety of ways feelings are shown by pointing at different parts of faces (eyes, eyebrows, mouth, etc). They can also ask how others are feeling in stories, books, and TV programs.However, it is not enough just to recognize emotions, children should learn how to deal with their feelings as well. Parents should teach children adequate, more appropriate ways to deal with their frustrations and ways to relax and calm down. Appropriate self-defense is also important. The child should know how to create boundaries by saying "I don't like that, please stop it".  Moreover, for children to develop a self-regulation skill, it is important to have clearly set, reasonable rules and the child should know the consequences which will follow if he/she disobeys them. 

There are various social-emotional education programs implemented at schools. Such programs are "Lions Quest", "Antras Žingsnis", "Zipio ir Obuolio draugai", "Gyvai", "Friends", "Oliweus". Most of them concentrate on eliminating violence, bullying, and other kinds of harmful behavior. My  Master thesis research was about the effectiveness of one of the programs called "Paauglystės kryžkelės". The study showed that children who received this program had lower aggression levels and it affected their conflict resolution styles. 

Adults themselves can benefit enormously by investing time, money, and energy in enhancing their emotional literacy. To improve emotional vocabulary and learn to recognize emotions, emotion tracking in Mindletic mobile app can help. You can turn your attention towards things that are happening in your life, think about the way you feel about it, and try to notice how high your energy is and how pleasant you feel. According to that, you can select a certain side of a square (high energy is on the top of the square and very pleasant on the right side of the square). The emotion-describing words which belong to the particular part of the square will pop up and it might help you recognize the right emotional word for you. You can monitor your emotions over time and see how different events affect how you feel. 

There are many ways of learning to manage emotions, for example - seeing a psychologist, talking to a friend, participating in creative therapies like dancing and movement, art, music, writing, emotional freedom techniques, relaxation, meditation, and sport. You can also learn various techniques and gain knowledge by attending various training sessions or reading about them in books. The pioneer of emotional literacy training Claude Steiner teaches to open the heart by encouraging people to be supportive, give and ask for affection, then survey the emotional landscape by trying to understand one’s own and others’ emotions and their reasons, and finally to take responsibility for mistakes we’ve made by apologizing. 

How can emotional literacy be beneficial? Could you give an example of how an emotionally literate person might react differently from others in the same situation? 

Emotional literacy is beneficial in many ways. First of all, it influences general life satisfaction and well-being. Moreover, emotionally literate people can form closer, happier relationships and are better at solving social problems. Finally, emotional literacy is even useful for achieving various goals and success in one’s career. On the other hand, the lack of emotional literacy may cause various psychological and other problems, and even more stress in life. 

If there is a conflict, an emotionally literate person will notice the negative feelings and will understand how to handle them.This person might pause, have some breaths to calm down and be mindful, observe what's happening and think about what is the best thing to say or what action to take. Highly emotionally literate people can even predict the feelings of significant others and act in a way that would be better for them. For example, an emotionally literate man who wants to introduce his shy, a bit socially anxious girlfriend to his friends might understand that it's better to invite everyone for some common activity like table game night where the social environment is more structured and it's more obvious what to say, so she would feel less awkward.

People’s emotional literacy is different and this might affect their relationships. How to communicate about different needs, feelings?

It is very important to communicate about needs and feelings. One good way to communicate about feelings is by using "I statements". Instead of throwing accusations at one another, better to say: "I feel (mention the feeling) when you (mention the behavior)". For example, it is better to say: "I get upset when you come back home late" rather than: "You are selfish and don't respect me when you come back home late!" The second phrase would make the person angry or defensive, while the first phrase has more chance of provoking empathy and understanding. It's also important to give an explanation, talk about the situation without shouting and try to find a solution that satisfies you both. If you are the one who hears the "I statement" from the other, the best way would be to respond by saying: "I understand when I (action), you felt (feeling). Don't become defensive, take note of the feeling and accept it.

Honesty is very important: you should be able to say what you want and tell how you feel. If you cannot forget what your partner or another important person did, ask for apologies. It is dangerous when hurtful feelings accumulate because one day they might explode. Be cooperative in a relationship - tell your partner that you want a connection where both of you can ask for everything you want and don't do anything you don't want to do as it is also important to have boundaries. Also, keep in mind that if you complain very often, it can be too draining- it probably means there is something wrong in the root of a relationship. If there are too many significant issues you can't resolve, perhaps you are  very incompatible. In this situation, I recommend seeing a couple therapist or if the partner doesn't want to go to therapy, then at least have personal counseling sessions. According to relationship researcher John Gottman, in order for a relationship to thrive, there must be 5 positive feelings or interactions to balance out one negative/unpleasant feeling or interaction.

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