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  • Mira Shah

The Literate Heart: An Exploration into Emotional Literacy




Literacy is essential.  The National Literacy Trust defines literacy as “the ability to read, write, speak and listen in a way that lets us communicate effectively and make sense of the world.”  With this in mind, literacy is our gateway to connection; with ourselves, others and the world.  Literacy empowers and liberates, making it an essential skill to develop, particularly in infancy.  Literacy can improve life choices, creates prospects and gives us a passage to access opportunities that we may not have been able to access otherwise. 

You’re probably wondering how all this is relevant to an article about the intelligent heart! Go back and re-read the above paragraph replacing literacy with emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is our gateway to connection; not only with ourselves but those lives that are intertwined with our very own and the world. It is an essential skill that empowers and can help create deeper meaningful relationships with others as well as the world. Whilst the early years can be key in becoming emotionally literate, it is never to late to identify gaps in our own emotional vocabulary and school ourselves.

What is Emotional Literacy?

Being able to experience, recognise, understand, respond to and express your own emotions as well as being tuned in to others is referred to as emotional literacy. The term was first coined by Nancy Graham in the 1960’s and popularised by psychotherapist Claude Steiner. It captures our ability to understand the what, the why and the how; to understand what we are feeling, why it is being felt and how to manage or respond to it.  According to Steiner, “to be emotionally literate is to be able to handle emotions in a way that improves your personal power and improves the quality of life around you.” 

Emotional literacy is not necessarily innate, it can be cultivated over time. In light of this, the way we are nurtured and the environment in which we are raised can have an impact on the evolution of our emotional lexicon. If the seeds of emotional literacy were sown in infancy, where the environment was conducive to embracing emotions, it is likely that the process of recognising, identifying, understanding and responding to emotions will be normalised. But, being raised in an environment where is there is shame, judgment or emotional shutdown could result in emotional stunting and an inability to fully experience emotions. 

Why Does Emotional Literacy Matter?

Brene Brown, in her book Dare to Lead, states that “Emotional literacy, [in my opinion], is as critical as having language. When we can’t name and articulate what’s happening to us emotionally, we cannot move through it.” Language is the road map to understanding one another, sharing hopes, desires and needs – it breeds creativity through poetry and spoken word. Emotional literacy is no different. It allows us to feel, transcend and move through our experiences so that we can understand ourselves and others more wholly. If we are unable to recognise what we experience emotionally then there is a chance that we could undergo emotional stagnation. 

So, What are Some of the Benefits of Emotional Literacy?

Increases self-awareness – Understanding our own emotional landscape; what we feel and why we feel the way we do can allow us to build a healthier relationship with ourselves. This can then inform what we do with these learnings and the related emotions. It allows for clearer expression and communication of feelings. 

Being physically healthier – Emotions are energy in motion (eMotion), so if they become trapped they can cause physical pain or sickness. There is a growing body of evidence that seeks to connect emotional literacy with better health outcomes. Allowing emotion to leave the body (by being able to process them) limits the physiological damage that stress takes on the body and allows for regulation.
Connection with others – Being cognisant and reading the feelings of others enables a profound understanding of another and allows for deeper meaningful relationships. If we are able to sit with our own messy, unruly emotions it means that we have the capacity to hold and be with others.  This allows for authentic and transparent connections. 

Effective decision making – The way you feel about something, or the emotion that it stirred in you, can assist in making moral and ethical decisions.  Facts may go some way in informing you, but by honing in on how something makes you feel can also inform the decisions.

Success at school and workStudies have shown that children with emotional literacy skills may perform better academically. This may be attributed to the fact that relationships with teachers and peers may be better developed, and children being able to regulate themselves when being in a classroom setting. If a child is struggling with emotional regulation, then there may be a subsequent effect on concentration as well as relationship conflicts with peers and teachers. 

When it comes to work, it is undeniable that educational institutions are turning out the most sophisticated coders, planners and strategists etc but there may be a vacuum of those who are emotionally literate. But in the real word and the working environment, being able to ‘read the room,’ address difficulties in team dynamics and provide a space for tough conversations can be a favourable skill to possess and valuable to employers. It is not only what you know, but also skills that allow you to connect to other humans.

How Can We Develop Emotional Literacy?

Emotional literacy can be developed over time.  It can be taught, modelled and practiced – it is a process. The key to developing this skill is being inquisitive, curious about what you feel and dropping the judgements you may hold when doing so. There are some stages that you can work through to help to become more aware of your own feelings and reactions. Try doing these with an open heart (and quietened mind!).

Stage 1: Experiencing emotion – be curious about where you can feel the emotion in your body. What does it feel like? Do you feel the emotion intensely or does it wash over you? Can you sense your bodily sensations – are your muscles contracting, do you have butterflies in your stomach, can you sense a lump in your throat?

Stage 2: Identifying and naming the emotion. At this stage we want to get to the core of what is being felt. This can be a little more complex if our vocabulary for emotions is limited. So, for example, we may be able to name core emotions such as anger, bad, sad, happy, fearful etc. but emotions are nuanced. We may think we feel angry but are there maybe emotions underlying the anger, perhaps being masked by it? These could be humiliation, feeling let down, disrespected etc. If you struggle to name emotions then ‘The Emotions Wheel’ by Dr. Gloria Willcox is a great tool which allows you to pinpoint what it is that you may be feeling. Sometimes you may experience a combination of feelings too. Putting feelings into words also helps to process what is happening/or what has happened to you. 

Stage 3: Understanding the WHY? The crux of this stage is to understand why that particular emotion is being triggered and identifying the need being signalled. As an example, you have identified that your body is physically communicating that you are anxious. You identify that you are feeling scared and at the root of this fear is abandonment. Turn your attention now to what you think you may need – is it reassurance? A need for connection? This stage can be an intricate process. Getting to the root of why certain emotions may be triggered and identifying needs might require exploration with a mental health professional, counsellor or therapist. 

Stage 4: Emotional expression. Acknowledging and identifying emotions can increase your personal power because this stage allows you to choose how to respond and express the emotion in a constructive way. Some of the ways that you could choose to express emotion is verbal communication, journalling, writing a letter or a poem. You may decide you need to expel the emotion physically from your body and choose to exercise, run, dance. Avoid bottling up your emotion, suppressing or de-pressing – instead find ways to express them in a healthy manner. 

Developing emotional literacy is a lifelong process. It takes time and practice to become emotionally literate. The World Literacy Foundation are aiming to eradicate illiteracy by 2040 and they have made it their mission to change lives through making sure that support and resources are available in all corners of the world. Whilst we may not talk about the eradication of emotional illiteracy, we can certainly develop our own emotional literacy through education. They key here is to be mindful of our emotional triggers and take the time to name and understand our emotions. We also need to be open to learning from our mistakes and remember to be kind, open hearted and patient with ourselves. 
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bhavan popat
bhavan popat
May 01

Developing emotional and all kind of literacy is a lifelong process it take and practice to become emotionally Literacy and effort naver wain so batter to practice it


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Mira Shah
May 01
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Yes, I completely agree - efforts are never in vain. There is absolute benefit in being a lifelong student and approaching situations with curiosity and being open to learning from experiences. Thank you for commenting

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