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Tiny Revolutions №24: What is Emotional Literacy?
+ the feeling wheel
Hi, I’m Sara, and this is Tiny Revolutions, a weekly dispatch of personal writing and links about mental and emotional fitness. Reply anytime and let me know what you think!
If you missed last week’s Tiny Revolutions, please go back and read it—it came from a place of deep frustration and a desire to be part of a change we desperately need in the world: for people to be more in touch with their feelings. My intent with this newsletter has always been to share my experiences with depression in the hopes that it might help others feel less alone, but I’m going to take that a step further and be a bit more constructive.
I’m not a therapist or a psychiatrist or any sort of mental health professional, but I am a perpetual student, not to mention my own guinea pig, and have picked up a few things. So I thought I might start by sharing some of the ideas, concepts, and practices that have helped me.
Concept: Emotional Literacy
I figured the best place to start would be to talk about emotional literacy. This is a concept that was made famous by psychologist and researcher Claude Steiner, and while I couldn’t find a succinct definition, here’s an overview from his 2003 book on the topic:
“Emotional literacy—intelligence with a heart—can be learned through the practice of specific transactional exercises that target the awareness of emotion in ourselves and others, the capacities to love others and ourselves while developing honesty and the ability to take responsibility for our actions.”
And why is this important?
“Instead of undermining and defeating you, your emotions will empower you and enrich your life and the lives of those around you. Emotional literacy helps your emotions work for you instead of against you.”
Simply put, emotions matter. They influence so much of our life: our decisions, our relationships, our health, our memories, our behavior, our work, and on and on. And yet we get almost no training in how to recognize and work with them in a way that is constructive. In fact, if you’re anything like I was and maybe still am, you’ve spent half your time trying to pretend they’re not happening or doing things to block them out.
While there are, thankfully, more resources than ever, social and emotional education is still in early days. I was listening to an episode of emotional health researcher Brene Brown’s new podcast last week, wherein she shared this fact: based on information she’s been collecting as part of her research since 2006, the average number of emotions people can recognize and name in themselves and others is three. THREE EMOTIONS.
This was shocking to me, but also not. I count myself among the formerly emotionally illiterate. I’m still not out of those woods. Up until about 10 years ago, I walked around feeling like I carried a large black knot in my chest—just a tangle of bad feelings and conflict and not a single bit of clarity about what they were or where they were coming from. The 10 years since then have been about unraveling that knot, and it’s a process. But it starts like any other journey. One foot/step/feeling at a time.
The Feeling Wheel
There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on how many emotions there are, but here’s some context in the form of a diagram. This is called the feeling wheel, and it was developed by another researcher named Gloria Willcox.
A few more than three, huh?
A Tiny Assignment
Before I go, I have a tiny assignment. Take five minutes this week—maybe right now?—and write down how many feelings you can detect in yourself. Does it hurt? Does it help? Tell me in the comments below how many you got if you’re up for it. I’m always up for a good time. :P
Til next week.
p.s. Here’s a gratuitous picture of my dog. My guess on this one is that she is feeling joyous and I hope you feel the same at least once this week.
p.p.s. If you liked this post, I’d appreciate it if you shared it with someone else who might too.