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Becoming emotionally literate

Becoming emotionally literate



Same, same, different.

It’s complicated because there are two words that we use to describe something that is often quite similar but also there are some important differences.  And, given that as human beings we tend to find it SUPER difficult to articulate what our emotional state is (or what we’re feeling) I thought it might be useful to break this down a little bit.

Feelings can be physical (I feel warm, I feel pain in my knee…) or they can be emotional – that is what we’re really talking about in this article – and those emotional feelings are a means of describing what is happening in our inner world.  There’s a reason we say ‘emotional feelings’ and that’s because emotions cause feelings.  Emotions are a physical response to our environment – which means emotions are aroused before feelings.  Feelings are mental associations – they’re describing words that we use to articulate what we can identify as going on, and can be quite hard for us to identify.

I often use the term ‘felt sense’ to describe what is happening on the inside before we find ways to put feeling-words to them.  If you’re scared of the dark for example, and the lights all go out in a power cut during a storm, your nervous system is going to encode the fear that comes from that situation.  Your heart rate will likely increase, as will your breathing rate, your chest might get tight, and your eyes will widen to adjust to the change of circumstances around you.  On the inside you might feel physically and emotionally afraid, you might be nervous, anxious and worried.  So many things going on!













Emotional literacy is one of the big building blocks of emotional intelligence and was a phrase coined by Claude Steiner in 1979.  It’s not about unleashing all the emotional all over the place, it’s more about being able to identify what we’re feeling in order to tend to them, communicate them to others when we need help or support and being able to connect with others empathically.  In 2003 Steiner identified the following principal skills to develop emotional literacy: –

  1. Know your feelings
  2. Have a heartfelt sense of empathy
  3. Learn to manage your emotions
  4. Repair emotional damage
  5. Emotional interactivity – putting it all together in relation to others

Learning to identify your feelings can be hard for a lot of people, especially when you’ve learned from a young age that it’s not safe to do so or haven’t had someone model emotional identification and regulation well.  I have a number of tools that I use with clients to help here – feelings wheels (Google it) or these absolutely beautiful cards from Kate Kenfield (Tea & Empathy) are a great place to start.













Emotional regulation is a HUGE piece of work for many of us.  Knowing what it is we’re feeling is one thing, but being able to self-soothe, modulate and regulate those feelings are a whole other thing.  Sometimes that looks like grounding and utilising mindfulness practices, other times it involves having the bravery to reach out to another for help and co-regulation.  Here are some questions to help you identify feelings and explore how you’ve managed them (you can do this as a self-reflective exercise, or you could journal on them): –

  1. Remember a time when you’ve felt really happy – what made you feel that way?
  2. Remember a time when you’ve felt really sad – what made you feel this way? How did you turn your hair around?
  3. Remember a time when you felt really excited – how did this make your body feel? (Alert, energetic, butterflies, trouble sleeping…)
  4. Remember a time when you felt really anxious – how did this make your body feel? (Increased heart rate, sweaty, trouble sleeping, butterflies, needing to go to the toilet…) What did you do to cope with feeling this way?

Developing emotional literacy will allow you to: –

  • Notice and name the emotions you’re feeling and see them in other people
  • Understand the message an emotion is aiming to communicate (cause and effect)
  • Select the emotion that you’re feeling and choose what to communicate
  • Accept that emotions are just a normal part of life and you’ll be at ease talking and working with emotions in people you trust

Emotional literacy allows us a much more connected existence with other humans and instead of being something we might dread and choose to ignore or numb, it allows us space, freedom and safety when interacting with others.



If you need support to develop emotional literacy, we have a team of therapists at Thea Baker Wellbeing – please reach out to us at: / 03 9077 8194.


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