Emotional literacy is the ability to identify and label a feeling. Identifying a feeling is important for processing situations and making choices. Throughout a day a range of feelings may be felt; slight irritation, pleasure, sadness, frustration. If these feelings cannot be labelled they are placed into two groups, positive and negative, and it could be that all positives are called good or happy and all negatives are called anxious or angry. Emotional literacy varies greatly from person to person and that variance in identifying emotion depends on so many factors. Emotions might not have been spoken within a family or expression of emotion may have been discouraged.
Without emotional literacy it can be difficult to express needs, wants and boundaries to others and lead to misunderstanding and not feeling understood. This can heighten feelings of disconnection and alienation and impact on interpersonal relationships. It can lead to feeling silenced because the words are not there. It also means others are responding to the wrong emotion. “I feel sad” is very different to “I feel angry”. “I feel rejected” is different to “I feel anxious”.
Not identifying emotions affects choices and behaviour. There are societal expectations of choice dependent on emotion. So if for example all emotions are mislabelled as anxiety, a person will then try to sooth the anxiety becoming more anxious that the anxiety cannot be soothed. If some of those feelings are not anxiety but restlessness, irritation or sadness different choices might be made. Rather than a feeling masquerading as anxiety that cannot be soothed, a movement can be made in response to restlessness, a change can be made in response to irritation.
Not having the words for emotion impacts on self-worth. Rather than identifying the range of emotion and responding to those, the one label becomes the focal point and patterns of saying, “I’m always feeling anxious” or “I’m always angry” can occur. Worse still is the labelling of the self, “I’m an irritable person”, “I’m just anxious, that’s who I am”. This can lead to feeling different from others, fundamentally wrong in some way and an incorrect belief in possessing a personality flaw. There can be a sense of hopelessness that nothing can change. It is never too late to learn the language of feelings and to find your voice.
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About Jacqueline Karaca
Jacquie Karaca is a psychotherapist and author. She practices individual and relationship counselling in Alsager.