What is emotional literacy? Taking the road less travelled

If you’ve chosen to come to counselling, there's a strong possibility you’re well acquainted with emotions. Deep sadness, anxiety, fear, loss, grief, embarrassment, shame. These are all common themes that run through the work counsellors do with clients, as they start to uncover how they relate to themselves, their experiences and other people. But what if you feel these things, but don't know how to describe them?


The cliche, of course, exists for a reason, so when your counsellor inevitably asks you ‘And how did that make you feel?’ you go to describe it, only to find – you have no idea how.

Why bother learning to identify feelings at all? Isn’t it enough to simply feel them? What do we gain from emotional literacy and how can it help us get the most out of our time in therapy?

Emotional literacy in broad terms is the ability to identify and understand your emotions, knowing how to respond to and manage your emotions, and an awareness of how your emotions and the emotions of others, interact and affect each other. I like to see emotional literacy as giving us a personal map, rich with information about where we are, how we’re travelling and where we might go.

Lost in the wilds?

Imagine you’re lost in an unfamiliar landscape. You know you’re on a road, you know you've travelled a long way to get there, and you know you have to keep going. 

What you don’t know is where you are. 

Worse still, you have no directions and very little idea what the place you’re headed for is like. You know what you’d like it to be, but part of you has a sneaking suspicion that you’re as likely, if not more likely, to end up in a swamp of despair, or a sea of anxiety (where, let's face it, here be monsters).

What do you do? How do you know where to go? What destinations are available to you, and how do you choose? Are you making a once and for all journey, or are you on the first leg of a much longer road, with diversions and rests along the way?

Now imagine someone appears next to you in the landscape and asks you – "Where are you? And where are you going? And how are you going to get there?" How could you possibly know?

I think of emotional literacy as a map because when we have a well-developed set of tools for knowing where we are, how we are, and who we are, we have access to a whole world of information that helps us get to where we want to be, and even influence how that journey plays out.

Imagine you’re in the same landscape, but now in your hands, you hold that map. The first thing you’re now able to see is how far you’ve come. You recognise that you’re tired, that you’ve travelled a long way. You recognise it's been lonely, that you’ve had to rely on yourself for a long time. You recognise that the journey has been hard, and you reflect on the obstacles you’ve had to travel through. 

As you look at the map and see where you’ve been and what you’ve had to do to get there, where you are right now starts to make more sense. The ground beneath your feet feels firmer. A little more familiar.

As you study the map, the next thing you start to see is possibilities and, as you start to identify what you want, you can think more clearly about where you might choose to head for. The loneliness you recognise in your journey helps you identify you want companionship and connectedness, and the tiredness you feel helps you recognise that you want peace and rest. You might choose to head for a (metaphorical) bustling city, a small village, or a quiet garden – and as you look at your map, you start to get a sense of how far away each of those destinations feels, and also get to imagine the possibilities that each destination might hold.

Now that you can see where you’ve been, where you are, and the possibilities, you can start to plan a path, but more importantly, you can see what might trip you up along the way. Which paths are darker and harder to walk, which are easier, where there are shortcuts, and where taking the long way round might pay off long term. 

This is what emotional literacy gives us; an internal GPS that we can develop, that we can trust to guide us through our life's journey.

Learning emotional literacy

Feelings for the most part are innate, but knowing what to do with them and how to use them takes some learning. If we are lucky, our early caregivers will have provided some of that early emotional education, but that’s certainly not the case for everyone. 

In some people's childhoods, only some emotions might have been allowed to be expressed and so our emotional literacy might be incomplete rather than missing altogether. For example, if anger is an emotional language we recognise, we may follow that more familiar path even if it’s harder work or has the possibility to become destructive – rather than follow an unfamiliar path such as sadness or grief. 

In others, the emotions might be identifiable, but the way in which people learn to respond to them might set a pattern of behaviour that works in their family dynamic but fails to serve that child once they’re grown and out in the world, such as lashing out when we’re embarrassed, or punishing someone we feel rejected by with with silence.

If our emotional literacy is missing from an early age, we’re expected to navigate life’s journey with a very limited map, and over time we learn what feels like safe, normal, familiar routes. In the end, we may end up taking long detours through unfriendly landscapes, even when an easier path might be running alongside us the whole time, simply because we can’t take a path we have no idea is there.

Emotional literacy is the language we use to tell ourselves where we are, and like any skill, it can be learned and practised. By developing our emotional literacy, we learn that alternative paths are possible and we can identify them when we need them.

We develop emotional literacy through therapy, but we can also develop our therapy through growing our emotional literacy and it is worth recognising that improving yours may improve the efficacy of your therapy, and the speed of progress. There is nothing wrong with taking time on your journey, but if you're constrained by finances or time, knowing how to use emotional literacy in the counselling room to support the work you do with your therapist, could really make a difference.

Improving emotional literacy

So if our emotional literacy is limited, how do we improve it?

Increase your vocabulary

The differences between human emotions are often subtle but important. It can feel easier to use blanket terms for what we feel, (sad, angry, happy) but a more nuanced understanding can offer greater understanding. There may be a difference between embarrassment and shame and a difference between shame and guilt. There is a difference between the happiness of joy and the happiness of contentment, or the sadness of disappointment and the sadness of grief. 

Learning and practising different, more accurate language can help us identify what we really feel, and how much we feel (think of a spectrum of anger from being annoyed to being livid) helping us to build up a more detailed picture of where we are but also giving us perspective and new insights about why we feel the things we do.

Become an explorer

Developing a healthy curiosity for your emotional experiences and acting as a brave explorer in your internal landscape is a great way to develop your emotional literacy. With your metaphorical map in hand, you can ‘day trip’ to these new internal places, and get a sense of what suits you. Maybe you’ll stay a little while and move on, or perhaps you’ll move in and stay longer. Sometimes it can feel like where we are is where we’ve always been and where we’ll always be, but being open to trying on new ideas within the safety of therapy helps us to visit new possibilities of self, and helps us make valuable progress.

Practice walking in others' shoes

It can sometimes be hard to imagine other people's journeys. If we find ourselves in the same place as someone else, it can be easy to assume that they’ve taken the same path to get there. Perceptions about how we and others interact can be radically changed when we view them as a person navigating their own internal landscape. It can help depersonalise those aspects of our relationships we find challenging – how does our relationship with someone else change when we see them as taking a path of anger because it's the only path they know how to choose, rather than seeing them as angry with us?

Becoming aware of other people's emotions as experiences rather than personal traits, and relating that to our own emotional experiences, can lead to improved connections and boundaries, and a greater understanding of others and ourselves, which in turn provides more detail for our internal map. Openness to this in the counselling room can contribute to breakthroughs in self-understanding and compassion.

Next steps

You can talk to your counsellor about intentionally developing your emotional literacy as a tool to support your therapy, attend workshops or short courses to actively practice skills like emotional vocabulary, or develop skills through personal practices like reading and journaling. 

Doing this means that the next time your counsellor asks you, ‘how do you feel?’ you won’t only know how, but also where that puts you on your internal map so that your counsellor can better support you, as you work out where to go next.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Scarborough YO12 & Manchester M60
Written by Ruth Hill, Integrative Counsellor.(Humanistic w/CBT) MBACP, BA(Hons)
Scarborough YO12 & Manchester M60

I'm an online, integrative practitioner, working as a University counsellor & private therapist. I work with young adults, the LGBTQIA+ community, & those experiencing transition & transformative life change, (such as bereavement, a new job, leaving home, the end of a relationship), and how that relates to new identities, confidence, and autonomy.

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