Expanding our emotional literacy



'How have you been?' I am asking my client. 'OK' she answers. This is a typical exchange that may happen at the start of a therapy session. Notice how I am trying to vary the polite but often not very meaningful 'how are you' to show to my clients that I actually want to know how they are! And fair enough, I am not being told 'Fine, and you?'. I am getting a much more honest 'OK'. But it still leaves me guessing. How can I find out more? 'This sounds like a bit of a mixed bag', I might try. 'Yes, I have had some ups and downs this week, but overall I am OK.' she replies. Hmmm, I know a little more now but only a little.


I am not sure if the OK acts as a protection from judgement or if she is really not sure how else to say it. I explore: 'Is there another word you could find to describe what you are feeling right now?' 'Right now? I don't know. Nobody ever asks me that. … I am feeling like I want to be happy but there is nothing to be happy about. … Empty is probably what I would say. I am feeling empty.' All over sudden, there is an opening. She has let me into her world. From what seemed a bit distanced and defended I can now feel a lot of warmth for this client and her search for happiness. I also empathize with her not being asked how she feels. It tells me something about her struggle to find a better word to describe her feelings.


Expressing our feelings to each other creates connection. That doesn't mean that we need to share the same feelings at the same time. If we are able to express our feelings without criticism or blame, we have much better chances of being heard, which in turn will make us feel more understood and connected. Using more differentiated feeling words increases the level of understanding and connection and will ultimately lead to better relations overall. There is thus a strong rationale for expanding our emotional vocabulary. And if improving our own relations with others wasn't enough of a motivation, learning how to talk about our feelings also enables us to teach others we care about how to do that, such as our children, partner, friends or family members.


Especially in these challenging and socially distanced times where there is much less physical contact and opportunity to express our appreciation through affection or in tangible ways, communication may be all we have to support each other and stay connected. But we can only receive understanding and emotional support if we let other people in. We need to give others a chance to connect with us by showing some vulnerability, by sharing some of our feelings. And this in turn necessitates for us to recognize and be able to name our feelings.


This is where the issue starts for many of us. Especially when we have grown up in a family where feelings are not talked about, we have very little chance to learn about them. One client told me that he never saw his mum cry. Another one said she never saw her parents argue. While I am not saying that these examples are necessarily problematic, it just means that we have far less opportunity to learn about feelings. We may also receive mixed messages from our parents: an angry face or a slammed door with no verbal explanation; teary eyes and a hunched back and the comment 'I am fine'; someone numbing their anxiety or depression with drugs or alcohol and disappearing in their bedroom for hours or days – how are we supposed to make sense of this as children? What words can we give to those experiences?


And what about our own feelings? Are they even recognized, let alone allowed? These are statements some of my clients have been confronted with growing up: 'Boys don't cry'; 'You shouldn't be angry'; 'Pull yourself together'; 'If you cry you make mummy upset'. And these are only the explicit messages. Many times, clients learned implicitly that as their parents were hiding their emotions, so should they. That showing their feelings was unnecessarily burdening their parents. That showing emotions is weak and not showing emotions is strong. And so on. And then the therapist asks you: how are you feeling?


An easy starting point to improve our emotional literacy and to move from 'OK' to something a little more telling is to look at the four main groups of feelings: anxiety, anger, sadness and happiness. If someone asks me how I am feeling, I can quickly check which of these groups of feelings is heightened: Am I feeling more angry or anxious? Are these tears of sadness or anger? Am I happy or sad? Sometimes, I might feel several contradictory feelings. Sometimes, I can only work out one dominant feeling and a wild mix of others. Sometimes, it is only later, when the feeling is less strong, that I can figure out what was going on emotionally for me at the time. All of this is OK ;)


Once I have identified the main group of feelings, I can then explore the degree of intensity and specific flavor of my feeling. In the anxiety group, I might feel tense or nervous, fearful, worried or horrified, to name a few examples. If I am feeling some level of anger, it may be boredom, I may feel cross, frustrated or full blown rage. If I identified sadness as the main group, the feeling itself could be best described as deflated, disappointed, down or in despair. And when it comes to happiness, I might be feeling pleased, content, delighted or ecstatic. If I have some time on my hands, I might search for synonyms to see if I find a word that describes my feeling even more precisely and expands my emotional vocabulary in the process. The more specific I can be in terms of how I feel, the more of a chance I give others to connect with me and the more I can feel understood.


Exercise:

If you like to expand your emotional vocabulary and get more in touch with your feelings, I suggest this very simple and effective exercise. At least once a day, ask yourself: How am I feeling right now? Give yourself a bit of time to answer this question honestly. Start by grouping your feeling into one of the four main categories: Is it anxiety, anger, sadness or happiness? Search for a word within that group that describes your feeling most accurately. Consider the level of intensity and flavor of your feeling, for example 'Am I feeling just a little nervous or full of fear?' 'Am I feeling a bit deflated or seriously depressed?' If one word isn't enough to capture your feeling state, check if a second or third feeling is also very dominant at this time, even if it stands in conflict with the first. See what happens if you share your feelings with someone. Own your feeling. Try to say: 'I am feeling furious / gutted / unsettled / elated.' without any expectation on the other.


Feedback:

What explicit or implicit messages did you receive during childhood that have blocked you from sharing your feelings with others? What happens when you communicate your feelings without any expectation? Can you share an experience where you have felt truly understood? What made this possible?