Some of the biggest challenges we experience as humans are identifying our emotions, understanding them, and expressing them to facilitate understanding and cooperation. To overcome these challenges, Emotional Literacy (the ability to identify, understand, label, and express emotions positively) can help us. It leads to increased self-awareness (being clear about what we need in a given moment and directing our behavior or making choices accordingly) and increased empathy (connecting with the feelings and needs of other people to get to know and understand them better). It can also help develop empathic communication skills (listening for the needs in what others share and communicating our needs to reduce conflicts, miscommunication, and misunderstandings).
How do we get started on developing better Emotional Literacy? Understanding three principles can help in this regard.
Principle #1: At any moment, we are trying to meet universal, all-inclusive needs (like physical safety, emotional support, respect, peace, learning, contribution, etc.).
What to unlearn: We usually think that having or expressing needs is an act of selfishness. When someone vocalizes their needs, we call them needy, clingy, and self-obsessed.
What to learn instead: The truth is that we all have needs. More often than not, we are unaware of our needs. Even if we are, we don’t know how to express those needs without unpleasantly impacting the listener.
Principle #2: Our emotions (such as anger, disgust, joy, calmness, frustration, relief, etc.) hint at our met and unmet needs.
What to unlearn: We usually think that some emotions are ‘good’, such as trust, surprise, and happiness, while we label anger, sadness, disgust, and fear as supposedly ‘bad’ emotions. When we see our emotions as good or bad, we tend to chase pleasant emotions and run away from unpleasant ones. It is also what we call ‘toxic positivity.’
What to learn instead: To become emotionally literate is to understand that emotions may be unpleasant and pleasant. They are not good or bad because they send us signals about our met and unmet needs. Once we understand this principle that governs our emotional well-being, we become aware of what needs cause our pleasant feelings and what unmet needs cause unpleasant feelings so we can eventually handle our unpleasant feelings well.
Principle #3: Everything we do with our actions or inactions (using our body) is an attempt to meet our underlying needs (for example, talking, remaining silent, eating, running, etc.).
What to unlearn: “This person loves making my life a living hell!” “I know they did that to see me in pain!” We often make assumptions like these when the actions of people around us are unhelpful in fulfilling our needs.
What to learn instead: Someone’s actions or inactions are their ways to primarily meet their needs and not make our lives difficult. Understanding this means seeing things as they are and not making false assumptions and stories. As a result, we become more empathic and focus on fostering mutual understanding instead of blaming, complaining, and judging people for being unhelpful, ignorant, or troublesome.
Here are a few examples to understand the three principles better.
You value/need communication and closeness with your friends. You call them up, but no one answers. Due to your unmet needs, you end up feeling sad.
You are struggling with a project at work, so you need support and consideration. You reach out to a colleague for help, and he/she provides you with guidance and support for which you feel thankful.
You value/need efficiency, so you try to ensure that you follow a routine to submit your assignment on time. The internet goes off right when you’re about to submit your work, and you start panicking because you might miss the deadline.
You value/need physical safety. You feel safe and relieved when you see other people around you wearing a mask so that you don’t contract the virus from one another.
You value/need peace and harmony, so when an elder in the family talks to you loudly, you feel fearful and disgusted.
All these examples point to three things—at any given moment, we have one or more needs, our needs cause us to experience certain emotions, and to fulfill our needs, we either rely on some actions or inactions (using our bodies).
Do these principles make sense to you? Think of a recent activity you did. Would you agree that you were trying to meet one or more of your needs through that action? Did you feel pleasant or unpleasant based on whether your actions/inactions helped you meet your needs?
None of the emotions are good or bad. They are signals of our universal needs, which we try to fulfill through actions or inactions. Those actions can prove to be either healthy or unhealthy in due course of time, but emotions are not good or bad in and of themselves. The clearer we are in navigating the cyclic relationship between needs, emotions, and actions, the more we can connect with ourselves and others.
The author is the Linchpin at My Emotions Matter, an education initiative that helps individuals and teams learn the mindset and skills of Emotional Intelligence. You can learn more at myemotionsmatter.com