Learning Basic Emotional Literacy to Improve Relationships

For the longest time in my life, I thought people who talked about feelings were ‘sentimental’ people. Perhaps that is why I didn’t care to check-in with my own feelings. The closest I came to answering the question ‘How are you feeling?’ would be three words used as a standard reply in three distinct situations: ‘Babbal’ when things were to my liking, ‘Khattam’ when things weren’t to my liking, and ‘Sabai thikai cha’ when I wasn’t in the mood to reflect.

Just like the younger version of me, I have come across many who find it hard to answer that question with insight. From my own experience, I can tell you why it is a problem. A lack of self-awareness can cause pain for ourselves and others. Previously, whenever I used to feel disappointed (I didn’t know how it label it as ‘disappointment’ at the time), I used to react in ways that was perceived as anger by the other person. The other person’s standard response would be to say ‘Narisau na or ‘Khali risau cha’. This response, of course, wasn’t attuned to my emotional experience. I was feeling disappointed and this person asked me not to get angry. This would lead me to then feel frustrated, as I wasn’t understood. As you can imagine, this cycle wasn’t helpful at all- filled with miscommunication and misunderstanding. What was the root cause of it? Well, I hadn’t learnt to reflect on my feelings. As for the other person, they didn't guess any other feelings in me other than anger.

Emotional literacy, or the ability to identify, understand and express emotions positively is one of the foundational skills of Emotional Intelligence. Unless we know how we are feeling, we aren’t in a position to understand what our needs are (emotions are data that signal whether our needs are met or unmet) and make this information understandable to others. What then happens is largely making assumptions about others and ourselves. This can lead to misunderstandings, miscommunication and conflicts.

Although I wasn’t very emotionally literate back then, I have realized that the skills of emotional literacy can be learnt. Instead of categorizing our emotional states as ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’, what might happen if individuals learnt to tune in to feelings, give it a name and then leaned toward those emotions to help them in their goals? A good place to start is to identify basic emotions in oneself. There are 8 basic emotions based on Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. Anger (Ris) Anticipation (Apekchya), Disgust (Ghrina), Fear (Dar), Joy (Ananda), Surprise (Acchamma), Sadness (Dukha) and Trust (Biswas). What’s helpful to unlearn is the notion that these emotions are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The problem with labeling emotions as bad is that we will try to push away feelings like anger and sadness without trying to learn from them. Emotional literacy is about acknowledging, identify, labeling and understanding our emotional states so that we can make better decisions. This understanding can also be extended to developing empathy. Being able to see emotions as simply data about human needs, values and expectations can help us become more open to the emotional experiences of others.

Rather than getting stuck on judging emotional experiences as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we could all become more self-aware and empathetic if we learnt to recognize and understand these emotions. It begins with acknowledging we all experience different pleasant and unpleasant feelings. Each day, take a moment to reflect on your day by identifying these eight basic emotions: Anger (Ris) Anticipation (Apekchya), Disgust (Ghrina), Fear (Dar), Joy (Ananda), Surprise (Acchamma), Sadness (Dukha) and Trust (Biswas). Each of these feelings are valuable because they help direct our attention to what’s important to us. Using the same framework, you can guess and ask others about their emotional states. Instead of assuming if someone is angry, you might want to check in with them and see if they are indeed angry or perhaps slightly disgusted or just fearful or even sad. A healthy relationship is one in which individuals are granted permission to feel a broad range of pleasant and unpleasant feelings- not just ones that are deemed ‘good’.


Sagar Satyal

Sagar Satyal is co-founder at My Emotions Matter and can be reached at [email protected].