Emotional Literacy: Understanding the messages behind our emotions

Emotional Literacy Feb 08, 2021

It was when I was in Grade 6 that I was in an ailing state. A month of high fever and body pain! Every doctor I went to told me that I had typhoid and gave me high dosage medicines. Nothing worked and my agony didn’t reduce. When my parents were deeply saddened looking at my state, a blessing in disguise occurred. I visited just one more doctor. This doctor told me that I had contracted Urinary Tract Infection and for about a month and a half I was wrongly diagnosed.

This event taught me valuable lessons. One of those lessons was that it is crucial to first identify what is truly going on before we find solutions for it. And this is true for most aspects of life including our emotions as well. For the longest time in my life, I confused feeling hurt with feeling angry. When I was hurting from inside and needed empathy and connection from people around me, I used to react in unhealthy ways that eventually pushed people away from me.

And the reason I couldn’t express I was feeling hurt was because my emotional vocabulary was limited to just ‘Mad’, ‘Sad’ and ‘Glad’. And just like hazardous consequences occur when you are being wrongly diagnosed in case of physical diseases, similar repercussions can be invited when we try to mask all our emotions under obvious terms like ‘angry’, ‘stressed’ and ‘happy’. Labelling our emotions distinctly gives us the power to accept our emotions for what they truly are and manage them accordingly.

Thankfully, I joined My Emotions Matter right on time. This is where I learned the skills to identify different emotions and express them positively – what we call ‘Emotional Literacy’.

Emotional Literacy, or the ability to identify, understand, label, and express emotions positively is one of the foundational skills of Emotional Intelligence.

As I have slowly started implementing the skills of emotional literacy, I am getting a lot of compliments on how I have become a calmer person now! These compliments are good to listen to. However, if someone were to ask me how emotional literacy has truly benefited me, I would say by helping me love myself.

Emotional literacy has helped me become closer to who I truly am and what I want in my life. It has taught me that all our emotions have underlying messages. When we are equipped with the tools of emotional literacy, we can learn to unravel the hidden messages beneath our emotions. These messages can provide us with valuable information about ourselves.

Now, a question that may arise is what kind of hidden messages do our emotions provide?  The answer to that is - every emotion that we feel is connected to our needs. When we experience a pleasant emotion, it is because our needs have been met. Conversely, when we experience an unpleasant emotion, it’s a cry for us to get our needs fulfilled.

For instance, I feel disgusted when someone raises their voice in an argument. Now, I delved deeper and asked myself why I feel disgusted when that happens. Slowly, I realized that when someone raises their voice when talking to me, my need for protection is not met. I sense potential harm when someone around me raises their voice and this triggers me. This was a moment of epiphany for me and this information that I have about myself has helped me tons. Every time I make new friends, I tell them about this so they try to remain mindful of not raising their voice when talking to me.

On the other hand, I feel joyful when I spend time with my mother. It is because my need for connection and affection is met.

Simply stated, pleasant emotions indicate that things around us are happening to our liking and unpleasant emotions indicate that things around us are not happening to our liking.

Now you may ask - is it possible for things to always go as we like them to? And if things don’t go as we want them to, how justified is it to feel unpleasant emotions? Some people might also consider it a sign of immaturity to feel unpleasant emotions.

From my childhood days, a constant message I received from people around me was that ‘You shouldn’t feel angry.’ Whenever I reacted in anger, people around me watched me in contempt. Slowly, I too started judging myself when I felt angry. I thought feeling angry made me a bad person. I hated myself when I felt angry. This self-hating business only pushed me away from self-love.

This was where emotional literacy also helped me. Emotional literacy gives you the space to experience difficult emotions freely. Another important concept provided by emotional literacy is that emotions are neither good nor bad, they are neutral. They can lead us to feeling pleasant or unpleasant but they themselves are neither negative nor positive, they are neutral. It is our reactions to our emotions that can potentially create harm.

Feeling angry is not a problem but reacting in damaging ways like lashing out at people or going and hitting someone out of anger is where the problem lies.  

In fact, the world would not have come this far if it was not for our anger. Think of social injustice. If it wasn’t for people feeling angry at the state of the world and wanting to do something about it, a lot of progress we see today wouldn’t exist.  

All our emotions carry important messages – it just takes the lens to look at it that way. For me, this lens was provided by emotional literacy. Emotional literacy enabled me to connect my emotions to my needs. This has empowered me to fully acknowledge all my pleasant or unpleasant feelings without judging myself for it.


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Mahima Poddar

Mahima Poddar is Research Assistant at My Emotions Matter and can be reached at [email protected]