Emotional illiteracy and its effect on family life

Emotional illiteracy

Literacy is often associated with the ability to read and write, and many people assume that those who have an education are literate. However, even with the highest educational qualifications or the most prestigious education, there is one aspect of life that is not taught in schools: emotional literacy.

The term “emotional literacy” was first used by psychotherapist Claude Steiner in 1997, where he defined emotional literacy to be made out of three components: the ability to understand one’s emotions, the ability to listen to others and empathize with their emotions, and the ability to express emotions productively. Those who are emotionally literate are able to understand what they are feeling and why, and they are able to take control of their emotions to enhance their quality of life and that of others around them. On the other hand, those who are emotionally illiterate tend to let their emotions control them. They may react impulsively when they are feeling negative emotions and tend not to be concerned about the emotions of others they are interacting with. Emotionally illiterate people are more likely to be swayed by emotions rather than reason, and may find it difficult to leave the past behind them usually due to negative feelings that are harbored in their minds.

Conventional literacy may be clearly defined, but emotional literacy is a more complex matter for which there are no paper qualifications or school subjects. Emotional literacy itself exists more on a continuum rather than a definite yes or no. Some people may be completely emotionally literate, others partly so, and yet others not at all. Since it is not so clear cut to say whether a person is emotionally literate or not, the numbers on how many are emotionally literate are approximations at best. It is often thought that those with a better education are more likely to be emotionally literate because their teachers would probably have had a better understanding of psychological matters. However, this is not necessarily the case, and one can be extremely well studied in academics but a beginner in emotional literacy.

Like other forms of literacy, emotional literacy is learned over time through life experiences. Everyone started life as an emotionally illiterate infant. At a few years of age, we only know how to react to our emotions. If we are feeling sadness or anger, we may sob or throw a tantrum; if we are feeling fearful, we may cower or cry; and if we are feeling happy, we smile and cheer. As we get older, we are introduced to more complex emotions that grown-ups around us express, such as guilt, envy, pity, compassion, love, grief and more. We may then try to emulate the emotions we observe in other people.

It is in these tender years that special attention needs to be paid to a child’s emotional wellbeing. Usually, one’s parents, caretakers and teachers play an important part in emotional validation. If a child is encouraged to reflect on their emotions and reassured that it is perfectly fine to feel the way they do, then they will be more likely to grow up with an understanding of their emotional health and how to better manage their feelings. On the other hand, if a child is judged, scolded or ignored and discouraged from expressing their feelings, they may come to believe that emotions are bad and should be repressed. This leads to failure to recognize and manage one’s emotions effectively. As such, it is probable that the child will continue to be emotionally illiterate in adulthood.

Just as with reading, writing and languages, there is a prime time for one to learn to manage their emotions, usually beginning from early childhood and spanning to adolescence. However, it is still possible for older people to learn emotional literacy as long as they recognize the need for it. The first step to gaining emotional literacy is to recognize and label our own emotions. Whenever we are feeling happiness, sadness, anger, disgust or fear, we should be able to address these emotions and consider what triggered them. Each emotion is caused by an event in context combined with our perceived view. For example, consider an event where a black child plays with a toy gun. The event has no emotional connotation by itself – it is how we individually perceive it that affects what emotion we experience. To someone who does not associate black people with violence, they may feel joy and amusement at watching a child have fun. In contrast, a person who perceives black people as a threat may feel fear. Each emotion then provokes a range of different responses. We could choose to laugh or scold the child, for instance. If we are emotionally literate, we may pause at this point and try to understand the consequences of each response, then choosing the one with the most desirable outcome. However, those with a weaker grasp on their emotions do not process these responses carefully and may react poorly on impulse.

Unfortunately, emotional illiteracy often spans across generations in some families. If the parents grew up believing that their emotions are unwanted feelings, they may be more likely to punish or ignore their children for outwardly displaying negative emotions, such as crying. Thus, the children would grow up learning that emotions should be hidden and never come to terms with their feelings, leading to the next generation of emotional illiteracy – and the cycle goes on.

Emotional illiteracy can be doubly dangerous to home life, when the adults at home fall prey to their emotions as they do not know how to keep their feelings in check. In such households, children are often witness to a parent or elder sibling acting on their emotions, such as breaking things in a fit of rage or arguing with others. Direct consequences of these actions involve harm to others in the household, but these actions could also lead to further complications in relationships, such as estrangement, disownment or divorce, all of which can affect a young child negatively. Although this often happens with negative emotions, positive emotions can be just as destructive when a person acts on their feelings impulsively. For instance, someone could end up gloating when they feel pride in a job well done, instead of being a good sport and graciously accepting their success. If a child is exposed to responses born of emotional illiteracy, whether the emotion was positive or negative, they could end up thinking that it is normal for people to react in this manner.

Additionally, emotional illiteracy makes for poor interpersonal relationships with others. If a person is unable to accept their own emotions, they would probably not be able to accept the emotions of others, including that of their family and friends. This could result in unhealthy relationships where both parties keep their feelings bottled up. Alternatively, both could be too reactive and become easily provoked. The emotionally unstable are also more likely to become overwhelmed by their emotions and collapse when faced with obstacles and setbacks in the relationship. Without a clear understanding of each party’s emotions, neither would be able to learn to give and take, resulting in a toxic relationship. It is normal for disagreements to happen between any two people, but with the right knowledge and self-awareness, emotions can be made into helpful enhancements to our daily lives instead of siphoning our energy and leaving us depleted.