We often find ourselves talking about ‘emotional literacy‘ and ‘emotional intelligence‘, and attempting to define these two concepts in order to carry on a useful dialogue about them. To this end we’re summarising in this particular post what Susie Orbach writes in her introduction to her excellent book ‘Towards Emotional Literacy’. [1999, Virago]
It’s interesting that throughout this book there’s no mention of ’emotional intelligence’, which is a concept that’s widely spoken about elsewhere. 3Di has its own take on emotional intelligence, which we’ll blog about later this week. We’ll also comment on Daniel Goleman’s seminal book entitled “Emotional Intelligence”, and we’ll offer a critique of Goleman’s usage of that concept.
In our view this issue is far from a quarrel over semantics. Emotional literacy needs to be developed in homes and in schools (and if necessary in workplaces), as does emotional intelligence. Through becoming emotionally literate, children and young people (and if necessary adults) learn the language of feelings and emotions and learn to register and recognise such inner states. Through interactions with parents, teachers and their peers they learn to practice emotional intelligence, which is the positive management of destructive (or potentially destructive) emotions.
The idea of emotional literacy is one that is gaining currency. The idea of emotional literacy has seeped into our consciousness because it reflects a need we have to better understand the emotional dimensions of our lives.
To what extent do our emotional lives affect what it is possible for us to countenance and hence think about?
Emotional literacy, in its simplest definition, means the capacity to register our emotional responses to the situations we are in and to acknowledge those responses to ourselves so that we recognise the ways in which they influence our thoughts and our actions.
It is not about the elevation of emotional responses above all others, nor about the broadcasting of our emotions to those around us. Emotional literacy is the attempt to take responsibility for understanding our personal emotions.
It is a non-trivial undertaking. Emotions look like one thing on the surface and another at the depths. The three Rs of registering, recognising and querying our immediate emotional responses allow us to note and reflect on our emotional reactions.
At first we register that something has touched us in one way or another. We can then go on to name the emotional response. Thirdly, we can see whether what we feel constitutes the whole of what we are feeling, or whether more complex emotional responses are embedded within it.
Emotions may be more complicated than they appear on the surface. What seems at first glance to be anger may turn out to hide a more subtle feeling . . . such as disappointment. What appears to be righteous indignation may conceal troubling feelings involving a lack of self-worth. Unpleasant or even violent feelings aroused in us by others may turn out to be the projection of personal feelings which we don’t know how to accept in ourselves. In applying the three Rs of emotional literacy we enhance our understanding. We are then in a position to rein back aspects of ourselves which we have foisted on others.
Emotions unregistered, unrecognised and unqueried – emotional illiteracy – are costly. In the search to soothe or to find what’s missing, the individual encounters a range of purported solutions which can be painful and damaging. Food, drugs, violence, fundamentalist religion or fundamentalist politics are at one extreme, while lives lived with little reflection and confidence show the corrosive effects of not understanding much about one’s subjective experience.
But emotional illiteracy doesn’t just affect the individual, sad as that is; it also inhibits or can inhibit the experience of those around them. At a social level whether at work, in the classroom or in public spaces, the impact of individuals unable to manage their emotional states reverberates.
Like reading, writing and arithmetic, emotional literacy is a tool and a potential source of deep creativity.
We very much welcome feedback and comments, however brief, on the ideas contained within this post. We recognise that these are complex and sometimes controversial subjects, and as such consensus on how we define them and speak about them is very difficult to achieve. We very much respect those who hold different views to ours, and we hope that our thoughts will likewise be welcomed into this important debate.
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