Emotional Illiteracy: Emotions you don't control control you

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Robert Maurer
@robertmaurer
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Emotional illiteracy is the evil of our age. The figures show it.

There are over 450 million people in the world afflicted with various mental disorders.

About one million people commit suicide every year.

For every 100 people, 20 suffer from depression.

Disorders such as anorexia and addictions appear earlier and earlier.

The inability to understand our emotions and express them assertively could be at the root of this growing psychological malaise. We must be aware that technological development and access to education and information do not make us happier, free or mentally balanced because we have an outstanding problem that is not taught in schools: emotional learning.



What is emotional illiteracy?

Emotional illiteracy is the inability to understand, catalog and manage our emotions and, therefore, understand and accept the emotions of others. It is the disconnection with emotions and sensations, which not only prevents us from specifying what we feel, but also limits our range of action, turning us into reactive and impulsive people who remain imprisoned in their emotions.

This term is inextricably linked to emotional literacy, a concept proposed by psychotherapist Claude Steiner in the 70s and refers to the ability to understand emotions, listen to others and empathize with their emotional states, as well as express emotions in productive way.

An emotionally educated person will be able to manage their emotions to empower and motivate themselves, improve the quality of their life and their interpersonal relationships. A person who is a victim of emotional illiteracy, on the other hand, will be the victim of his own emotions, which are likely to cause him more than one problem in his life, on a personal or interpersonal level.


While the emotionally educated person uses the emotions and feelings in his favor, the emotional illiterate falls victim to his or her networks and, therefore, can only see the darker or more negative aspect of the emotions.


Symptoms of emotional illiteracy

- Not having emotional granularity; that is, not being able to accurately identify the emotions or feelings one feels

- Not being able to measure the range of words, so you can hurt others for lack of tact

- React impulsively, especially when prey to emotions such as anger, hatred, resentment or fear

- Do not take into account the emotions of the people with whom you relate

- Do not reflect on your emotional states to find the cause

- Make decisions letting yourself be carried away only by emotions, without analyzing the consequences of your actions

- Extreme susceptibility to life events, so many things affect more than they should, disproportionately

- Collapse easily in front of obstacles and immediately think you are worthless

- Feeling a victim of one's emotions, which take control of life and lead to decisions that will later be regretted

- Not being able to turn the page and move forward, staying connected to past events through emotions such as guilt and anguish

The origin of emotional illiteracy

When we are little, we are all emotionally illiterate. Our emotional repertoire is very limited. Babies experience happiness, distress and disgust from birth and are able to express those emotions through their facial expressions and body posture. As they grow up, their emotional world expands.


Between 2 and 6 months they can already experience anger, sadness, surprise and fear. Around 4 months they are able to distinguish the different emotional expressions in the people around them and at 6 months they imitate the emotions they see in others.

However, parents or caregivers play an essential role in this emotional literacy process. Children need emotional validation, a process by which they seek radical acceptance of the emotional experience in other people important to them. If this validation process happens correctly, the child learns to identify and manage their emotions.


If, on the other hand, a process of emotional invalidation occurs, in which the child's emotional experiences are rejected, ignored or continually judged, he will assume that the emotions are enemies and must repress or hide them. As a result, he will not have the opportunity to familiarize himself with them by learning to manage them assertively.

For this reason, emotional illiteracy usually occurs in those families where emotions are repressed and classified as negative and undesirable. The perpetrators are adults who, as children, did not have the opportunity to learn to manage their emotional states and did not receive the necessary tools for emotional self-control to face their feelings assertively.

The 6 keys to emotional literacy

Just as there is an optimal time to learn to read and write, there is also an ideal time to learn how to manage emotions assertively. They are the early stages of life: childhood and adolescence, although that doesn't mean we can't start emotional learning in later stages. In fact, by developing these six spheres of your inner life you can enrich your emotional sphere:


  1. Emotional self-awareness. It is about knowing your feelings, labeling your emotions knowing that sadness is not the same as apathy or depression and anxiety is not the same as overwhelm or worry. This ability implies not only recognizing emotions but also being able to explain their origin, look for their cause to understand them and recognize their triggers.
  1. Emotional self-control. It's about learning to manage emotions assertively, so they don't harm us or others. To do this, we must obtain the psychological tools that allow us to control anger, irritability and free ourselves from stress ... It is not about repressing, denying or hiding those emotions, but channeling them to make them play their role in the best possible way.
  1. Empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the condition of another person from his point of view, it involves putting yourself in his shoes and feeling what he is feeling. It means participating emotionally in someone's reality, making their emotional world our own. It is not just about understanding his reasons, but about perceiving his emotions and accepting them, validating them emotionally.
  1. Emotional resilience. Resilience is the ability to emerge strengthened from adversity, face and take advantage of bad times without collapsing. Emotional literacy involves the ability to heal emotional wounds, turn the page, and move on, so that the past doesn't become a burden that binds us to states like depression or anxiety.
  1. Emotional interactivity. It is the ability to manage emotions in a positive way, so as to bring out the best version of people. An emotionally capable person will know how to mediate interpersonal conflicts and offer emotional support when needed.
  1. Self-motivation. It refers to the ability to set motivating goals on one's path and generate positive emotions that facilitate the achievement of the latter, so as not to throw in the towel or become disheartened in the face of obstacles.

“Emotional literacy requires that people understand their own emotional states and those of others; learning to manage one's emotions and empathize [...] Emotional literacy is both an individual development process and a collective activity, it is both self-development and group building, so that the feelings of emotional well-being can grow together with those of others, and not at their expense. Emotional literacy involves making connections between people and working with their differences and similarities, to manage ambiguity and contradiction. It is a dynamic process through which the person develops emotionally and involves culture and empowerment, ”wrote psychologist Brian Matthews.


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