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Chapter Three -- Emotional Literacy
Finding the right words is a big step in developing emotional intelligence.
The purpose for developing our emotional literacy is to precisely identify and communicate our feelings. A good working vocabulary is essential to this end. Also, we can't be too intelligent about any subject if we don't have the words to describe, discuss and explain it. In this chapter, therefore, we will look at some basic feeling words and some examples of how to communicate our feelings. We will also look at how we often miscommunicate our feelings, either intentionally or unintentionally.
I suggest you learn emotional literacy the same way you learned to speak: by starting with simple sentences. For example, think about your feelings and try to describe them with three word sentences like these:
Although this might appear very simple in theory, I have found that in practice it is actually very difficult for many of us. I suspect this is partly because there are so few role models of people who do it and partly because in can be a bit risky to express our true feelings. One of the risks, for example, is that we will could have our feelings invalidated in one way or another.
Many, if not most of us, simply have not been taught to express our feelings directly. We never received any formal instruction on expressing our feelings or even identifying them. We were taught the names of countries and capitals, plants and trees, rivers and rocks, presidents and philosophers, chemicals and triangles, but we were never taught the names of our feelings.
In other words, we were taught to think and memorize, not to feel. That's why we talk about our thoughts, and the events or people which trigger the feelings, but not the feelings themselves. When asked how we feel, we often respond by saying what we think rather than how we feel.
The value of simple three word sentences can not be over-stated. A straightforward, three word sentence stating how we feel opens the door to great insight into our personalities, including our needs, our fears, our beliefs, and our desires. Such statements really get to the heart of our personality. This is exactly why we don't often hear honest expressions of feelings in our quick-to-criticize society. When we share our true feelings, we make ourselves vulnerable. Though we may choose who we share our feelings with, it is still important to have the ability to express our feelings, even if only for our own self-knowledge.
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A story about thoughts and feelings
A Short List of Feelings
Here are some of the basic feelings to get you started. A much more complete list of over 2,000 feeling words is available here.
Feeling words not only express a feeling, but they also express the intensity of the feeling. By expressing intensity, they communicate the degree to which our needs are being met and our values and beliefs are being upheld. Accurately capturing the intensity of an emotion is critical to judging the message our feelings are sending. If we either exaggerate or minimize the feeling, we are distorting reality and undermining the effectiveness of our communication. The two most common ways to verbally express the intensity of a feeling are:
1. Weighting the feeling with a modifier. For example:
2. Choosing a specific word on the
continuum of that emotion.
I feel: disturbed... angry ... incensed.
Here are some continuums
to help you see the range of emotions within various
groups. (As you can see,sometimes you can have too much
of a good thing.)
Often, it is socially unacceptable to directly express certain emotions. We are too afraid of offending others, too afraid of appearing unhappy or unhealthy, and too afraid of social disapproval. Sadly, we live in a world where appearances matter more than reality. This seems to be especially true in the upper classes of society where conformity and etiquette are so important.
So instead of truthfully expressing our feelings clearly and directly, we express the same emotions indirectly, either through our actions or our body language. Sometimes we actually outright lie about our feelings. When we start to hide our feelings, lie about them, or tell people only what we think they want to hear, we diminish the value of communication. This reminds me of something Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language.
Let's look at some examples of how we corrupt the language of feelings.
Masking Our Real Feelings - There are many ways we mask our real feelings. Sometimes we just plain lie about them, for example when someone says she is "fine," though she is obviously is irritated, worried, or stressed. Sometimes we intentionally or unintentionally substitute one feeling for another. Consider the following:
Notice that wishing, hoping and praying are usually impassive responses to a situation. This defeats nature's purpose for emotions, which is to move us to take pro-active action in all of these situations.
Inconsistency - Often, our tone of voice or our body language contradicts the words we are saying. None of us can totally hide our true feelings, but many of us do try to disguise our voices to go along with the act. People who are especially superficial even adopt the cosmetic voices found on television in order to further conform to societal expectations, and further mask their true feelings.
Overuse - One of the ways we corrupt language is to over-use a word. Consider the word "love." We love corn on the cob, root beer, apple pie, and our mothers. Doesn't it seem there should be a different word for the way we feel about our parents as opposed to food?
Hate is another word which is tremendously overused. If someone hates traffic, hates spinach, and hates lawyers, how can they express their feelings about child abuse?
Exaggeration - When we exaggerate our feelings we are lying in order to get attention. People who need to exaggerate have had their feelings neglected for so long, they have resorted to dramatization to be noticed and cared about. Unfortunately, when they send out false signals, they alienate people and risk becoming like the boy who cried wolf. As the story goes, because he sent out too many false alarms, he was ignored when he truly needed help.
Consider these exclamations, none of which are typically true in a literal sense:
Minimization - Many people minimize their feelings, particularly when they are upset, worried or depressed. They use expressions such as:
Such people typically are either too proud, too stubborn, too scared or feel too unworthy to share their feelings. They desperately need to be connected with others, but they will not allow others to get close to them. They effectively push people away by withholding their true feelings.
Indirect Communication Because we are not skilled at directly expressing our feelings, we often use indirect communication of our emotions such as by using examples, figures of speech, and non-verbal communication. Let's look at a few of these forms of indirect communication.
I Feel Like ....
Using sentences that begin with "I feel like..." may be the most common form of communicating our feelings. The literal result is that we often feel like labels, thoughts, and behaviors, as we can see below:
I feel like (a label) - In the examples below we are labeling ourselves, and not clearly and directly expressing our feelings.
We typically employ a tremendous number of expressions which put ourselves down. These negative labels certainly don't make us feel any better about ourselves. In fact, by mentally branding us, they make it more likely we will repeat the exact kinds of actions which caused our feelings.
I feel like (a thought) - In these examples we are actually conveying more of a thought than a feeling.
I feel like (a behavior) - Here, we are expressing our feelings in the form of a behavior. Again, these are unclear and indirect. They may be graphic and entertaining, but they are usually exaggerations and distortions which don't help us focus on our true feelings.
In other words, people who use such expressions feel like a behavior, an action, an act. Thus, they are not living their own lives, they are just acting the parts they identify with. They are experiencing their feelings, not as they feel them, but as they think others would experience them. They are living vicariously, superficially... artificially.
Non-verbal Communication Studies show that up to 90 percent of our communication is non-verbal. When we communicate non-verbally our bodies are literally expressing themselves. When Shakespeare said:
he was implying the eyes are the best non-verbal indicator of our emotional and intellectual state of mind. For example, we think of those who will not look us in the eyes as untrustworthy, dishonest, afraid or insecure. We think of those who have alert, expressive eyes as intelligent, energetic, and emotional. Our eyes have the power to judge, to attract, and to frighten. Through our eyes we can show: interest, boredom, disbelief, surprise, terror, disgust, approval, and disapproval. Many parents can bring their children to tears, for example, without saying a word.
While the eyes are not the only area of expression on the body, they are certainly the subject of much well- deserved attention. Consider the many references to them:
Here are a few other expressions and descriptions concerning body language:
Research shows that those with high EQ are better at reading these non-verbal cues. This gives them valuable information, particularly from people who are not expressing themselves verbally, or whose body language is inconsistent with their words.
After we learn to find the right word for our feeling and its intensity, the next step is explaining why we feel what we feel. At this point, our analytical brain is called into action. We actually make things much easier on ourselves and others when our language is clear, direct, and precise. When our words and our non-verbal communication is consistent, we gain respect because we come across as having integrity. Clear, honest communication is not only helpful in personal relationships, but essential to a society. We are simply all better off when we all follow the old rule:
Say what you mean and mean what you say.
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