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Definition of Emotional Literacy

There are various definitions of emotional literacy, but perhaps the simplest, most precise and most practical is this:

The ability to express feelings with specific feeling words, in 3 word sentences. (S. Hein, 1996)

For example, "I feel rejected."

This seems to be the most clear and direct way to identify your feelings. One practical and important benefit to doing this is that it helps you and others know what you need whenever there is some painful or uncomfortable feeling. In the case where a person feels rejected, for instance, it is an indication there is a need for acceptance. Similarly, when we feel hungry there is a need for food and when we feel thirsty we need water to satisfy our natural human need.

Developing Your Emotional Literacy

The purpose for developing our emotional literacy is to precisely identify and communicate our feelings. When we do this we are helping nature fulfill its design for our feelings. We must know how we feel in order to be able to fill our emotional needs. And we must communicate our feelings in order to get the emotional support and understanding we need from others, as well as to show our emotional support and understanding to them.

Also, one of the first steps to developing our emotional intelligence is to improve our emotional literacy. In other words, to improve our ability to identify our feelings by their specific names - and the more specific we can be, the better. Though the term emotional literacy is not used in the Mayer Salovey model of emotional intelligence, they do say that the first branch of emotional intelligence is ...the capacity to perceive and to express feelings. They then add that Emotional intelligence cannot begin without the first branch..." 1 Mayer and Salovey have also written that the "ability to label emotions" is part of the third branch of their model (Emotional understanding) 2

In the English language we have thousands of words which describe and identify our emotions, we just don't use many of them. (I have been compiling a list of such words since 1995 and the list is now over 3,000 words. Here is part of that feeling words list.)

There are a lot of reasons we don't make much use of this rich vocabulary which is available to us. One is that we just aren't taught to speak using feeling words. Other reasons are on this list of "Why it is hard to talk about feelings" (1) I have found, though, that many people can identify their feelings quite well when given a little help.

If you are interested in working on your emotional literacy, the first step is to start using simple, three word sentences such as these:

I feel sad. I feel motivated. I feel offended. I feel appreciated. I feel hurt. I feel disrespected.

This may feel strange at first, since not many people do this. But it gets easier with time, and as you find other people who you can share your true feelings with. (See also emotional honesty)

In my experience, sometimes just by naming a feeling, we begin to actually feel the feeling. It seems that by naming the feeling we help our mind access the emotional part of the brain where feelings are stored. This step of identifying the feeling by name is, I believe, essential to a high development of one's innate emotional processing abilities. I also believe that most of the literature on EQ and EI fails to acknowledge the importance of this and of the importance of having a rich emotional vocabulary.

What Is and Isn't Emotional Literacy
Examples of Emotional Literacy Examples of What is NOT Emotional Literacy
I feel....
I feel like ....

I feel that...

I feel like you .... (This is a "you message" in disguise. See below)


See also "Making Predictions vs. Expressing Feelings"

I messages vs You Messages

When we talk about our feelings using three word sentences we are sending what have been called "I messages". On the other hand when we say things like "You make me so jealous" we are sending a "you message". These "you messages" typically put the other person on the defensive, which hurts communication and relationships rather than helping.

Note that when we say something similar to "I feel like you..." we are sending a "you message" in disguise as an "I message"!

A few basic feeling words


Safe, Secure
Peaceful, Relaxed
Competent, Capable
Worthy, Deserving
Excited, Energetic


Resentful, Bitter
Unloved, Hated
Unlovable, Undesirable
Angry, Sad, Hurt
Unaware, Confused
Unsatisfied, Frustrated
Unsupported, Squelched, Thwarted, Obstructed
Pessimistic, Hopeless
Disrespected, Insulted, Mocked
Afraid, Insecure
Tense, Frustrated
Bored, Lethargic, Unmotivated
Trapped, Controlled, Forced, Obligated
Dependent, Needy
Nervous, Worried, Scared
Incompetent, Inadequate, Dumb, Stupid
Guilty, Embarrassed, Ashamed
Unworthy, Undeserving, Inadequate

Depressed, Numb, Frozen
Empty, Needy
Disconnected, Isolated, Lonely

See also, "Common Negative Feelings"

Expressing the Intensity Of The Feeling

Some feeling words not only express a feeling, but 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.

Here are a few ways to verbally express the intensity of a feeling

1. Weighting the feeling with a modifier

I feel a little hurt. I feel extremely hurt.

2. Choosing a specific word on the continuum of that emotion

I feel: annoyed... angry ... incensed...ballistic.

3. Making use of a 0 to 10 scale

I feel hurt 2 out of 10.

Of the three methods, the 0 to 10 scale is the one I like the best, especially if someone else is really interested in my feelings.


Miscommunicating Our Feelings

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 impede communication, distort reality, fight evolutionary intelligence and dishonor nature.

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" even though she is obviously irritated, worried, or stressed. Sometimes we intentionally or unintentionally substitute one feeling for another. For example, if I say "I hope it doesn't rain," we might actually be feeling afraid that it will!

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:

I feel mortified. I feel devastated. I feel crushed. I feel decimated. I felt run over by a truck.

Minimization - Many people minimize their feelings, particularly when they are upset, worried or depressed. They use expressions such as:

I'm fine. I'll be alright. I'm okay, don't worry about me. There is nothing wrong. I said I was fine.

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.

I feel like: ... an idiot ... a baby ... a failure

We typically use lots of expressions which put ourselves down. These negative labels certainly don't help 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 you are crazy. I feel like it was wrong. I feel like he is going to win.

I recall a conversation where I asked someone how she felt about something and she said, "I feel like you shouldn't have done that." At another point when I asked about her feelings, she said "I don't want to get into all of that." Such a lack of emotional literacy and emotional honesty makes it difficult to have a relationship, even a friendship or a working relationship.

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.

I feel like: ... strangling him ... shooting him ... wringing his neck ... telling her off ... teaching him a lesson ... filing for divorce ... dumping him ... quitting ... giving up ... jumping off of a cliff

In other words, people who use such expressions feel like a behavior, an action, an act. Thus, they are not in touch with their feelings. They may be acting out their lives as they think others would rather than acting as unique individuals. Or they simply imagine themselves taking action rather than actually using their emotions to motivate them to take appropriate action.


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 the eyes are the windows to the soul 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.

Our faces often express what we are not saying verbally. Our lips may tremble when we are afraid. Our forehead wrinkles when we are concerned or confused. And when people tap their fingers or feet they are usually feeling impatient.

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.

Making Predictions vs. Expressing Feelings
You are going to fall. vs. I am afraid you are going to fall.

We are going to miss the train. vs I am afraid we are going to miss the train.

I believe it is important to express feelings instead of making predictions like this. For more on this idea, especially as it relates to parenting, see this file.


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.



Practical Value of Communicating with Feeling Words

(Under construction)

Feeling Mocked

On two occasions I realized I was being mocked. In both cases I expressed my feeling directly and it proved very helpful to me.

In one situation I told my brother I felt mocked. It took me till I was approximately 37 years old to realize that he had mocked me all of my life. Once I realized it and named the feeling and confronted him with it, it freed me to stop defending myself. It also helped me realize that this was one of the ways my self-esteem was damaged when I was young. And it helped me decided not to spend more time with that brother.

On another occasion I was attending an open lecture to approximately ten students by a university professor on socialism and communism. (At a university in Florida for especially high IQ undergraduates) I was asking a lot of questions he did not want to answer. Except for me, all the others in the room were sympathetic to his beliefs. At one point one of the students mocked a question of mine as a way of defending the professor. The other students were laughing at my expense. I said firmly, "I feel mocked and I would like to have my question answered." This quieted the room and the professor answered my question. From that point on, because I had asserted myself in a clear and direct way, I felt more self-respect and more respect from the students who were otherwise starting to join in on their attacks on me. That was several years ago. I still feel the tension in that room, yet I feel proud that I handled it in the way I did. These students had never seen me before, by the way, since I was visiting their campus and just happened to stop in for the lecture.

Feeling Attacked, Undermined

I can think of two times when I was giving a talk and someone in the audience was clearly feeling skeptical. Instead of saying they felt skeptical though, on both occasions the person was asking me questions to try to lower my credibility. In one case I said, I will answer your question, but first I will ask you to tell me how you are feeling. This immediately helped the audience focus on the person asking the question, thereby taking the pressure off of me. It also helped the audience see that the person was feeling a little hostile, which helped the audience feel more empathy for me. And it helped me realize that this particular person was the one with the problem, so to speak. This helped me feel less defensive, more in control, and more secure. I even felt some compassion for him as he tried to explain how he was feeling and why.

In the other case, I said to the person, "It sounds like you are feeling a little skeptical, is that fair to say?" He answered that yes, it was fair to say. Just correctly identifying his feeling helped him feel more relaxed, something which I could see by his facial expression and body language. I told him I could understand that he would have reason to feel skeptical and I asked him to just try to have an open mind while. He agreed to this and ended up being a helpful participant for the remainder of the talk.


See also

The true story "I feel scared" about a daughter and her father who was driving dangerously.

The story from my relationship with a former partner in South America Talking about feelings



The value of naming feelings

The examples above show that there is some psychological power in naming what is happening. When one person is attacking another with words and the victim does not really know what is going on, the attacker has even more psychological power. But as soon as the victim correctly identifies what is happening, the attacker loses some psychological advantage and the victim somehow feels more secure. This is evidently because the mind has a need to know what is happening, especially when there is danger. Once the danger is identified, it can be addressed. Also, there is a fear of the unknown which is removed when the feelings are named. Naming the other person's feeling seems to have a disarming or a de-masking value. Naming a feeling can be used as a form of counter-attack, or it can be used as a form of understanding and agreement. It all depends on how the technique is used. The ability to identify and name feelings is a form of power, and like all power it can be used to hurt or help.












1. Emotional Intelligence as Zeitgeist, as Personality, and as a Mental Ability, p. 109, Mayer, Salovey and Caruso, Chapter in Handbook of Emotional Intelligence, Bar-On, Parker (Eds.) 2000

2. What is Emotional Intelligence, by John Mayer and Peter Salovey. Chapter 1, pp. 10,11 in Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence: Educational Implications, by Peter Salovey and David Sluyter. 1997.





1 - See also a list of other things we aren't taught in schools