Emotional Literacy

For many of us, growing up in a household where feelings were not talked about at all, is a relatable experience. While it is unfortunate that talking about feelings is an often overlooked life skill, the upside is that it is possible to learn this skill at any point in one’s life.

When talking with patients, I will often introduce the following analogy when it comes to developing the skill of emotional literacy:

Similar to how we all need to learn how to read and develop the skill of literacy (reading words), we all need to learn how to develop our own emotional literacy as well (interpreting our own sensations in our body).

More specifically, you can think of emotional literacy as involving the following components:

  1. Developing a vocabulary for describing and labeling one’s own internal, physical, bodily sensations; ex. “When I feel ___[insert the emotion]___, I notice ___[describe the sensation]___ in my body.”
  2. The ability to utilize a shared language in communicating one’s experience with another; ex. “I feel ___[insert the emotion]___.”
  3. The capacity to sit with one’s own emotions and recognize when feelings related to one’s past are triggered in the present
  4. The ability to recognize what you are feeling and what you may need to support yourself through it; ex. “I feel overwhelmed and I need to take a break.”
  5. Recognizing that it is possible to experience multiple feelings simultaneously and that feelings can often be layered; ex. underneath palpable feelings of anger, more tender feelings of shame, etc. can exist

Regarding item 3 above, this is where feeling triggered is not a bad thing as it is an invitation into awareness about unprocessed emotions I may be carrying with me from my past. It doesn’t feel good in the moment, however as I develop the capacity with support from others to gradually explore these emotions there will come an opportunity for emotional release and liberation.

Emotions vs Feelings

As a quick aside, these two words are often used interchangeably, though they represent two different phenomena. Simply put, emotions are the raw, physical sensations that we experience in our body. Whereas feelings are the mental interpretation that we make of those raw, physical sensations we experience in our body. As an example, someone may feel a “pit in their stomach” type of sensation that corresponds to the emotion of fear and when they make a mental interpretation of this sensation, they may describe it as feeling anxious, scared, etc.


As with cultivating any skill, the skill of emotional literacy requires practice. Whether through journaling, in conversation with a therapist, or with a supportive person in your life, it is possible to practice these skills. It might not always feel easy or natural at first, though with continued attention and effort, it is possible for these skills to become more intuitive for you and the added bonus is you will become much more connected to your sense of self and develop a more intimate relationship with your self as well.

For an excellent book recommendation that is the closest thing to a step-by-step manual on becoming more aware of your emotions and being able to identify, talk about, and process your feelings, The Courage to Feel by Andrew Seubert is a must read.

For those looking for additional inspiration to round out their vocabulary of feelings words, click here.