“I think that’s the end of our time together.” She said peering over her nose at me as she closed her notebook. I was 19. In the third session with my therapist. “Is she firing me?” I thought, incredulous. We had not even scratched the surface.
“Why?” I asked. “Because you won’t open up to me. You haven’t told me anything. You’re not willing to reveal yourself to me.”
She was right. I wanted her to dig. To ask the right questions to unbound my heart and words. I wanted her to give voice to the frozen emotions in my throat. I wanted her to read my mind and my body and tell me what was going on. I didn’t want to have to tell her. She couldn’t bring me to speak or open up. I didn’t know how to.
I didn’t know. I had zero emotional literacy. I didn’t know how to drop my guard. How to be vulnerable and share. I lacked the emotional fluency and the connection to my inner world to express what I had repressed my entire life because I had learned it was not safe to do so. I needed to go to therapy to go to therapy.
I grew up in a dysfunctional home environment with a troubling parent-child dynamic. My emotional needs were not met, my feelings were dismissed, and I took on adult levels of maturity to “compensate” for my parents’ behaviour. While I cultivated strengths such as self-reliance and independence along the way I had no ability or familiarity with holding space for, acknowledging and articulating my emotions or feelings.
A few years later, when I started studying psychology, I became self-aware of how numb I was. How I couldn’t access how I was feeling moment-to-moment the way that others could. I wanted to change.
How I learned emotional fluency.
1. Learn the language of my body. I had to teach my nervous system that it is safe to feel by constantly checking in with my body and self-soothing if things felt “off”. To begin with the only emotions I could comprehend were “happy” and “sad”. So “off” could be a myriad of things. But I noticed subtle shifts would occur in my body in response to life. Consistent patterns of bodily sensations are associated with each of the six basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, surprise and sadness. Emotional feelings are associated with discrete yet partially overlapping bodily sensations: decreased limb sensations with sadness, increased sensations in the upper limbs with anger, sensations around the throat and the digestive system with disgust, sensations in the chest with surprise and fear, and enhanced sensations all over the body with happiness.
2. Name the emotions. After a while, I could start to name what feeling meant what emotion. So I would say to myself “I feel anger.” “I feel sad.” “I feel disappointed.” “I feel joyful.” “I feel hopeful.” and so on. Being emotionally literate is multifaceted. One part is to be able to name emotions really specifically: to differentiate between similar emotions, like feeling sad versus overwhelmed. And beyond that, it’s super helpful to know the profile of each emotion: to be able to define it and understand its message. Sadness is a feeling of loss of something I care about, and it helps clarify what’s important to me.
3. Observe without trying to fix, change or judge what I am feeling. A big part of healing and learning emotional literacy was simply holding space for my feelings as they arose. At first, they overflowed, tumbling out of me like a rushing waterfall but once all the repressed emotions had been held and acknowledged they trickled down to simple responses to the present moment. The way I did that is to name my emotion(s), and then simply let that be for a few seconds. I would let myself feel what I was feeling: be frustrated, angry, or sad. We have been socialized to think of some emotions as bad, and because of that, we tend to try to push them away as soon as we feel them. We too often get stuck in an antagonistic relationship with our emotions, thinking of them as bad and something that we should suppress. But at the end of the day, emotions, even challenging ones like anger, are data. They exist to help us.
4. Use my emotions as valuable information. Emotions are neurohormones that we release as a response to our perceptions about the world. They focus our attention and motivate us toward a specific course of action. What emotions are here to do is give us cues on how to live in an authentic, integral and intuitive way. Amongst many other things, they teach us where our boundaries are, what is important to us and who we feel trust and love for.
I hope that no one is ever sent away because of their lack of emotional literacy again. This is why this topic forms an important part of The Mentor Training program that starts in April. I will teach you the skills that I wish my first therapist had access to giving me when I was so desperate but unable to voice my feelings and emotions. Click here to learn more and join The Level 1 & 2 Mentor Training.
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