Building Emotional Literacy

“How would I write this book if I didn’t have to consider anyone else? No publisher, no ‘audience’, no marketing team?”

This was the question I asked myself this morning, .

It’s a question that dawned on me slowly over a day or two, because I’ve been feeling a bit stuck — as so many writers do — about how to write the book that is exactly, perfectly, flawlessly ‘what the market wants’.

It’s not a really exciting headspace, I have to tell you, and not how I usually approach writing.

I got a bit tangled up in because I do want this book to go to a traditional publisher, but I realised today that what makes me an appealing bet to a publisher is not that I fit a trend or have absorbed all the rules about what’s publishable.

It’s that I’m me, with my own distinct voice and interests and thoughts. And not just to publishers; that’s why any reader falls in love with a book, because the author is just being themselves, doing their own thing, and that’s powerful.

It’s that I’ve been on this long journey of getting to know myself, at the same time that so many other people have been on a long journey of getting to know themselves, and that I have been able to put that wobbly, wonderful transformation into words.

I think this comes down to emotional literacy.

It’s the ability to examine a feeling, an experience, or a thought as an observer, to be able to turn it this way and that, getting to understand where it came from, what it’s called, and what it means for you.

Without that ability we are forever locked out of the depth of our own lives. We have to learn to put ourselves into words in order to be truly understood, and that’s ultimately what we all want, right?

The year that I got divorced, I spent several months working with a therapist. She taught me two killer concepts that have forever changed how I see the world.

The first was that I have a voice and am allowed to use it (a very juicy topic for another day).

The second was that there are five core emotions, out of which every other emotion stems. These are anger, sadness, fear, joy and desire, all of which have physical signals that can get our attention when we’re not conscious of what’s going on.

This was a revelation to me. I do not say my mind is blown very often, but it was that day.

The idea that my body could tell me more about my emotions than my brain could at the time seemed wild, but as I learned to read the signs, my brain did eventually catch up.

I use this process of examining my emotions and putting words to them every day.

If I’m getting pissed at Obi on a walk because he won’t come when I call him, why is that? Well, it’s because there are people around and I feel shame at my failure.

Shame is a mixture of fear and sadness, and that’s not about Obi at all — it’s about my fear of being shunned, and the sadness I feel that I’ve not yet succeeded in training him effectively.

Knowing this, I can reset my empathy for him (and myself) and get back to a state where I might be able to move his training forward again.

If I’m suddenly hot and prickly all over when a confrontational email lands in my inbox, what does that mean?

Well, those are symptoms of anger. What about this situation might make me angry? Maybe the language they used is accusatory and makes unreasonable assumptions, and that makes me feel disrespected and reactive.

Knowing that, I can think, OK — I want to get into a calmer state of mind before I respond, and maybe it’s time to think about resetting boundaries with this person, or examining whether this is a relationship I want to continue.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of ‘if-this-then-that’ matrix incredibly helpful.

Knowledge is power, as they say, and knowing that I can get to the core of any thought or feeling, then extrapolate what that means and how I can respond — it just makes me feel incredibly free, and like I have total control of my inner world.

Putting words to your thoughts and emotions doesn’t mean that you have to say them out loud. The point is to be able to express it to yourself first, so that you can consciously, intentionally, decide what to do about it.

Sometimes the appropriate thing is to quietly adjust your own attitude, which can be very humbling and very freeing.

Of course, sometimes it’s also appropriate to externalise what you’ve discovered, which can also be very humbling and very freeing.

But both rely on you first being able to identify what’s going on, question how it got there and what it means, put it all into words and then decide what you want to do about it.

This is emotional literacy, and this is what I wish for you.