Emotional Literacy

Definition of Emotional Literacy

Emotional Literacy is defined as:

The ability to express feelings with specific feeling words, in 3 word sentences.

For example, "I feel rejected."

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.

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.

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.


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"


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, 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



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"!


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.


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.

As expected, research suggests that those with high innate emotional intelligence 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.


It is usually more helpful to express feelings rather than making predictions.




Brain research indicates expressing our feelings with words helps reduce emotional pain and distress

In an article titled "Talking the pain away," Lea Winerman reports the findings of a study conducted by Matthew Lieberman at UCLA. Lieberman and his colleague used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of participants as they played a computer game which caused the player to feel some social rejection. The researchers found that this social rejection activated an area of the brain that also lights up in response to physical pain—the anterior cingulate cortex.

They also found that people who had relatively less activity in that area—and who reported feeling relatively less distress—had more activity in the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex. That is the area of the brain associated with verbalizing thoughts and language production. So, according to Lieberman, this suggests that putting feelings into words may help someone feel better.

In another study, Lieberman and his colleagues asked 30 participants to view pictures of angry, scared or happy-looking faces. Again using fMRI, the researchers found that when the participants labeled the faces’ emotions using words, they showed less activity in the amygdala—an area of the brain associated with emotional distress. At the same time, they showed more activity in the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex—the same language-related area that showed up in their previous study about social rejection.

The results of the second study give more evidence that verbalizing an emotion, or in other words, identifying and labeling feelings, may help us feel better when we feel emotional pain.

Source http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct06/talking.html




Why It Can Be Hard to Talk About Feelings

Once a friend of mine was telling me about a time she tried to talk to her romantic partner about feelings. She tried to use the ideas suggested on this site, such as talking about respect using the 0-10 scale. For example, she asked her partner how much he felt respected by her from 0-10. The discussion did not go as easily as she hoped. On the train ride home she made a list of why she thought it was hard for some people to have such a discussion. We later expanded her ideas and came up with this list.


  • Talking about feelings directly is an unfamiliar and unknown field
  • It is strange to have someone ask such personal questions
  • People are not used to thinking about how much they feel something, in other words to what intensity
  • They are especially not used to putting a number on their feelings
  • Putting a specific number on their feelings may be even more frightening than giving a relatively honest, but vague answer when asked how they feel about something
  • Something like this has never been taught to them
  • They are embarrassed or ashamed, afraid, to talk about feelings
  • It makes one feel too vulnerable
  • Just the question frightens them because it is so personal
  • They are afraid of exposing themselves, of being "naked"
  • They don't know if they should be honest or what the consequences might be if they are honest
  • They are afraid to hurt someone with their answers
  • We are taught that feelings are bad or weak or are too personal to talk about to others
  • They are afraid to ask how someone else feels because they might hear something they don't want to hear
  • They are especially afraid to ask how much someone feels something from 0-10 because they are afraid to hear a number which they won't want to hear
  • It takes a lot of energy to think about such things when one is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, afraid
  • The definitions of the words can vary from one person to another
  • The definitions of the feeling words and the ways feelings are expressed can vary from one culture to another

Thank you to Stephanie Kohler for her help with this list.


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 are 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.  



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.