Your Birthright. And Mandate. (Thoughts on Emotional Literacy)

I was a teenager once and trust me I was no peach.

I understood two emotional states. The first being the absence of emotion, as in some monotone neutral state. The second being anger. I was angry when someone tried to extend love and angry when someone didn’t. I was angry when someone made a mistake effecting me and I was angry when they apologized.  Otherwise I was dull, keeping all my thoughts and feelings trapped inside. I never smiled. God forbid a smile crossed my face indicating a hint of happiness.

The only ways I understood how to express my anger was through explosion or implosion. Now, I never pulled a knife, physically abused or threatened harm. But I lashed out. I yelled. And when I say yell I mean screaming banshee yelling. The kind of yelling and slamming doors that would make you call the cops.  But the yelling was a reprieve from the lashing in at myself. My chosen knife were the two fingers I stuck down my throat daily, sharpened by my stone-cold willpower to shut out family and friends and experiences.

I did not just grow up and out of this.

I learned other emotional options (like happiness, sadness, etc) as I matured, but frankly it wasn’t until my late twenties that I actually truly developed the capacity of emotional literacy.  I am still learning this. Emotional understanding seems to be forever evolving. Though I do believe we can learn the foundation well. At least I have that, even though I am still becoming. We do not one day understand how our emotions work and how to best express ourselves. The expression of our emotional repertoire is a practice. If yoga helps us to stretch and expand our bodies then there must be ways to stretch and expand our capacity for emotional expression.

By emotional literacy I mean the capacity to identify, experience, and express emotions productively in oneself as well as seeing that and withstanding that in others.

I will never forget the argument I had with my husband several years ago where he shook his head and said to me clearly, kindly, but very firmly, that my anger was welcome but my explosive behavior was not. It was the first time I not only understood how abusive my behavior was but that I could actually DO something about it to be better. I was incredibly touched by his statement that my anger was welcome. I was never in a relationship (other than one with my therapist) where it was overtly stated that my anger was welcome. In fact, I bet that because he said my anger was indeed welcome and okay in such a tolerant way, I felt I didn’t need to expressive myself in such dramatic fashion. Trying to shove someone’s rage into a corner does not work. Fire must run its course.

As a society we have become sterile and compartmentalized in the expression of emotion and then it leaks out like sewage or explodes in fits of disaster. Unlike my enlightened husband, We do not allow people to feel anger or rage. And by people perhaps I mean anyone other than a white man. White man expresses rage and he is showing power. But if a woman expresses wrath she is a bitch. The black man becomes a menace to society and the trans youth becomes mentally ill. Grief, quietude, melancholy, downtrodden is more the acceptable box for those of us not in the white male iteration. It is a birthright to experience emotions. Not a burden. Often when we acknowledge, welcome and work with emotions within tolerable ranges we grow and we sequence through their healthy and useful expression.

Most people I come in contact with have some pretty significant wounding around base emotions such as fear, anger, grief, and excitement. Most have stories about being too big or too much or too emotional or not enough forth giving in their emotions. It is a human skill set to identify and move emotions. It takes skill to steward ourselves and so often we need the help of others to help us cross at first. Over time though, we learn to navigate our emotional riverbeds and we can cross the raging rapids skillfully and often alone.

When was the last time someone celebrated your capacity to express your emotions fully? We have put a valence on our emotional life. Something akin to happy equals good and sad/angry/spiteful equals bad. In the body at a cellular level these emotions are electrical charges not value judgments. We made the value judgments.

I wonder how different our lives would be if we learned how to effectively direct our emotions not necessarily at each other but just as a natural process of releasing a charge. Imagine all the free space possible when our emotional lives are given voice overtly instead of suddenly, subconsciously and covertly taking us over and co-opting our lives. 

Livia ShapiroComment