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The importance of emotional literacy and how to improve yours

An emotion washes over you, fluttering inside your body and spreading all over. It slowly enters your mind - touching on your thoughts and perception of the present. You can feel the emotion radiating from your body. Yet, while being aware of the emotion, knowing it's a part of yourself, it’s also observable from the outside, like a storm brewing, which can both be felt and observed.

Being able to recognize, understand and express your own emotions, as well as those of others, is referred to as emotional literacy, a term introduced by the psychotherapist Claude Steiner (Steiner, 1984). It describes the ability to understand what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling it, and how to manage it. Emotional literacy also allows you to recognize how your emotions affect your behavior and decision-making; and helps you understand other people’s emotions.

Studies have found that people with high emotional literacy are less likely to develop mental health problems, and if they do, they can better cope with them (Bezzina & Camilleri, 2021). And not only does emotional literacy affect your self-awareness and self-confidence, but by developing an emotional literacy, we can better navigate the complexities of relationships and the nuances of human interactions. Thus, it plays a crucial part in effective communication and understanding, and is an important basis for forming healthy relationships.

Your upbringing & the development of emotional literacy

Emotional literacy is developed over time. Therefore, our upbringing and environment can impact how our emotional literacy evolves. If someone were to grow up in an environment where talking about feelings and managing emotions is common, they'd possibly have fewer issues to initialize and model this behavior. But if someone’s upbringing were in an environment that believed they shouldn’t express their emotions or where regulating emotions is not usual, they’d likely have more trouble developing their emotional literacy.


Generally, everyone can improve their emotional literacy, and it starts by becoming aware of your own feelings and reactions. If you can’t identify the emotions you are experiencing, you won’t be able to properly understand them or control your behavior. Thus, the first step is to accept an appearing emotion and give it  a label. Putting your feelings into words is referred to as “affect labeling”. Labeling helps you to process what is happening or has happened to you.

If you struggle to name your emotions, the wheel of emotions (developed by Robert Plutchik) can be helpful. The center consists of  8 core emotions that are fundamental to our experiences, reactions, and sensations. Opposite each core emotion is the respective opposite of an emotion . Each emotion has an associated color and description that explains the emotion in more detail (Plutchik, 2001). Therefore, this tool can be helpful to broaden your emotion vocabulary and identify how emotions are related to each other.

Once you’ve identified and acknowledged your feelings, it’s important to express them in a constructive way. This can be done through verbal communication, journaling, or any other form of self-expression. Avoid bottling up your emotions and instead find ways to express them in a healthy manner.


Also, try to observe yourself in different situations, especially stressful ones. When do you get upset about things, and why? How do you react when you get angry? Do you blame or become angry at others, even when it's not their fault? Are you able to control your emotions in these situations, or do you directly act on them? If you’re having trouble identifying your emotions and reactions, you might struggle with emotional regulation, which is about being able to calm down and control your impulses. Essentially, the more self-aware you are, the easier it becomes to recognize what you’re feeling and why, so you can respond appropriately.

The more in tune you are with your emotions, the easier it will be for you to understand others. A key component of emotional literacy is the ability to listen to and understand the emotions of others. Pay close attention when someone is speaking to you by actively listening and trying to understand their feelings without judging or jumping to conclusions. This will help you become more empathetic and create stronger relationships.

Emotional literacy is also an important foundation to build emotional intelligence (Ninivaggi, 2022). Emotional intelligence is the process that optimizes self-regulation and decision-making, which is only possible when you have emotional literacy - the understanding of how your emotions unfold and change your behavior and thinking. Using this knowledge will allow you to better manage your emotions.  

Developing emotional literacy is a lifelong process. It takes time and practice to become emotionally literate. We need to be mindful of our emotional triggers and take the time to name and understand our emotions. We also need to be open to learning from our mistakes and remember to be kind and patient with ourselves.


Bezzina, A., & Camilleri, S. (2021). ‘Happy Children’A project that has the aim of developing emotional literacy and conflict resolution skills. A Maltese Case Study. Pastoral Care in Education, 39(1), 48–66.

Ninivaggi, F. J. (2022, September 6). Emotional Knowing and Emotional Literacy | Psychology Today. Psychology Today.

Plutchik, R. (2001). The Nature of Emotions: Human emotions have deep evolutionary roots, a fact that may explain their complexity and provide tools for clinical practice. American Scientist, 89(4), 344–350.

Steiner, C. (1984). Emotional Literacy. Transactional Analysis Journal, 14(3), 162–173.

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