How To Build Emotional Literacy To Make Better Decisions

Picture this: You’re having an important, well-thought-out conversation, and then suddenly, something inside you shifts, and you get hit with a wave of BIG emotions. 

*Cue word vomit and emotional dysregulation* 

All reasoning is gone and your feelings drive the discussion downhill, leaving you wondering how in the world you got here.

Does this sound familiar? I know I can relate all too well.

Emotions are what make us human, but until we can understand them, we cannot have control over them.

Why focus on emotions?

The American Psychological Association defines emotion as “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements, by which an individual attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event.”

Put simply: Past memories and personal experiences collide with situations and can serve as triggers to strong (and often disproportionate) emotional reactions in the form of physical & behavioral responses.

It’s important to remember that emotions are subjective, meaning they are experienced and interpreted differently from one person to the next based on their individual histories. 

Nonetheless, the way we relate to and express our emotions dictates nearly all parts of daily life, like navigating relationships, being productive at work, and making sound decisions. 

Based on how impactful emotions are to our quality of life, it would make sense to prioritize education around the topic; however, our culture seems to have an emotional literacy problem.

If you were raised anything like me, emotions were chalked up to signs of weakness, and discussions of them were to be avoided at all costs.

After studying all things psychology for the last 10 years, I can tell you with 100% certainty that the strategies of emotional avoidance, denial, and suppression are not helpful for long-term joy or peace of mind.

Now, the shift from dreading to welcoming emotions is not a quick and easy process. In reality, it is actually quite the opposite; it involves learning and unlearning, and making mistakes over and over again.

But we all have to start somewhere if we want to balance our rational and emotional minds.

Growing your emotional vocabulary

Emotional literacy is a skill to develop; not a trait we are born with.

Kids begin to learn the alphabet and progressively build on the basics to form words and sentences to communicate and navigate life. But what about the language of emotions?

Without the connection to their internal world, unaware kids often grow into emotionally disconnected, reactive adults, and the cycle can continue for generations.

To break this pattern, we must start with education and understanding the basics.

There is still much to learn about the brain-body interplay of emotions, which results in conflicting conclusions; however, many researchers can agree with Psychologist Paul Ekman’s theory that there are six basic emotions:

  • Sadness
  • Joy
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Surprise
  • Disgust

Each emotion has functional elements (e.g., fear can alert one to real danger) and destructive elements (e.g., fear can create unnecessary aggressiveness). 

Emotional ID’ing in action

These six core emotions are considered to be universal across cultures, making the non-verbal cues important features of emotional ID’ing. 

Let’s look at fear and anger.

Both anger and fear can produce aggressive, hostile reactions. In this sense, both emotions can look similar when considering behavior and tone of voice.

Then, when we consider the facial reactions of each emotion, the two can be easily differentiated. Typically, anger looks like tight lips, a tense jaw, and eyebrows drawn together. Fear, on the other hand, looks like wide eyes and raised eyebrows.

Next time you notice yourself in an emotionally charged discussion, take a step back and consider:

  • What am I experiencing in my body? (i.e., sweaty palms, racing heart, flushed face)
  • What facial expressions or postures am I displaying? 
  • What memories or stories from the past is this bringing up?
  • Have I felt this way before? If so, when and with who?
  • What am I telling myself about how I am feeling? (i.e., overly critical self-talk)

By asking these questions, you will start to build your emotional curiosity muscle, which will lead to better outcomes understanding, recognizing, and confronting your emotional inner workings.

The science of decision-making

When it comes to decision-making, your emotions WILL call the shots if you let them.

In order to really understand the inner workings of our emotions, I need to talk nerdy for a quick minute.

If we look at emotions through a neuroscience lens, one small but mighty brain area is thought to be the culprit of most emotional hijacking – the amygdala. This almond-shaped neural structure is responsible for storing, processing, and retrieving emotional memories. When the amygdala becomes overstimulated, it overrides the pre-frontal cortex, which is the brain area that allows us to regulate emotions enough to think rationally. 

Essentially, the amygdala is the house where emotions develop and live, and the pre-frontal cortex is the beams and foundation that keeps the roof from collapsing.

If the pre-frontal cortex is malfunctioning, there is no logic to balance the high emotions, meaning any decision made while in that state will lack sound judgment.

Best practices for making balanced decisions

  • Get really good at self-assessment

If you want to take the power back from your emotions, especially when it comes to decisions, you have to do the work to get there. Monitor and track your reactions, feelings, thoughts, alllll the things, so you can see your specific weaknesses and emotional blind spots.

  • Never underestimate the power of perception

Context matters. An emotion might be completely justified in one decision-making scenario in your personal life whereas in a different setting, say the workplace, it would be inappropriate to display or discuss that same emotion. 

  • Monitor self-talk around emotions & decisions

If you tell yourself you are “bad” at emotional ID’ing and regulation from the jump, your subconscious mind won’t support the growth you desire. Track thought patterns around self-belief and change; it influences your decisions and outcomes more than you may think.

  • Be patient & give yourself grace

There is no finish line when it comes to emotional growth. You’ll have successes and setbacks. Allow yourself to make mistakes again and again because that’s the reality of this inner work.

It’s never too late to grow your emotional intelligence

Don’t get me wrong –– Becoming a master of your emotional life is anything but easy; however, it is essential to living a fulfilling and aligned life.

There are three simple steps I teach when someone is just coming into their emotional growth journey:

  1. Notice it
  2. Name it
  3. Neutralize it

Start simple and grow from there!

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