Setting the groundwork for Emotional Literacy

According to Brené Brown, from her online class The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, when asked, people on average are only able to name 3 emotions: happy, sad, or angry. However, in order to correctly identify our own emotions, as well as be able to successfully read others, takes knowing around 30. This first video in her blog post is a great explanation of this. Why is this so important? Because "if you can't articulate, identify, and name an emotion, you can't move through it," says Brené Brown. And only by moving through it can we process and possibly learn from it. 

Even though I've known about the importance of emotional literacy for a while, it's taken till now to truly realize the significance of actually teaching my Courageous Girls all these 30 emotions. It really hit me when asking my 5 year-old a few times over last week, when she happened to look frustrated or when something unjust happened to her, what she was feeling. And she always would just say: I feel sad. 

Or ask many adults coming home from work in the evening who say: "I am stressed." Well, are you stressed because you feel overwhelmed with work, or are you stressed because you are not doing the type of work you thought you should be doing by now, or are you stressed because you feel like you are not being treated fairly at work? (Here I'm paraphrasing Susan David talk about this issue while discussing her book, Emotional Agility in this Robcast.)

Here is a poignant explanation by Brené Brown, once again from her online class, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting:

"Imagine you have an excruciating pain in your right shoulder. You get to the doctor's office, and you are ready to tell her what's wrong. But your mouth is taped shut, and your arm is tied behind your back. So she looks at you and says "tell me what's going on." And she can see that you are crying, and she can see that you are suffering, and she can see that you are struggling. But you cannot articulate, name or point to what's happening. How frustrating, frightening, and scary that is. Plus, the bottom line is, we can't fix it. We can't help. And the same thing is true with emotions... Because if you can't name it, then you can't find the right intervention to move through it to heal it and change it."  

Learning about emotions is just like learning another language. You have to define each one, and help them identify with our help the correct one that happens to match their emotion in each event... over and over again. 

From all I've seen and read, this seems to be the foundational skill that underscores assertiveness and confidence for girls (and boys.) Just having finished Peggy Orenstein's book, Girls & Sex, it is mind-boggling what an important skill it is to know what one is feeling at a given moment, be able to interpret it, and assert oneself based on that emotion. The younger a girl starts to assert herself with friends, the more successful she will be asserting herself in relationships. If you think about it, the younger you start being able to say "no" to things that you don't want to do, the easier it is to do that later on in life, especially during the peer-pressure filled adolescence.


So let's begin! 

(This lesson is between 25-60 minutes long, depending on the discussion.)

1. Why do we have emotions and feelings, and why are they important to us?

KEY POINTS: Emotions guide us, and color our lives. Without emotions, we wouldn't be passionate about anything, and life would be fairly bland. Plus, we would probably die young, as emotions also help us survive. Every emotion focuses our attention and motivates us, and there is usually a MESSAGE in there somewhere. Also it's E-MOTION, meaning it moves through you, and doesn't last forever. Your thoughts then turn it into feelings, which can last much much longer.

(If your Courageous Girls are old enough and want to know the difference between emotions and feelings, show this to them.)


2. Show me how you look when... 

You are angry, surprised, disappointed, jealous, proud, excited, regretful, disgusted, etc. (Here are a list of feelings to choose from. Or in this first video, you'll also be introduced to Brené Brown's top 30 emotions/feelings.)

Show me how your face looks, tell me how your body feels (energy, no energy, butterflies), and tell me what you do in that mood (curl up on your bed, want to hit someone, tell a friend, etc.) 

PROCESSING: Even when we don't quite know what we are feeling, clues from our bodies can help us figure it out. Our feelings and emotions affect our whole body. In addition, each of us may show different feelings and emotions in different ways. I may act out in anger and attack, while others may start blaming or just shutdown, and curl up in a ball. It's important to realize that we may have our own unique ways of showing our emotions, so let's explore what that is! 

After a rough phone call with a friend the other day, after hanging up I realized all of a sudden I had no energy, and thought about getting coffee. But then I realized, wow, actually I'm just really sad. Sadness zaps your energy, so that you would sit down, and have time to reflect on what just happened. (Hence the reason we learn more from failure than from success. Failure leads to sadness, which in turn leads to introspection.) Pride, on the other hand is a social emotion, and urges you to tell someone what made you proud. Anger gives you energy to fight off injustice. Excitement gives you energy as well, but in a different way. Disgust, on the other hand, scrunches up your nose, so that you would not smell that pungent smell. Happiness is also a feeling that makes one reach out to others, be more creative, and gives off more energy.

The point is, that each emotion/feeling tells your body something about yourself, so encourage your Courageous Girls to start looking for that MESSAGE, as the message is there to get to know ourselves better - what we like, don't like, what we fear, what our values are, what we perceive as injustice, what our reactions are when we feel powerless, etc. Because only once you understand what you are feeling, can you then correctly choose your action in return.


3. You are in control...

DISCUSSION: The idea is that once there is an EVENT (which could be a fight with your sibling, or a mean word from a friend, etc.), to create space between our EVENT and our REACTION. So instead of being on automatic pilot, and reacting to something without even thinking about it (think: event - scream at sister, event - hit brother), to try and pause and put some space in between and think about what we are feeling and why, and what our choices are in order to figure out how best to react. We were introduced to this EVENT - THOUGHT - RESPONSE model at GoStrengths!, and here is a great quick explanation of why thoughts matter so much.

While other organizations have different models that deal with this idea, my family put together our own model that works for us, and helps us better deal with big emotions. So you are welcome to use the GoSrenghts! model, the 6Seconds model of FEELINGS + OPTIONS + GOALS, or this model below, or make one of your own! The key is to somehow put space between the EVENT and the REACTION, and consciously choose the best choice possible.  

So let me go through our model for you: 

Our model for big emotions - image.001.jpeg

1. BREATHE - often, when we automatically react to something with big emotion, it's because that emotion got stuck in our Amygdala part of our brain, and we react without using our logical/thinking part of our brain (the Pre-Frontal Cortex.) Every emotion first passes through the Amygdala in order for it to check whether it's an emergency. However, the Amygdala can be dramatic and overly-cautious, and may think you are in danger, when all you are is just mad. So it blocks the emotion, and instead of passing it down to the thinking part of your brain, it instead gets your body ready to fight (or run or freeze.) This is awesome when a bear is attacking you, but not so much when you just need to figure out how to deal with your sister who borrowed your roller-blades without asking. So, a long story short, the best way to move that emotion to your Pre-Frontal Cortex is by giving your brain some extra oxygen with some deep tummy breaths. Here are a couple of examples for better breathing techniques: 4 Square Breathing Exercise and 4-7-8 Exercise by GoZen. However, as I've witnessed on myself and my daughters, breathing can be super helpful, but will not automatically solve your issues. If all we are thinking about during our breathing is how best to get revenge, or we are just ruminating on all of our negative thoughts, breathing will not help. That is why our next step is super helpful when combined with curiosity, and think of ourselves as Detectives.

2. EMOTIONS DETECTIVE - So after or even during deep breathing, instead of focusing on how we were wronged, thinking about what exactly we are feeling and why is crucial. What exactly is beneath our anger? Did we feel helpless, unjustly treated, or shame? For me, a helpful concept I learned once again from The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, is that if you think of an iceberg, what you can see jetting out of the ocean is usually anger or stress. Beneath it, however, in the hidden depths is the rest of the iceberg that hides our painful feelings, such as loneliness, jealousy, shame, guilt, humiliation. So diving in is crucial, because only once you identify the true emotion/feeling, can you then think of your choices. This is when you would then use I statements (I feel..., when..., because. I would like...). More information on these powerful I statements here

3. CHOICES - We've been using this word a lot lately. Choices. You always have a choice. And just that idea can be empowering. No matter what anyone did to upset you or even hurt you, you always have a choice in how you reply. Maybe you just want to get even. Okay, that's your choice. Maybe not your best choice, but at least you know you picked that one out of the many. And next time you might realize that another choice in a similar situation might serve you better. So when we go through our choices, we usually write down even our negative choices, such as screaming at our friend, getting even, etc. It's important to realize that yes, that's a choice. But what are some other ones? Another word that might also be useful here is Problem Solving. Or come on, you are a Problem Solver, how can we solve this problem? What are some of our options? Similar idea, whichever fits your Courageous Girls best.

4. BEST SELF - I read this somewhere, I'll try and find it where, but it immediately spoke to me. This may or may not be too advanced for your Courageous Girls, we are still figuring it out with them. But I love it for adults. In my mind, when dealing with big emotions, a flash of my best self appears in a split second, for just a split second. And that flash gives me energy to try and stay calm in the midst of putting out the fire, whatever that fire may be, and helps me choose the best choice in dealing with that situation. My flash of best self is a 3-word phrase for me, and it's an image for my husband. It's obviously different for everyone, but what do you think, can you find yours?? 



  • Make your own model for dealing with big emotions.
  • What is your Best Self? Can you put it into a quick phrase, sentence, or an image that you can then retrieve in your mind as you like? 
  • Learn about different emotions by matching them to different scenarios
  • Watch Inside Out. Here is a good video that helps guide parents what to pay attention to when watching the movie together.