The value of expressing your emotional self is a widely discussed topic. Here, Sarah Raphael considers the impact of this skill on our hormonal and emotional wellbeing.
Recognising our moods will make them more manageable but how can we understand them if we don’t know what they are or how to express them?
‘Emotional Literacy’ is a hot topic of conversation these days. Sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence or EQ (like IQ but for emotions), it is the practice of understanding your own – and others’ – emotions and being able to respond to your own – and others’ – emotions with empathy, compassion and kindness. Which would be easy, if emotions were 99% less consuming and powerful.
In her book Sane New World, Taming the Mind, Ruby Wax writes: “Learning to read faces should be compulsory in schools so you can decipher what people are really thinking.” Dr Ann Corwin, also known as ‘The Parenting Doctor’, agrees, believing emotional literacy should be treated like reading literacy at school and at home. She notes: “If you understand the way that you feel, then you can deal with what’s going on better. If I can say ‘I know why I behaved the way I did – because I was feeling that – then and only then can you change your mood, move on, and make it a much better day.”
This type of thinking could be applied to a million situations, from children on the naughty step recovering from tantrums, to me 5-11 days before my period when I’m raging and can’t see a way through the mud. The rage doesn’t happen every month because it’s stimulus-dependent, but around every three months, I feel uncharacteristically furious about something, and I never manage to correctly identify it until a week later when I feel much calmer and I think ‘oh yes, PMS.’
Robert Plutchik, an American psychologist who spent years studying emotions came up with the Wheel of Emotions in 1980, designed as a tool to increase emotional literacy, which is used in EQ business training today. Rotating around eight core emotions: anger, anticipation, joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness and disgust, the wheel demonstrates that if you leave any of these emotions unchecked, they intensify into something darker. For example, annoyance when left unaddressed, can become anger, which can become rage; apprehension can become fear and then terror, and pensiveness can become sadness and then grief. Emotional literacy then, according to Plutchik, is being able to identify these emotions and understand how they behave both when addressed, and when left to fester.
Author of the book Emotional Literacy, Claude Steiner (a French-born, American psychotherapist), described the skill as “a key to personal power because emotions are powerful if you can make them work for you rather than against you.”
“Emotions are powerful if you can make them work for you rather than against you.” Emotional Literacy, Claude Steiner
This reminded me of an article Caryn Franklin MBE wrote for Refinery29 about the unexpected power of the menopause: “In menopause our body roars. All these years it has put up and shut up and it will not tolerate abuse or disrespect any longer. [...] There is nothing so primal and immediate as your body’s hormonal call to action.” The feature was the first positive account of menopause I’d ever read, and it made me feel a whole lot better about my future as a woman. But for the time being, in the hormonal phase of life, trying to make my emotions “work for me” as Steiner suggests in his definition of emotional literacy, often seems like too high a wall to climb.
“Generally speaking”, my GP informed me when I asked about the effects of my monthly hormones, “you’ve got more oestrogen for the first half of the month and more progesterone for the second half of the month” – and that’s without taking the effects of the contraceptive pill into account. A paper titled ‘The Menstrual Cycle Influences Emotion but Has Limited Effect on Cognitive Function’ by Inger Sundstrom-Poromaa from the Department of Women’s and Children’s Health at Uppsala University in Sweden, assessed the hormonal effects on emotions like so:
“Many women complain of emotional problems in relation to the menstrual cycle, most commonly in the premenstrual (luteal) phase. Among women in childbearing ages, approximately 2%–10% are afflicted by severe premenstrual symptoms, and 2%–5% fulfill criteria for premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) – referred to as a ‘mood disorder’.”
While only a small percentage of women are diagnosed with PMDD, most women report changes to their mood and an increase in negative emotions around their period. And it’s at times like these that emotional literacy becomes even more important as an act of self-care and a physical practice i.e. something you sit down and do, like an equation. Naming emotions using tools like Plutchik’s emotion wheel, and the ‘filling in the blanks sentence’ the parenting doctor suggests, seems like the first step to working through it: “I feel *insert emotion* when *insert circumstance* because *insert reason*”. So in the case of my premenstrual anger, my sentence would be: “I feel angry (which can turn to rage when left unchecked) a week before my period because... my hormones are all over the shop.”
“Thoughts are not who you are,” Ruby Wax
A fan of mindfulness as a way to work through negative emotions, Ruby Wax advocates something similar. “Thoughts are not who you are”, she writes “they’re habitual patterns in the mind, nothing more and as soon as you see them that way, they lose their sting. I think of them as the noise of a radio in another room; I can pay attention, sing along with them if I want and also choose to ignore them.”
Harvard psychologist Susan David, who has a Ph.D. in emotions and wrote the bestselling book ‘Emotional Agility’, agrees that acknowledging emotions and then seeing them for they what they are, is important. “The process isn’t about ignoring difficult emotions and thoughts”, she writes, “It’s about holding these emotions and thoughts loosely, facing them courageously and compassionately, and then moving past them.”
At first, emotional literacy just sounds like common sense, but as the many psychologists who have studied it for years point out, the practice is really hard, especially when battling mood swings and symptoms related to hormonal changes. It might seem odd to us to sit down with an emotion wheel and write sentences naming emotions, but these little tools could make a big difference in your life at a critical moment. If you have a spare 20 minutes, start by looking at the emotion wheel and trying to think of a time when you felt each emotion listed. Better yet, share these experiences with a friend and hear theirs too. Emotional Literacy 101!
Words by Sarah Raphael