• Louise Carnachan

Emotional Literacy


I responded to a reporter whose query contained an unattributed quote for me to react to. The person quoted had gone off the deep end during an interview and hurled profanity at the media. Turns out it was a basketball coach which is clarified in this article published in Communication Intelligence where I give suggestions about how to self-soothe.


The example brought up what all of us have experienced, how we can forget where we are and respond to a situation with a brain that’s been hijacked by emotions. When I was obtaining certification in the EQ in Action emotional intelligence instrument, a statement was made by the instructor and has never left me: emotions drive the bus. Whether we acknowledge what we’re feeling or not, strong emotions will take over and that can lead to regretful behavior.


Brene´ Brown’s new book, Atlas of the Heart, defines eighty-seven emotions and states of being based on her research. In her three-part podcast about the book, she provides terrific real-life examples. For instance, I didn’t know there was a distinction between stress and overwhelm. Most of us use the terms interchangeably—does it matter that we be specific? The gradations are important because when we have no language for what we’re feeling, we can’t adequately communicate.


Being under stress is a condition we can all relate to. It’s that feeling of being pushed or frantic with too much to do. Yet, we can still think and talk; we can say what we need. The state of overwhelm is different—that’s when we’re so flooded by emotion that we can’t function. I know that sensation and was happy to learn that I’m not alone in having experienced it. For me, it feels like a collision in my brain and all language disappears. I can’t physically get the words out to say what’s wrong or what I need. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often but the next time it does, I’ll know what it is and might be able to squeak out, “overwhelm!”


Brown says having language for emotional states can help on the job. She gives the example of a very busy restaurant where the managers instruct all newly hired staff in the words to use if they need to convey a) they’re stressed and require help, or b) they’re overwhelmed and can’t function. If stressed, others pitch in as directed. But if in a state of overwhelm, the work is literally taken out of their hands. They are to go to the break room or walk around in the parking lot for a few minutes. Time out is the only antidote to that degree of stress. Trying to get an overwhelmed brain to function is a futile enterprise which is likely to lead to mistakes or accidents. How smart of the management to anticipate and provide a “safe word” and procedure!


Most of us have a limited vocabulary to describe what we’re feeling—if we even know. I’m sure I’ll never be able to name the distinctions between eighty-seven different emotions and states of being but I could expand my repertoire. According to Brown, many people are only able to name three emotions. Angry, sad, happy, perhaps? By being more accurate, we communicate needs better, own up to the experience, and perhaps resolve the difficult ones more quickly.

So, how about that coach who lashed out at the media? I’m sure that anger is the emotion he would name but I’m going to make a guess that there was something more specific, like frustration at being asked repetitive questions or a loaded question, or despair that the team wasn’t doing better. We have to know what our emotions are if we want to work with them and recognize what part of the brain is in charge. If we have that awareness, we’re more likely to take a few breaths, walk away, or state what we need. Practice helps. If this put-upon interviewee whose team had a disappointing game had been able to take a deep breath and say, “I’m frustrated by answering the same question so I’m wrapping it up,” then everyone’s dignity could have remained intact. By blowing up…well, that’s the stuff of memes and viral shares of the worst kind.

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