Emotional Literacy; 

Intelligence with a Heart

by  Claude Steiner PhD

Copyright © 2002







This book is the culmination of thirty-five years of work. Thanks are due, first and foremost, to Eric Berne for taking me on as a disciple and teaching me most of what I know as a psychotherapist.


More than any other book I have written, this book is the result of very closely knit teamwork. Thanks to Jude Hall, who besides editing these pages through many versions and revisions, has added examples, elaborations and ideas, made my language richer, and acted as my intellectual and philosophical conscience as this work took shape. Thanks to Paul Perry, who co-wrote the original version of this book. A very special thanks to Fred Jordan, who was available, one simple phone call away, to give his advice throughout the writing stages of the book. I consider myself blessed to have such a wise and kind maven on my team. I also thank Ron Levaco and Charles Rappleye, who in a similar capacity gave sage advice at some of the strategic crossroads of this book’s journey. Thanks to Deirdre English and Gail Rebuck, who steadfastly supported my writing for many years before this book found an agent and a publisher. Thanks to Beth Roy, Mimi Steiner, Rod Coots, Bruce Carrol, Ron Levaco, and Saul Schultheis-Gerry for their reading of and many comments on the final manuscript, and to Ramona Ansolabehere and Michael Hannigan for useful critical commentary on the text. Adriane Rainer’s reading, informed by many hours of previous editorial work on this material, was especially useful. Ann McKay Thoroman, my editor at Avon Books, took an immediate liking to this book and persevered with unflagging interest and hard work.


Thanks are due to all the people who over the years attended my seminars, workshops, and group and individual therapy, and all my friends and relatives who shared their life experiences with me and provided the information upon which to base the assertions I make in this book. This is particularly true of my children Mimi, Eric, and Denali, my brother Miguel, my sister Katy, and finally Jude Hall, my wife, who for months was on hand at a moment’s notice to brainstorm or labor on a portion of text or for whatever I needed to keep me going while bringing this book to completion. In particular I want to thank the many Emotional Warriors around the globe, among them Marc Devos, Marielle Debouverie, Elisabeth Cleary, Elizabeth Edema, Michael Epple, Sylvia Epple, Becky Jenkins, Anne Kohlhaas-Reith, Ron Hurst, Denton Roberts, Beth Roy, Hartmut Oberdieck, Richard Reith, and Mimi Steiner.


Going back to the 1960s when these ideas were born, thanks  are due to Nancy Graham for first uttering the term “emotional literacy,” which I promptly scooped up and have used ever since. I thank Hogie Wyckoff for helping shape the concepts of Pig Parent (now the Critical Parent) and the Stroke Economy. Hogie was also the first to insist that honesty was an essential component of a cooperative way of life. Bob Schwebel deserves thanks for introducing cooperation to my thinking, and Marshall Rosenberg was the first to point out the importance of linking actions with feelings. Thanks are due to all the members of the RAP Center in Berkeley who contributed their lives and ideas to the theories presented in this book, in particular to Becky Jenkins, Carmen Kerr, Hogie Wyckoff, Robert Schwebel, Joy Marcus, Rick de Golia, Sarah Winter, and those who joined us later—Sandy Spiker, Eric Moore, Darca Nicholson, Melissa Farley, Mark Weston, Marion Oliker, JoAnn Costello, Beth Roy, Randy Dunigan, and Barbara Moulton. Finally, I thank David Geisinger for pointing out that a relationship is as good as its dialogue, Chris Moore for informing me on the latest philosophical arguments about the nature of truth, and Marc Devos for suggesting that emotional literacy training could be divided into three stages: an opening of the heart, a gathering of information, and taking of responsibility.




I have undertaken to rewrite Achieving Emotional Literacy,[i] five years after its publication in 1997 and fully in the twenty-first century. The book is longer and more elaborate, and it incorporates feedback originated by the original book. It integrates information from readers and clients, what I have gleaned from other books on emotional intelligence, from evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, and from what I have learned in my personal life over the last years.


It should come as no surprise to the reader that a book such as this is often written to answer life-long questions that preoccupy the writer; this book is no exception. No matter how objective I try to be—and I think that I succeed reasonably well in that purpose—the fact remains that this work is, as most such work in psychology, the product of both science and personal predilection.


Since the publication of Achieving Emotional Literacy in 1997, emotional intelligence has passed from being a welcome, fresh way of thinking to becoming a number of widely disparate movements. The largest of these movements was a consultant’s “growth business” with scores of companies offering to evaluate and improve people’s EQ’s in the workplace. Regrettably, in that environment emotional intelligence became synonymous with “mature,” “stable,” and “hard-working.” These are fine qualities, but they are vague and indistinguishable from all else that is desirable. No systematic methods of teaching emotional intelligence have been developed and no dramatic progress has been made in measuring EQ. Some questionnaires were developed which arguably have something to do with emotional intelligence and may actually help select better workers, but none can claim to yield any convincing measurements of EQ.


Twenty-five years ago, I conceived emotional literacy as a tool of human emancipation from the tyranny of soulless rationality and power. But the field of emotional intelligence in the workplace has lost its edge; it is being used to help companies spot bright-eyed, self controlled, hard-working employees.


Emotional skills are a great deal more than positive attitudes and impulse control; they can humanize and improve any enterprise beyond anything that has been experienced so far and their potential is being squandered on diluted, half measures. I fear that emotional intelligence is morphing into yet another corporate, human engineering lubricant with little specific relationship to emotional literacy.


On the other hand, EQ has also become a subject matter in schools, where thousands of devoted teachers are applying one or more of the scores of EQ teaching aids developed by as many companies. Here the results seem more promising, because what is being taught is unquestionably beneficial. Children are being educated about their different feelings, how to speak about them and how to express and control them. They are being trained with a kind-hearted attitude and a focus on developing friendly, cooperative relationships. Evidence suggests that these efforts are having beneficial results, at least in terms of the decreasing amounts of aggression being seen in the schools that teach the subject.[ii] Still, none of these programs focus on the heart centered techniques that are at the core of this book, techniques which in my opinion would greatly amplify the beneficial effects of emotional literacy training for children and adolescents.


Emotional Literacy


The point of this book goes beyond workplace maturity or schoolyard aggression. Emotional literacy is a source of personal power indispensable for success in today’s world.[iii] The following five essential, thoroughly time-tested assertions must be understood to appreciate this work’s scope:


1.      Emotional literacy is love-centered emotional intelligence.

2.      Loving (oneself and others) and being loved (by oneself and others) are the essential conditions of emotional literacy.

3.      The capacities of loving and accepting love, lost to most people, can be recovered and taught with five precise, simple, transactional exercises.

4.      In addition to improving loving skills, emotional literacy training involves three further skills of increasing difficulty; each one is supported by a further set of transactional exercises.

5.      These skills are:

a. Speaking about our emotions and what causes them,

b. Developing our empathic intuition capacity, and

c. Apologizing for the damage caused by our emotional mistakes.


Practice of these specific transactional exercises in personal relationships at home with friends and at work with others, will, over time, produce increased emotional literacy.


With  these exercises you can become a more loving person, a person who feels love toward people and is able to love passionately in a sustained way—a person who is able to be affectionate with friends and friendly with others. You will be better able to recognize, express, and control your emotions; you will realize when you are angry or joyful, ashamed or hopeful, and you will understand how to make your feelings known in a productive manner. You will become more empathic and will recognize the emotional states of others and respond to them compassionately. You will be able to take responsibility for the emotional damage caused by your mistakes and apologize for them effectively. Instead of undermining and defeating you, your emotions will empower you and enrich your life and the lives of those around you.


In summary:


Emotional literacy—intelligence with a heart—can be learned through the practice of specific transactional exercises that target the awareness of emotion in ourselves and others, the capacities to love others and ourselves while developing honesty and the ability to take  responsibility for our actions.


This is what this book will teach you, no more and no less.





Before getting to the substance of this book, I want to tell you what qualifies me to write on the subject.


This book is based on both on my professional and scientific training, enhanced by my experience as I struggle to understand my own emotional life. I believe that my combined professional, scientific, and personal experiences have translated into an understandable and productive manuscript.


I was raised in a state of utter emotional illiteracy, as was expected of the white, middle class boys destined to become professional men of my generation. I ignored my own emotions, believing that it was shameful, weak, and frightening to dwell on them. Equally, I disdained and ignored the emotions of others. All the while my emotions, especially my unacknowledged need for love, dictated and distorted most of my behavior. When I think back, sad to say, many of the things I did as I grasped for love were emotionally painful to the people in my life. I am told that people tolerated my hurtful ways because I made up with a naïve, narcissistic charm what I lacked in sensitivity.


You might think that I decided to study psychology because I was interested in people’s feelings. In fact, my interest in psychology had to do with the belief that it would give me power over people: to be in a position to help, but also to dominate and control. As a student of psychology, emotions were the furthest thing from my mind. Actually, since the early 1900s, the emotions had been excluded from scientific psychology. Why? Because the method that was used to study emotions—introspection —was deemed to be biased and subject to distortion.


Science is a discipline that encourages detachment and rationality uncluttered by emotion. A watershed event in my life happened when, as part of my training doing physiology experiments with animal muscles, I had to run a wire down the backbone of live frogs to destroy their spinal cords. As I performed this grisly task, I told myself that if I wanted to be a real scientist, it was important to suppress my horror. The decision to do so, added to the earlier cultural and personal training of my childhood and adolescence, affected my life from then on.  To my everlasting embarrassment, I later participated in experiments in which rats were starved to learn about their responses to severe hunger.


As a result of my decision to suppress my emotions during this critical stage of my professional training, I became even less interested in my own feelings and the feelings of others. I had infatuations but no real attachments and little respect, regret, or guilt when it came to the way I treated the people in my life. I never felt sustained joy and I never cried. I lost friends and was prone to depression and despair. Although I have a respectable IQ, when I look back at myself I see an emotionally illiterate young man with a very low emotional intelligence or EQ (emotional quotient).


When I finally stumbled upon my emotions (which I will discuss shortly), I was like an explorer discovering an exotic land—amazed, frightened, and captivated by the emotional landscape within and around me. Eventually, I decided to make emotions the subject of ongoing inquiry in my psychological practice, a pursuit which absorbs me to this day. Though at times arduous, I find this quest rewarding and empowering in my personal and working relationships.



Power is generally thought of as control, mainly the ability to control people and money. When we think of a powerful person, for example, we picture a captain of industry, a major politician, or a superstar athlete who commands millions in salary: a person with nerves of steel and the capacity to be emotionally detached and cool. We have come to expect these attributes in powerful people. 


Most of us never attain that kind of power and may not even be interested in it. Still, while we may not be interested in absolute control over every living thing, we emulate powerful people in the belief that in the real world, emotions are best kept under tight rein.


But the sort of personal power derived from the security of satisfying relationships and fruitful work is ultimately incompatible with a tight rein on our emotions. On the contrary, personal power depends on having a comfortable relationship with emotions—ours and other people’s. Emotional literacy requires that our emotions be listened to and expressed in a productive way.


Not everyone who suffers from emotional illiteracy is emotionally deaf and dumb, as I was. Another form of emotional powerlessness occurs when we are excessively emotional and out of control with our feelings. Instead of being out of touch with the world of emotions, we’re all too aware and responsive to them as they hound and terrorize us. Either extreme spells trouble. Whether tightly controlled or too loosely expressed, our emotions can reduce our power rather than empower us.


Unfortunately, in today’s world, the interpersonal experience is laced with emotional pain all too often. Emotional literacy training facilitates cooperative harmonic relationships at home and at work and gives us the tools to avoid an increasingly dark, cynical view of life. Emotional literacy makes it possible for every conversation, every human contact, and every partnership—however brief or long-term—to yield the largest possible rewards for all involved. Even though it doesn’t guarantee unlimited access to cash and things, emotional literacy is a key to personal power because emotions are powerful if you can make them work for you rather than against you.




What was it that put me in touch with the positive power of my emotions? My encounters and subsequent relationships with two different people, seven years apart: a rogue psychiatrist and a feminist partner.


The first person who significantly changed my life was Eric Berne, a 45-year-old psychiatrist at the time I met him in 1956. Berne’s psychoanalytic training had recently ended because of differences with his training analyst. Since the early 1950s, he had been investigating and developing some radical departures from psychoanalysis that would later be known as Transactional Analysis.


In 1955, he started holding weekly meetings with a small group of professionals at his apartment a few blocks from San Francisco’s Chinatown. I was taken to one of these meetings by Ben Handelman, a friend and coworker at the Berkeley Jewish Community Center. I found what Berne had to say very interesting and joined in the lively discussion. After the meeting, Berne asked me to return the following week, and I did. From then on, except for the years I was at the University of Michigan studying for a doctorate in clinical psychology, I rarely missed Berne’s meetings. I became Berne’s disciple and learned everything he had to teach about his evolving theory of transactional analysis. Berne died in 1971.


Transactional analysis (TA) is a technique that investigates human relationships by focusing on the precise content of people’s interactions. TA is a powerful way of analyzing how people deal with each other and how they can change their lives by correcting their behavioral mistakes.


TA was a sharp departure from traditional psychoanalysis, which focuses on what goes on inside of people rather than with what happens between them. But the most radical idea of Berne’s was that you could actually cure people of their emotional problems by showing them how to act differently with each other in their social transactions rather than by focusing on understanding why they were emotionally disturbed. The idea was that while understanding may be helpful, changing one’s behavior is what would actually cure emotional troubles. A radical view in those highly psychoanalytically influenced times, this is now an accepted and commonplace understanding. Yet it remains controversial in some circles.


Emotions were not, at the time, our focus. In fact, we saw them as being largely irrelevant to our work, which was simply studying interpersonal transactions from a rational perspective. Yet Berne’s concepts had everything to do with the eventual development of emotional literacy training. Two concepts were key: the ego states, especially the inner “Natural Child,” which is the source of our emotional lives; and the concept of strokes.


Berne discovered in each normal person three parts or distinct modes of behavior, which he called the Child, the Parent, and the Adult. He called these three parts of the normal personality “ego states,” and he believed that we act as one of them at any given time. You can learn about the ego states in one of the many books written about TA.[iv] [v] [vi] Suffice it to say for now that the Child is the creative and emotional part of the self, the Adult is a rational “human computer,” and the Parent is composed of a set of protective attitudes about people. Berne taught us to pay close attention to the “social transactions” between people, because you can learn everything you need to know about a person by closely watching the interactions of their ego states.


The other very important concept developed by Berne he called “strokes.” Let me point out that even though strokes can be positive or negative, a “stroke,” in the way that we will use the term in this book, refers to a positive stroke, a show of affection. When you say to someone, “I like the way you look today,” you are giving that person a positive stroke: a stroke, for short. By the same token, when you lovingly pat your child on the back or listen carefully to what your partner is saying, you are giving him or her a stroke, as well. Strokes can be physical or verbal and are defined as the basic unit of human recognition.


The kinds of strokes that people give and take are especially informative. Some people exchange mostly negative, even hateful strokes and their lives are very different from those who manage to attain a dependable diet of positive, loving strokes. When people love themselves and others, their transactions will be governed by their loving hearts and they will neither give nor accept negative strokes.


These two concepts—ego states and strokes—formed the theoretical foundation of the transactional analytic study of emotions.



I never would have made the connection between TA and emotional literacy were it not for another life-changing relationship that plunged me into the world of feelings. Recently divorced and almost overnight, I became deeply involved with a feministHogie Wyckoffwho for the next seven years taught me the essentials of emotionality. Basically, she demanded that I “come out” emotionally: that I be honest about my feelings, that I ask for what I want, and above all, that I learn to say “I love you” from the heart. None of these demands was easy for me to meet. In fact, they were excruciatingly difficult. Under Hogie’s loving, watchful tutelage, however, I made great emotional strides. It was exhausting work for her and in the end she could endure the struggle  no longer, but she left me a changed man.


I met Hogie in 1969 while teaching a course in Radical Psychiatry at the Free University in Berkeley. Eventually the two of us (and others I mention in the acknowledgments) established a RAP Center at the Berkeley Free Clinic. RAP stood for “Radical Approach to Psychiatry”[vii] and was essentially a protest movement against the abuses of psychiatry as practiced in those days.  We started a number of “contact” groups, in which participants were taught the principles of Transactional Analysis as it applied to cooperative relationships. The most popular contact group to evolve from this work was called “Stroke City.” In this group we began to develop the techniques for learning emotional literacy.


1. Strokes and Love

Three times a week “Stroke City” gathered in a large room at the RAP Center. For two hours in the afternoon in this room, about 20 people could give strokes, accept strokes, ask for strokes, and even give themselves strokes in a safe, protected environment.

The leader of the group scrutinized every transaction. It was his or her job to make sure that people gave each other clean, positive strokes, unclouded by hidden or overt criticism. When needed, the leader helped the participants correct their transactions so that the strokes were heard and accepted when wanted.

We created these early meetings to teach people to get along in a competitive and harsh world. However, we soon observed an unexpected side effect. Participants would often look around after some time and declare that they “loved everyone in the room.” They would speak of pervasive feelings of love  as they placed their hand over their hearts and they left these meetings with a light step and a happy, loving glow on their faces.

We assumed that people were just cheered up by these activities in a manner similar to what happens at a good ball game. But upon closer examination it became clear that these exercises had a profound effect on the participants’ loving emotions. They spoke of loving feelings, of having an open heart, of a transcendent experience of affection, an oceanic feeling and so on. What had started as an exercise to practice how to be cooperative and positive turned out to be much more. It affected the participants’ loving capacities in a powerful and heart-expanding way. It was then that we began to see the connection between strokes and love, and that learning how to exchange positive strokes might have an effect on people’s overall capacity to love. Eventually it became clear that strokes and loving feelings are intimately related to each other.

2. The Power of the Critical Parent

During these “Stroke City” sessions as we discovered the connection between strokes and love, we also discovered the pervasive activity of the Critical Parent. The Critical Parent (the “Pig Parent” as we called it in those days) is the internal oppressor, that inner voice that keeps us from thinking good thoughts about ourselves and others. For instance, when some of the participants tried to give or accept strokes, they would “hear voices in their heads” that told them why the strokes should not be given or taken. These voices told the participants, either in subtle or overt ways, that they were stupid, bad, or crazy for getting involved in this strange exercise and that if they persisted they would be shunned and isolated from the group. We came to discover that virtually everyone has some kind of ruthless internal bully making him feel bad about himself. This phenomenon has been observed by many, who have given it different names: Freud called it the “harsh superego”; AA calls it “stinking thinking.” It has been called low self-esteem, catastrophic expectations, negative ideation, the inert spirit, the dark side, the inner critic, and on and on. The fact remains that it is a pervasive, well-recognized presence, the cause of great distress in our lives and a common preoccupation in psychotherapy.  

Eric Berne called this internal adversary the Critical Parent ego state. The Critical Parent does not necessarily have anything to do with our mothers or fathers, though it often does. It is, rather, a composite of all the put-downs that we received in childhood when people—parents, relatives, siblings, friends, teachers—tried to protect, control, and manipulate us. It is important to remember that the Critical Parent has an external source; it is like a tape recording of other people’s thoughts and opinions. The Critical Parent is an external influence that is allowed to run (and sometimes ruin) our lives. It invaded our minds when we were young; fortunately, it is possible to turn it down or off, and effectively neutralize it when we grow up.

The Critical Parent is especially interested in preventing people from getting strokes. Why? Because when we get loving strokes in our lives we are much more likely to disregard the Critical Parent and its efforts to “protect” and control us.

Even though people need positive strokes to thrive, it became clear in Stroke City that when they tried to give, ask for, or accept strokes, they often experienced extreme, sometimes paralyzing anxiety, embarrassment, and even self-loathing. Some people hear a voice saying, “You’re selfish. You don’t deserve strokes,” or “This is stupid, you’ll make a fool of yourself; shut up”; others just feel anxious or self-conscious every time they give or ask for a stroke. In the face of such Critical Parent opposition, very few find it easy to exchange strokes.

Almost everyone has an internal bully who slanders him or her from time to time, especially when he or she is emotionally vulnerable. Part of the work of Stroke City—and emotional literacy training—is to recognize and neutralize the Critical Parent that not only attacks our self-esteem but also the self-esteem of the people around us. It became clear that defusing the Critical Parent was a priority when teaching people about strokes and love.

3. The Safety of the Cooperative Contract

Even though most people enjoyed Stroke City and wound up feeling good, there were always a few who felt bad, left out, afraid, or hurt. It became clear that they had succumbed to the attacks of the Critical Parent. To protect the participants from anything that triggered or supported the Critical Parent’s activity, I decided to start each meeting with an agreement called a “cooperative (non-coercive) contract,” which promised that the participants and the leader would never engage in any attempts to manipulate or power play anyone. It also specifically required that participants would never do anything they did not honestly want to do. The contract further promised that the leader would take responsibility to oversee these safety agreements and would not permit any transactions that came from the Critical Parent.

A contract of confidentiality was added to the cooperative contract in order to facilitate emotional safety and protection from the Critical Parent (see worksheets at the end of the book). These two agreements, cooperation and confidentiality, dramatically reduced the number of people who felt bad at the end of our Stroke City meetings. Consequently, more participants were able to enjoy the love-enhancing effects of the exercise. These calming, trust-enhancing agreements are a very important aspect of emotional literacy training today. They keep the Critical Parent “out of the room” and establish a feeling of safety and trust. They are essential for the difficult and sometimes even frightening work that needs to be done to fully incorporate love and all the other feelings into our lives.

4. Paranoia and Awareness

The RAP center eventually dissolved, but the essence of “Stroke City” continued in emotional literacy training workshops in the form of “Opening the Heart” exercises. After 25 years of conducting these workshops, I have refined the heart-opening techniques developed in the sixties and added new ones.

For instance, people often developed suspicions and fears about the motives and opinions of others in the group, sometimes to the point of paranoia. The standard psychiatric approach to paranoia was to disprove it point by point and to blame it on “projection.” So, for example, if David thinks that Maria hates him, the traditional psychiatric wisdom presumes that it is David who hates Maria. Because he can’t face his angry feelings in himself—so it is thought—he is “projecting” his hatred onto her.

This approach, in my opinion, made people more—rather than less—paranoid. I found in my work that paranoia generally builds itself around a grain of truth just as a pearl builds itself around a grain of sand. Our approach, in David’s case, would be to search for some measure of validation for David’s paranoid feelings. We found that once a grain of truth in the paranoid fantasy was acknowledged, the person was usually able to let go of his paranoid ideas.

So, if Maria admits that she is, in fact, angry at David’s sloppiness, then David can let go of the idea that she hates him. That feeling, he can now see, is a paranoid exaggeration of her actual feelings of annoyance he sensed. David had simply picked up—intuitively—some hidden negative feelings from Maria and blown them up, out of proportion. When that happens, the Critical Parent usually gets involved and fans the fires of suspicion with its own negative messages. Once David sensed that Maria was angry at him, the Critical Parent could easily add: “Sure, she is mad at you, you are a slob.”

This is important because in our emotional lives we often pick up hidden negative feelings from other people, which can be very disturbing. This validating method was inspired by the work of R. D. Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist who pointed out that when we invalidate or deny people’s experiences, or how they see things, we make mental invalids of them. Ronald Laing [viii] found that when our intuition is denied, we can be made to feel crazy even if we are perfectly mentally healthy.

For instance: A woman’s husband is attracted to a neighbor and the woman picks up subtle clues about his hidden infatuation. If she confronts her husband with her suspicions and he denies them over and over while continuing his infatuated behavior, her nagging intuitive fears might build undaunted, with the help of the Critical Parent, to the point of paranoia.

Based on this information, we learned to search for the grain of truth when people developed intuitive, even paranoid,  ideas rather than accusing them of being irrational or discounting their way of seeing things. By finding this truth, no matter how small, we could move a relationship away from suspicion, paranoia, and denial, back toward communication, feedback, and honesty. At the same time, by testing the validity of people’s emotional intuitions and hunches, we trained their empathic capacities—which are essential to emotionally literate relationships. This approach is a basic aspect of emotional literacy training wherein we encourage people to express their hunches, intuitive perceptions, and paranoid fantasies and instead of discounting them, seek their validation—even if only with a small grain of truth.


These four ideas are the cornerstones of emotional literacy training:

1) the connection between strokes and love,

2) the importance of fighting the Critical Parent,

3) the usefulness of safety contracts when learning emotional literacy,

4) the validation of “paranoid” hunches as a way of training intuition and cleansing relationships of fear, suspicion, and Critical Parent influences



As I developed these techniques over the years, I have adopted them myself and invited my family members, friends, coworkers, and intimates to use them, as well. I wrote books, delivered lectures, and held workshops. All along, according to people around me, my emotional life improved. I began to give and take love and affection more freely; I got in touch with my feelings, the feelings of others, and the reasons for their existence; I learned to be honest about how I felt and decreased my tendencies to be defensive when confronted. Finally, I learned to acknowledge and sincerely apologize for my mistakes. Most important, however, is the realization that I am still a  “work in progress,” that I am still making improvements to my own emotional literacy.


One frequent super-stroke I get from friends and trainees is that I practice what I teach and that my behavior is congruent with my theories. That is not to say that I have achieved perfect emotional literacy, only that I am making good progress and continue to learn day by day.


The chapters you are about to read contain a training program that is a proven method of developing emotional intelligence. I have seen it work for me and people around me, so I know it can work for you.







To be emotionally literate is to be able to handle emotions in a way that improves your personal power and improves the quality of life for you and—equally  importantly—the quality of life for the people around you.


Emotional literacy helps your emotions to work for you instead of against you. It improves relationships, creates loving possibilities between people, makes cooperative work possible, and facilitates the feeling of community.


All of us have something to learn about our emotions. Some people grow up with a high level of emotional literacy, but few are as smart in the area of emotions as they could be.


As a long-time teacher of emotional literacy,  I have seen the extreme discomfort most people, especially men, initially show at the mere mention of the word emotions. Men often fear that deep and painful secrets will be unleashed if they reveal their feelings. Most often, people think that emotional literacy training will lead to a loss of control and power in their personal and business lives.


There is some validity to the fear that a loosening of our emotional restraints could get us into trouble. But emotional literacy is not a mere unleashing of the emotions—it is also learning to understand, manage, and control them.


Emotions exist as an essential part of human nature. When we are cut away from them, we lose a fundamental aspect of our human capacities. By acknowledging and managing our feelings and by listening and responding to the emotions of others, we enhance our personal power.


Being emotionally literate means that you know what emotions you and others have, how strong they are, and what causes them. Being emotionally literate means that you know how to manage your emotions, because you understand them. With emotional literacy training, you will learn how to express your feelings, when and where to express them, and how they affect others. You will also develop empathy and will learn to take responsibility for the way your emotions affect others. Through this training, you will become an emotional gourmand—aware of the texture, flavor, and aftertaste of your emotions. You will learn how to let your rational skills work hand-in-hand with your emotional skills, adding to your ability to relate to other people. Hence, you will become better at everything you do with others: parenting, partnering, working, playing, teaching, and loving.


Emotional mistakes are very common and often very destructive. If you don’t believe that is true, consider the following examples of emotional illiteracy I have gathered from the newspapers over the past years:


* When presented with a second-place award at a statewide high school competition, the bandleader threw the award into a garbage can. The school’s director began to argue with the judges, saying his band deserved first place.


* Following a football game in  an upper-middle-class community, an irate mother shouted obscenities at one of the referees and then grabbed him from behind as he tried to walk away. Three men then joined in the attack, punching him in the face and breaking his jaw, which had to be wired shut for several weeks.


*Another parent actually killed the father of his grade school son’s martial arts competitor and was sent to jail for many years as a consequence.


* In England, a wealthy magistrate and his wife lied under oath, saying the wife had been driving their Range Rover when it ran into a wall. The couple, who had been drinking, were worried the magistrate might lose his driver’s license and his seat on the bench. The husband and wife were jailed for fifteen and nine months, respectively, when witnesses denied their story. And their marriage was wrecked by the stigma of being branded liars in their community.


* Top presidential adviser Dick Morris had to leave President Bill Clinton’s campaign when it was reported that he shared state secrets with a prostitute in order to impress her.


* And let’s not forget the monumental mistake that President Bill Clinton committed when he allowed his need for sexual strokes to dominate his good judgment and involved himself in an intimate relationship with 21-year-old White House aide, Monica Lewinsky. To the everlasting disappointment of millions of his supporters, he gave his enemies an opportunity to nearly wreck his Presidency.


Daily newspapers are filled with stories such as these, accounts of successful and otherwise intelligent people making grave emotional mistakes. These are stories in which emotions like anger, fear, or shame make smart people behave stupidly, rendering them powerless.[ix]


The truth is, we all make emotional mistakes, though perhaps not such extreme ones. Though our errors may not find their way into the newspapers, almost all of us would have to admit that at one time or another we have been inordinately moved by anger, fear, insecurity, sexual need, or jealousy, or have chosen not to take responsibility for an improper action. In the end, these mistakes weaken us and our loved ones.



Emotional literacy increases our personal power. I will make that point again and again throughout this book, but let me illustrate it here with a story.


Nancy and Jonathan, who’d been married for some time, had invited Robert for dinner. Nancy and Robert were old friends, going back to high school, when they had dated briefly. Nancy had prepared a lovely meal and had even brought out candles for the event. When they sat down to eat, however, Robert did not seem to care about the decor or the food in front of him. As he pushed his food around on the plate, Robert talked about his split with his wife. She had come home from work one evening and announced that she was leaving the relationship. She assured Robert that there was no other man, but refused to give further explanations for her departure; she just did not want to be married any longer.


He was despondent and didn’t know what would become of him. “Face it, she just doesn’t want me anymore,” Robert blurted out miserably, after two glasses of wine. “Now how am I going to meet someone else? I’m not as good-looking as I used to be, and I don’t look forward to cruising the bars and answering personal ads.”


Nancy understood perfectly what her old friend was talking about. The last year, she had spent more and more time in the mirror scrutinizing her face, worrying that she looked old beyond her years. Aging had made her feel a new sense of insecurity. She had a little more wine.


Jonathan’s day had been a long and hard one so he excused himself and went to bed. Nancy and Robert found themselves alone. The two old friends talked more about Robert’s failed marriage. Conversation then turned to the romantic beginning and long duration of their wonderful friendship. Then Robert made a remark about his fading attractiveness. Nancy, touched by his vulnerability, assured him that he was very handsome and should have no trouble finding another relationship. On the verge of tears, he squeezed Nancy’s hand. She moved over on the couch and gave him a hug.


Then their cheeks and lips brushed, and they suddenly found themselves kissing each other passionately. After a few frenzied seconds  Nancy sat up.


“Stop,” she said. “We shouldn’t do this.”


Robert stood up, shaken.  “I’d better leave,” he said, too embarrassed to look at Nancy as he walked to the door. “I’m sorry.” With one final glance at Nancy, he said good night and fled out the door.



Nancy slept fitfully. The next morning, after lying awake and thinking for a long time, she told her husband what had happened. She explained that they had both been tipsy and depressed, and that Robert seemed so needy that she had lost her common sense for a moment.


Jonathan’s response was not as strong as she feared. He was upset at first, but then he remembered that they had once made a vow to be truthful with each other. He realized Nancy could have said nothing about the kiss and he might never have known. Yet he also imagined finding out in the worst possible way, a year from now, perhaps, when a guilty Robert confessed to Jonathan over a beer, or Nancy made a slip of the tongue.


Jonathan felt very secure about Nancy’s love and he realized that Nancy meant to protect him by telling him about the incident. He could also see that she was very moved about Robert’s predicament and also afraid that Jonathan would not forgive her for her loss of control. He realized that Nancy had been feeling insecure about her looks and his love for her and was vulnerable to Robert’s attention. Although his first feeling was anger, he realized that making a scene wouldn’t make him feel better or resolve the situation they were in. He realized he might turn a minor issue into a deep rift, damaging his marriage.


Rather than exploding with uncontrolled emotion or being overcome by jealousy, he tried to understand Nancy’s actions from her point of view. Next he told Nancy of his anger, shame, and jealousy, and about how he felt he was able to overcome these feelings. He admitted that he had not been sufficiently attentive to her, wrapped his arms around her and hugged her warmly. Then, after explaining his intentions to Nancy and giving Robert a call, he drove across town to Robert’s apartment.


“Nancy told me what happened,” he said as he sat down on the couch in Robert’s living room. “I don’t like it but I understand. I’m not angry. I assume that this was a mistake and won’t happen again, right?”


“God, no!” Robert assured him. “I’m so sorry.”


“Thanks then,” said Jonathan, offering his hand in friendship. “I think things will be okay.”


An event that began innocently enough as a simple dinner party of old friends rapidly escalated into a sexual encounter. Emotional mistakes of this sort usually remain a dark secret, undermining all the relationships involved. Sometimes, if the truth comes out, the result is a fight (verbal or physical) leading to festering emotional wounds that eventually result in divorce and lost friendships. Handled badly, it could have led to the ugly sort of incident that we read about in the newspapers. It is the rare person who, like Jonathan, stops and thinks before deciding how to act on such an emotionally charged event. Yet Jonathan was able to speak about, sort out, and keep his feelings in check until he could express them in a productive manner and prevent his life from being damaged by emotions spinning out of control.


He was able to empathize with Nancy and with Robert’s emotional state, realizing he might have done a similar thing in their place. As a result of their emotionally literate exchange, Jonathan and Nancy found a deeper respect for each other. They were able to open a dialogue about some of the rough spots developing in their current relationship, which actually strengthened their marriage. Talking about their emotions—expressing and controlling them—did not leave them feeling unprotected. Rather, it gave them a renewed sense of personal power and confidence about their relationship. It helped them flourish as a couple and enabled them to hold on to their friendship with Robert.


In many ways this story defines all the issues relevant to emotional literacy. Jonathan realized that he was quite angry and jealous. And he understood the reasons for those feelings. He also empathized with Nancy’s affection for Robert and with her wish to comfort him. Jonathan could understand that she was flattered by Robert’s passionate attention especially since he, Jonathan, had been somewhat neglectful of her. In addition, he felt for Robert’s sadness and fear of being alone and his attraction for Nancy. At the same time, Jonathan was very clear that he did not want the incident to reoccur.


On her part, Nancy was able to experience and then control her sexual impulses with Robert and later be honest with Jonathan. She was able to express her regret without being defensive or afraid.


Once he understood his feelings better, Jonathan was able to control his impulse to lash out. Finally, Jonathan realized the importance of keeping the vows of complete honesty with Nancy. All of this took skills that some people develop early in life, but that all of us can learn at any time. To devote time to learning these skills is to pursue emotional literacy.



Most people would not act the way Jonathan or Nancy did in the above story. Why is that? Why do so many smart people act in emotionally dim-witted ways? The answer is that we have lost touch with our feelings and never learned to deal with them. Why has this happened?


We are emotionally illiterate because we have suffered—and continue to suffer—so many painful emotional experiences. Our emotional systems have shut down. How does this happen? Let me begin with an example of physical injury.


Several years ago, Chuck, a young grape farmer on the ranch next to mine in Mendocino County, absentmindedly reached into the rear of an operating hay baler. He felt a shock travel up his arm. He pulled his hand back and looked at it. With an odd lack of emotion or alarm, he wondered where his index and middle finger had gone. Rotating his hand, he saw the two fingers hanging by threads of skin.


At first, he felt nothing. Then the pain came thundering in, and at last he realized the two fingers had been cut off. Today, after many operations, Chuck’s fingers—reattached to his hand but lifeless—constantly remind him of his accident. He is able to speak about the accident calmly even though others cringe just thinking about it.


Why did Chuck at first feel nothing and even now feel less than others when thinking about the dreadful accident? Because his nervous system, to keep him from being overwhelmed, temporarily went into shock and blocked the pain. The shock reaction is highly useful. Because Chuck didn’t feel the pain, he had a few seconds  to absorb what had happened, to think rationally about it.


Numbing is a natural response to trauma. Temporarily sparing us the pain of a wound gives us a chance to escape or to make life-saving decisions we could not make if we were blinded by agony and horror. However, the physical numbness that follows physical hurt is limited. It is short-lived, providing a brief period of  anesthesia before the pain comes flooding in.


The numbness that invades us as the result of emotional hurt is similar. Physical trauma tends to occur as singular-incident events and the numbing it causes tends to be temporary. But in the case of  cruelty and emotional trauma, when they persist, the numbing becomes chronic. We survive uncontrollable, ongoing psychological trauma by engaging defense mechanisms—psychological walls that insulate us from our painful emotions and separate us from hurtful people and the pain they cause us. Emotional trauma can be vividly re-experienced when we remember what happened. Emotional numbing keeps us from having tormenting thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares. This may sound like a good thing, but it’s a trade-off that can be very problematic. The psychological walls we erect to separate us from emotional pain can become permanent and also separate us from kind, loving people and feelings of joy, hope, or love. What keeps us from feeling emotional pain can also keep us from feeling emotional pleasure. In addition, the emotional walls we erect will, on occasion, collapse and we will be flooded by overcome  chaotic, sometimes destructively strong emotions.


Some people oscillate between numbness and a disabling hypersensitivity to all emotions. Both these extremes are forms of emotional illiteracy. Whether emotions are absent or all too present, they fail to perform their powerfully helpful functions.


To recover from emotional damage it is important that we be allowed to repeatedly recall the traumas that caused our withdrawal and discuss them with sympathetic listeners. But typically we don’t discuss and recover from such traumas. Instead, we just get used to a state of emotional numbness or chaos.


Emotional traumas such as parental abuse or alcoholism are often shrouded in shameful secrecy and don’t get talked out.” Emotional traumas recur because we don’t learn how to avoid the people abusive, greedy, thoughtless, and selfish people who cause them; instead, we continue to relate to them and repeat patterns of emotional abuse. That is why the emotional traumas of a lifetime are likely to accumulate and fester in the dark recesses of the soul, crippling the victim’s emotional heath.


My years of observation have persuaded me that not only sufferers of severe post-traumatic stress, but the majority of us, live in a state of semi-permanent emotional shock. Continually reinforced by recurring painful experiences, we have lost touch with most of our feelings. We forget traumatic incidents, don’t remember how we felt, and don’t know anyone who would listen patiently and sympathetically long enough to sort it all out. Consequently, we go through life emotionally anesthetized, with most of our feelings locked up in our hearts, constantly disappointed in a wary and unreceptive world.


Certainly not all of us come from abusive homes or have alcoholic parents. But even the commonplace ups and downs of coming of age and going through our workaday lives can be quite painful and result in a certain degree of self-protective numbness. Emotional shocks start early in childhood and continue throughout our lives. We are yelled at while playing an exciting game (“Will you shut up for a minute?”), or left alone when we are afraid (“You’ll get over it.”). Our parents may fight or simply ignore each other. We are hit or mocked by other children, sometimes even by those we think are our friends. We are capriciously scapegoated or cruelly snubbed.


Two examples well illustrate these types of silent trauma. One acquaintance of mine recalls how, when she was 12, her two most beloved friends handed her a letter in which they made fun of the way she looked and the way she danced, told her that she was stupid and stuck-up, and announced that they were dropping her as a friend. To this day she is flooded by feelings of sadness and anger when she thinks about that awful experience. Another friend relates how an older boy would come up to him every day while he waited in line for lunch in junior high school and make fun of his nose. He “went along” with the joke but was profoundly humiliated. This emotional torment went on for a whole school year.


Childhood can be full of emotional stress and even abuse. Often, the affection we crave is denied us or used to manipulate our behavior, given only if we are “good,” withheld if we are “bad.” While all this is going on, we are silently urged—within our families and at school—to conceal what we feel and long for. To “spill our guts” about our feelings, we are taught, would be rude, humiliating, or indiscreet. We are taught a lifestyle for emotional illiteracy. To fit in, we must first close off from our emotions.


Often, our parents care only about our most obvious problems—whether a bully is after us or whether we are having trouble making friends. They are not often interested in our subtler agonies—rebuffs, embarrassments, romantic disappointments or feelings of inadequacy. Some parents are uncomfortable asking their children how they feel and rarely discuss their own emotions.



At the center of all of this emotional confusion is love and its opposite, hate. We long to love and be loved. When instead of being loved we are treated hatefully, we are left to walk around with our thwarted needs and wounded feelings locked inside of us; we do not know what to do or who to speak to about them. We can’t talk about our feelings, least of all about the love that we need. We don’t understand the hatred that we feel and we understand the feelings of others even less. We hide our emotions or we lie about them or pretend not to feel them.


In our intimate relationships, where emotions are supposedly allowed free rein, many of us have been hurt so often that we remain subtly detached even in the throes of passionate love. Long-forgotten heartaches prevent us from fully letting go and giving ourselves to another without maintaining some secret, self-protective distance. We seldom allow ourselves the sweetest of emotional experiences—the vulnerable state of deeply loving someone without reservation. Instead, our resentments build upon our disappointments—sometimes developing to full-fledged hatreds. Once hatred is unleashed, it infects everything and love recedes completely.


Most of us sense that there should be more to life. We hunger for the intimacy of deep feeling. We hunger for a connection to others, to understand someone and be understood by him or her. In short, we long to love and be loved.


But how do we get there? We know in our hearts that being an emotional person, having heart-felt passions—loving, crying, rejoicing, even suffering—is a rich, valuable experience. In fact, we constantly seek indirect, artificial, or vicarious ways of having emotional experiences. We take drugs, or go to action, horror, and romantic movies; we watch sitcoms and soap operas on TV; we gamble, jump off bridges with bungee cords attached to our ankles, or parachute from airplanes all in search of emotional stimulation. These activities afford us a taste of what we long for when we can’t find the real thing; eventually we prefer them to the risks of real emotional participation.


A particularly horrifying example of this hunger for emotional experience is laid out by James Gilligan in his book, Violence.[x] Gilligan has worked for many years with prison inmates guilty of savage murders. These men, he has found, invariably live in a state of extreme emotional numbness. They report having almost no feelings, emotional or physical, to the point of thinking of themselves as living dead. The origin of these men’s numbness is no mystery. Gilligan’s research shows that in almost every case they were themselves victims of abuse, that they were battered by repeated physical and emotional traumas. They lived in a world devoid of reliable love and replete with hatred.


These men say that they commit their unspeakably violent acts hoping that such excesses will break through their numbness and cause them to feel something, anything. Such a person, having committed a brutal murder, may briefly feel that he has awakened from his deathlike anesthesia. But invariably, the emotions stirred up by the crime subside and the numbness returns.


This is a sobering example of how the trauma of lovelessness and hatred leads to numbness and deep emotional pathology. Left unchecked, this loveless, hateful pathology passes down through generations.


There’s an urgent need to break the cycle of lovelessness, violence, and emotional numbing. One way is by learning emotional awareness, to experience the emotion of love and eventually develop empathy—the open-hearted ability to feel what others are feeling and respond to it with compassion and kindness. Becoming aware of our loving feelings will open us up to our angers, hatreds, and other negative emotions. To become emotionally literate we have to explore, understand, and learn to express all of them. 





There are two kinds of people who seem destined to be powerful in the world: psychopaths, who feel nothing, and empaths, who are deeply in touch with the feelings of others. (Don’t take these two extreme types too seriously; they are caricatures and are extremely rare in real life. I bring them up to make a point.)


Psychopaths can easily operate without the constraints that limit other mortals. They can lie, steal, extort, maim, and kill without guilt. When they get hold over other people, they can become enormously powerful. Consider Caligula, the Roman emperor, Adolf Hitler, or Joseph Stalin. History is replete with obvious examples, but examples can be found everywhere, all around: in politics, business, gangs, and within certain families.


Empaths, on the other hand, gain power from their emotional skills. Born empaths have an innate gift for empathy that is fostered by their family and their teachers as they go through childhood and adolescence. Jesus Christ, Mahatma Ghandi, Mother Teresa, and countless others are historical and mythical examples of empaths. Their talent for loving others, fostering loving cooperation, for bringing out the best in people, gives them the power to get what people want most of all; more than money, more than political power or status, people want to love and be loved.


Again, these are two extremes; many powerful people are neither full-blown psychopaths nor empaths. But if you observe carefully, you will probably detect an individual’s preference toward one or the other style.


I, of course, am encouraging you to work toward the empathic ideal.



The value of being an emotional expert is not obvious to everyone, at least not as obvious as the value of being an intellectual expert. Research shows that if you have a high IQ (intelligence quotient), it’s more likely you will do well in school and become productive, successful, and a good learner. Not only that, you’ll probably enjoy long life and good health. [xi] It seems that such happy results come from intelligence alone, but they don’t. In his book Emotional Intelligence, 3 Daniel Goleman shows that emotional savvy is just as important in success as high IQ. Not only that, he shows that you need emotional intelligence to live a “good life”—one that allows you to enjoy the riches of the spirit. To live well, you need not only a high IQ but a high EQ (emotional quotient).


The term “EQ,” though snappy, means less than you might think. It is a marketing concept, not a scientific term. An emotional quotient can’t be measured and scored like an intelligence quotient. People have been rating IQ scientifically for nearly a century, though they argue about exactly what it means. Some say IQ precisely pegs an innate quality called intelligence. Others say it measures some less clear-cut quality of people who turn out to be successful in school, and eventually in life. Either way, you can validly and reliably measure a person’s IQ, and it’s proven a good thing to have a high one.


EQ, on the other hand, can’t be measured. True, researchers are pursuing the goal of measuring EQ, but no valid and reliable instruments exist at this time. So far, trying to rate somebody’s EQ is like guessing how many beans there are in a jar: You can get a rough idea, but you can’t be sure. Still, we can meaningfully speak of EQ as long as we don’t claim to be able to measure it precisely. At the end of the book, there’s a self-scoring questionnaire that will give you a rough idea of what your EQ might be, if it could be measured.



The term “emotional intelligence” was coined by psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer.[xii] Salovey and Mayer are research psychologists who are pursuing and slowly approaching the quantification of emotional intelligence. I coined the term “emotional literacy” 21 years ago, and it first appeared in print in my book Healing Alcoholism in 1979.[xiii]


What is the difference between emotional intelligence and emotional literacy? Briefly, as the title of this book indicates, emotional literacy is heart-centered emotional intelligence.


Emotional acumen can be organized around a variety of purposes.


One extraordinarily successful version of emotional intelligence is the skill displayed by animators of feature films like “The Little Mermaid,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Schreck,” or “Monsters Inc.” In these films, we see conveyed the most subtle, moving nuances in a wide gamut of emotions with only a few lines on a two-dimensional surface. These computer-designed emotional triggers are far cheaper and possibly more reliable than any flesh and blood actor can provide. They are based on years of research—beginning with Charles Darwin’s 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, in which he argued that all mammals show emotions in similar ways, thereby demonstrating their genetic commonality [xiv] —and culminating in a system of classification of 43 facial “action units” which combine into all the possible emotional expressions of the face.[xv]


If what we want is to be able to influence people to buy or vote, we can again use information available to sophisticated ad agencies which are quite successful in using people’s emotions to accomplish their clients’ goals.


As a far more dramatic example, if what we want is to intimidate and terrorize people into compliance, there is intelligence that has been used from time immemorial and constantly updated by torturers around the world (the Inquisition, the Nazi Gestapo, the Communist NKVD, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School the Americas) who achieve their purpose by emotional means.


On the personal level we can use our emotional skills to develop self-control or to soothe and isolate ourselves emotionally; or we can control others by creating guilt, fear, or depression. These skills can be seen as a form of emotional “intelligence,” as well.


I see signs that many who agree that emotional intelligence is an important capacity have lost sight of what we really want: those emotional skills that improve people’s lives—not just one person’s or group’s, but all people’s. And the only emotional abilities that improve people’s lives in that long-term, humane manner are the love-centered skills.



The avowed purpose of emotional literacy training is to help people work with each other cooperatively, free of manipulation and coercion, using emotions empathically to bind people together and enhance the collective quality of life. This purpose, not surprisingly, has caused me to organize emotional literacy training around the loving emotion.


The idea that love holds a central place in people’s emotional lives is not a foregone conclusion. The classic book The Emotional Brain; The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life [xvi] by Joseph LeDoux fails to mention love even once in its index, while fear is mentioned more than 75 times. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence 3  has 20 index entries related to anger and only three index entries on love—and all references are in Chapter 1. Even as we all, deep in the heart, realize the importance of love, it is an emotion seldom discussed in detail by experts in the field. 


Emotional literacy training is centered in the heart and consists of five principal skills:


1. Knowing your own feelings

Do you know your true feelings? Many people can’t define feelings of love, shame, or pride, nor can they tell the reason these undefined feelings are triggered. These same people are unable to tell how strong their emotions are, even if asked to categorize them as subtle, strong, or overwhelming. If you can’t figure out what your feelings are or what their cause and strength are, you can’t tell to what extent those feelings are affecting you and those around you.


2. Having a heartfelt sense of empathy

Do you recognize other people’s feelings? Do you understand why others feel the way they do? Do you identify with another’s situation or motives? This is the ability to “feel for” other people, to feel their emotions as we do our own. Most people have only the vaguest idea of what others are feeling. When we are empathic, people’s emotions resonate within us. We intuitively sense what those feelings are, how strong they are, and what caused them.


3. Learning to manage our emotions

Are you in control of your emotions? Knowing our emotions and those of others is not sufficient to become emotionally literate. We need to know when and how emotional expression or the lack of it affects other people. We need to learn how to assert our positive feelings such as hope, love, and joy. And we need to know how to express our negative emotions such as anger, fear, or guilt, in a harmless and productive way or to postpone expressing them until a better time.


4. Repairing emotional damage

Do you know how to apologize and make amends? Being human, we all make emotional mistakes and hurt others, but we seldom take steps to remedy our errors and prefer to “sweep them under the rug.” We must learn to recognize what we have done wrong and fix it. To do this, we have to take responsibility, ask for forgiveness, and make amends. These tasks aren’t easy, but if we don’t carry them out, our unacknowledged mistakes will permanently poison our relationships.


5. Putting it all together

Eventually, if you learn sufficient skills, you develop an ability that I call “emotional interactivity.” This means you can tune in to the feelings of people around you, sensing their emotional states and how to interact with them effectively.


As an example, Hannah used her emotional interactivity skills to avoid an emotional calamity at a Thanksgiving dinner I attended a few years ago.


When Hannah and her husband arrived at the dinner party, she immediately noticed that there was some sort of trouble. Everyonethe couple giving the party, their three grown children, and four young grandchildrenseemed tense. Jim, one of the sons-in-law, was off in a corner nursing a drink. Other family members were laughing tensely. The host and hostess seemed sad and dazed. Hannah took aside one of her friends and asked her why people seemed anxious. It seemed that Jim had severely upset Judith, his wife’s sister. Jim, a conservative thinker, had been arguing about child-rearing practices with Judith, who was much more liberal. The children had been horsing around and Jim, only half-jokingly, had told Judith she was spoiling her children and that they would turn into out-of-control teenagers, drug-addicted and sex-crazed. Judith got mad and told Jim in no uncertain terms to mind his own business. An uncomfortable feeling settled over the festivities.


Hannah took Judith aside and let her vent her anger about Jim’s unwanted criticism. Then she spoke privately with Jim and listened to him express his feelings about bratty children and indulgent parents. But Jim saw, after talking to Hannah, that this argument was threatening to ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving. Hannah brought the two of them together with Mark, one of the husbands who liked them both. Jim, Judith, Mark, and Hannah had a brief conversation in which hurt feelings were soothed and apologies exchanged. By the time dinner was ready, everybody was ready to sit down and enjoy the meal.


Hannah had done the right amount of talking to the right people to restore a pleasant emotional climate. She encouraged Jim and Judith to get together with her over lunch and further work out their conflict. She did all this easily and with a sense of loving good cheer.


How difficult is it to get to Hannah’s level of emotional interactivity? It’s a whole lot easier if you start while you are young. Like learning to speak French or to play the violin, you can acquire these skills far more easily in your youth, as you take advantage of the neurological “window of opportunity” for emotional learning. But if you didn’t develop emotional skills during your youth, don’t worry: You can still learn them as an adult. In fact, most people acquire some emotional literacy skills early in life and add to them later. Even with average skills, and a little help from your friends, you can get by. Now that you have this book, you have the chance to systematically improve your emotional literacy; study the lessons in these pages and put them into practice. 




What Is Emotional Literacy?


When we are emotionally literate, we are able to make our emotions work for us and others around us instead of against us. We learn to handle the difficult emotional situations that often lead to fighting, lying, lashing out and hurting other people; instead, we learn to enjoy loving, hopeful, and joyful emotions.


Unfortunately, we are at constant emotional risk of trauma, most of it from simple everyday difficulties of living, some of it from betrayal and disappointment. Without an emotionally literate outlet, all of this emotional pain makes us freeze up to protect ourselves. When we hide within a protective emotional shell, we lose touch with our feelings and become powerless to understand or control them.


We hunger for emotional experience and we seek it in many ways. Emotional literacy training is a direct and effective method of reestablishing contact with our feelings and their power, especially the power of love.   

CHAPTER 2                                                                                                    



Nearly everyone feels emotional distress when approached by a homeless beggar. Some of us immediately try to shut off our feelings, preferring to pretend that she doesn’t exist or somehow deserves her fate. Others feel guilt, and may think that they should be giving more money to charity. Still others will actually feel indignant and hostile toward beggars, treating them as unwelcome intruder into their lives.


My own reaction varies. Sometimes I feel fearful or embarrassed, while at other times I feel guilty or angry. If I decide against helping, I look away and quicken my pace. If I decide to help I hand over some coins without looking the beggar in the eyes. If he says, “God bless you,” I don’t feel blessed. The situation brings me too many unpleasant thoughts about what it must be like to be destitute. In the end I am happy to block the encounter from my mind. If I don’t, I will feel off-balance and agitated for some time. Small wonder that I will go out of my way to avoid the homeless, even if it means crossing the street to do so.


This minute analysis of my emotional response may seem exaggerated and overdone, but think of your own experience. How much of what I describe goes through your mind when you run into a similar situation? How much of it do you experience without fully realizing your feelings? Most of us are not aware of the strong initial reaction that we quickly suppress in such situations. Is there an emotional aftermath for you after these kinds of encounters? Do they leave you shaken or indifferent? Angry, guilty, or self-righteous? Do they bring thoughts of “heartless” Republicans, “tax-and-spend” Democrats, or welfare cheats?


Although we don’t usually notice it, most of us navigate through such challenging emotional seas daily. A driver cuts us off on a busy highway, a sales clerk is rude, a friend acts cold and distant, our partner rebuffs our advances. We are flooded by emotions and yet we may or may not be aware of the emotions we go through. Let us examine the roots of these emotional experiences in order to increase our awareness of them.



Eric Berne, originally a psychoanalyst, gave birth to transactional analysis  50 years ago when he divided people’s behavior (the ego in psychoanalytic parlance) into two portions: the archeopsyche, which he called “the Child” for short and the neopsyche, which he called “the Adult.” The Child was allied with our emotional nature and the Adult was rational and untrammeled by emotion. 

Berne assumed that the two ego states, and later a third one which he called the Parent, had “specific anatomical representations” within the brain—in particular, that the Adult was located in the neocortex while the Child was located in a more primitive portion of the brain. Within short spans of time, he postulated, the ego states can become dominant—one at a time—and can be easily recognized by the average person.

Berne’s ego state theory is firmly rooted in two major scientific trends: evolution and neuroscience. More recently writers in evolutionary psychology have postulated that the mind is composed of  “modules,” that have evolved because of their adaptive benefits. These modules where first suggested by Noam Chomsky when he postulated that there exists a genetic grammar inborn in all humans that generates all human language.[xvii] The language module has been confirmed by ensuing developments in neuroscience and evolutionary theory.  Further study has shown that there are similar modules for many other distinct traits such as how we process visual information or how we treat biological offspring.  Steve Pinker in his book How the Mind Works gives an excellent account of evolutionary psychology’s mental modules [xviii].  The ego states are three such distinct modules to be added to a human tool box of adaptive capacities.   

The Triune Brain

In 1973, a quarter of a century after Berne postulated the three ego states, Paul MacLean, senior research scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, proposed that the brain is made up of three distinct subdivisions [xix] corresponding to three consecutive evolutionary eras: the reptilian, the limbic, and the neocortical.

These findings, very much in vogue for some years, have recently been questioned by neuroscientists who point out that the brain does not function as a collection of separate functional units but rather as a set of interlaced networks which evolve in intimate connection with each other.

In spite of this objection it can be said without violating any neuro-anatomical dicta that the two evolutionary stages—reptilian and limbic—are distinguishable from each other and from the neocortex that developed later. In the present stage of human evolution, a larger and larger brain led to the full development of the neocortex.

The Reptilian Brain

The reptilian brain, the first highly complex neural bundle to appear in evolutionary history, supports the basic physiological functions: circulation, respiration, digestion, elimination. It is also involved in mating and territorial behavior—pecking order, defense, aggression, and the emotions of anger and fear.[xx] In the human being it sits atop the spinal cord, and while it has evolved from its original form in lizards and snakes, it performs similar functions while at the same time communicating with the two subsequently developing brains, the limbic and the neo-cortical.

The Limbic Brain

Not concerned with its offspring, reptiles have no protective behavior repertoire and will abandon or even eat their own eggs as soon as they issue from the female. As evolution progressed and protection of the offspring became an effective survival strategy, the limbic brain, according to Lewis et al. in A General Theory of Love,[xxi]developed to fulfill that function. Protection of the young within a territory secured by reptilian function is the limbic brain’s purpose. Protection required an affiliative drive based on a hunger for contact and mutual recognition. This hunger for contact (strokes in transactional analysis terminology) maintained the bond between mother and offspring and generated closely knit groupings, all of which maximized survival of the young. The emotions of love, sadness, jealousy, and hope have their source in the limbic brain and can be observed in “higher” species such as cats, dogs, horses, and other warm-blooded animals.   

According to this view, emotions are inborn, generated automatically in the most primitive, the reptilian and limbic portions of our brain. Fear, anger, sadness, love, hope, and happiness serve as constant reminders of our animal nature. These emotions are changed and shaped by the experiences that surround us throughout our lives.


The emotions are essential to our survival. They are instinctive responses to situations that call for action.  We need them to make decisions, as Antonio Damasio has been shown in his research. [xxii] Yet, most of us have little awareness of how strong our emotions are or even what triggers them. In fact, few of us even know what emotions we feel. Without such awareness, we cannot hope to develop the empathic and interactive skills that are the highest achievement of emotional literacy.


The Emotional Awareness Scale

Awareness of our emotions, a function of the Adult ego state located in the neocortex of the brain is the subject of this chapter. But first let me introduce the Emotional Awareness Scale:




                           THE EMOTIONAL AWARENESS SCALE








V E R B A L     B A R R I E R 

Primal Experience, Chaos

Physical Sensations



                                        (Insert  Figure 2  The Emotional Awareness Scale)


The two extremes of the scale (zero awareness and total awareness) are unlikely to occur in real life but the places in between can be fruitfully explored. What follows is a description of each level of the scale.  If you want to get an idea of where you stand on this scale, you may want to take the Emotional Awareness Questionnaire at the end of the book.


Numbness. People in this state are not aware of anything they call feelings. This is true even if they are under the influence of strong emotions. Strangely, other people are often more aware of the numb person’s feelings than she is. While a person in this state may not feel her own emotions, those around her can perceive them from cues such as facial expression, blushing, and tone of voice; however, she is likely to report only coldness or numbness when asked how she feels. Her emotions are in a sort of deep freeze, unavailable to awareness. Her experience is similar to that of an anaesthetized patient with a numb feeling covering up the pain of a dental procedure.


For example, Lucas was a successful 38-year-old accountant, whom I met, along with his wife, Clara, during a mediation of their marital difficulties. Clara had just given a tight-lipped, tearful account of her anger and hurt about the way things were between them. I turned to Lucas. He looked stiff and uncomfortable.


“How do you feel, Lucas?”


“Well, I feel that she is being unfair.”


“Okay. We can talk about the fairness of what she says later, when we get to your point of view. But how does the way she talks about you make you feel, emotionally?”


He hesitates, wriggles in his chair, gives me a quizzical look, thinks. Finally, looking embarrassed, he says: “I guess I don’t feel anything.”


“I wonder. … Let’s see, do you have any sensations in your body? Some people feel butterflies in their stomach, lumps in their throat, a painful tingling feeling, or dizziness.”


“Well, I feel sort of numb all over. Not now so much but when she was talking.”


“You don’t feel anything?”


“Not really. In fact, I feel really distant, as if I were in a fog.”


For someone like Lucas, this state of unawareness is a common experience that comes over him in situations in which others might have a strong emotional reaction. On occasion, however, the emotional barrier he lives behind breaks down and his anger breaks through. Once or twice a year Lucas goes on a drinking spree. When that happens he becomes nasty, emotionally abusive, and on occasion breaks some furniture. Then he sobers up and goes through a period of guilt and self-abuse. These outbursts leave him feeling shaken and guilty, but he is too bewildered by his own emotions to arrive at any insight about them.


Eventually, renewed numbness returns and he becomes a detached, hard-working accountant again. In psychiatric terms, this state of emotional numbing is known as alexithymia.


Physical Sensations. At this level of emotional awareness, the physical sensations that accompany emotions are experienced, but not the emotions themselves. In psychiatric terms, this is called somatization.


A person might feel his quickened heartbeat but is not aware that he is afraid. She may notice a pressure in her chest but does not identify it as sadness and depression. He might experience a hot flash, a chill, a knot in his stomach, or ringing in his ears, tingling sensations, even shooting pains. She may feel all of these sensations of the emotion, but not be aware of the emotion itself.


People can be helped to move into a more heightened state of awareness anywhere on this scale.


Lucas, for instance, is generally numb but he can be made conscious of physical sensations if he is questioned. As Lucas describes his numb state, I pursue my questioning:


“Good, that is a clear description of what happens to you emotionally when your wife complains about you. But let’s look into your reaction further. Do you have any of the other physical sensations I described before? What else is going on?”


“Actually, I also feel a tight band around my forehead.”


“Anything else?” I scrutinize his face. “Do you feel a headache?”


“Not really, but I have a feeling that I’m going to get one. I get pretty bad headaches. I’m going to have to take some double-strength painkillers when we leave here.”


When people live in this state of emotional illiteracy, they often consume drugs that target physical sensations with an emotional origin. Although these drugs can have detrimental side effects, they do work temporarily for the person who is trying to cope with his emotional conflicts. They do so by eliminating anxiety, headaches, stomach aches, and other physical sensations that would remind them of emotional problems that need attention. Consequently, the conflicts don’t go away, and the emotional issues remain unresolved. The drugs may temporarily erase or improve the unpleasant sensations, but they throw the body’s chemistry out of balance and lead to harmful short- and long-term effects.


Lucas, as an example, drinks alcohol and coffee and takes over-the-counter painkillers for his sore back and headaches. His doctor has warned him that ibuprofen and acetaminophen taken with alcohol can cause liver damage, so he takes aspirin, which gives him an upset stomach, for which he takes an antacid. He drinks two cups of strong coffee in the morning to wake up, then drinks caffeinated diet cola all day to keep himself alert. He also smokes to deal with tension and anxiety. At night he likes to have “a glass or two of wine to help him unwind and get to sleep. None of this self-medication leaves him feeling very good, but at least it makes his discomfort manageable.


When people take large quantities of drugs and/or alcohol regularly, they can no longer accurately interpret their bodily ex­periences. Are these experiences emotional or chemical, exagger­ated or understated, healthy or diseased? When a person is so frequently and heavily medicated, it is very difficult to tell exactly what is going on emotionally.


While in this state of emotional unawareness, people are able to inflict great emotional damage on others. Strong emo­tions that are unacknowledged can explode into irrational behavior. People act out, emotionally or physically abuse their friends and family, feel extreme guilt, then shut down, nar­rowing their emotional awareness and creating a familiar cycle of abuse, pain, numbness, and increased emotional illiteracy.


Emotional Chaos or Primal Experience. In this stage, people are conscious of emotions, but they are experienced as a heightened level of energy that is not understood and cannot be put into words. That is why I call it primal, because it is similar to the emotional experience of babies and lower mammals who clearly experience emotions but would not be able to name them.


A person in this emotional state is very vulnerable and responsive to emotions but not necessarily able to compre­hend or control them. A person in the primal experience level of awareness is more likely to have ongoing uncontrolled emotional outbursts and fits of impulsiveness or depression than the person whose emotions are frozen out of awareness, even if they break through periodically


Persons in the primal stage will usually be the ones to fall apart first when stress bears down on a whole group. They’ll get scared, cry, miss work, drink excessively. Lucas, as an example of the opposite, works in an extremely high-pressure and stressful environment. At tax time, he is ac­knowledged as a “cool head” and trusted with crucial decision-making. His coworkers and supervisors do not find his coldness particularly likable, but he is highly valued by his employers for his efficiency.


Given the apparent risks of emotionality, some people conclude that emo­tional awareness and responsiveness are handicaps. However, in the long run, achieving high emotional literacy skills and awareness of emotional information will lead to personal ef­fectiveness and power—even in our emotionally illiterate world. This is because a highly emotionally literate person will know how to control her feelings when necessary—when and how to hold them back or when and how to express them in most situations. 


Of course, there are situations where ruthless lack of empathy and emotional coldness are required—jobs like contract killer, executive in charge of downsizing, or certain military Special Forces. In these situations a high level of emotional awareness would make it impossible to perform effectively. Obviously, a person aspiring to emotional literacy needs to avoid these types of activities.


The Verbal Barrier

The emotions are generated deep in the primitive portions of our brain, while the awareness of emotions requires that we utilize our more evolved brain, the neocortex—essential to language, abstract thinking, and reasoning.


Mammals who have not developed the higher functions of speech, language, imitation, speaking, writing, planning, and symbolic reasoning are not able to transcend the chaotic or primal level of feeling. Human beings, whose neocortex makes those verbal skills possible, are able to develop higher levels of emotional awareness.  Antonio Damasio, in his extraordinary book, The Feeling of What Happens; Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness [xxiii] provides an excellent account of the neuro-biology of this process.


Awareness of emotions depends on the ability to speak about what we feel and why. The language of emotions elaborately deals with the exchange of strokes, with the identification of emotions and the clarification of their causes, and with the expression of regret and the desire for forgiveness. 


Crossing this linguistic barrier requires an environment with people who are friendly to emotional discourse. Once a person is able to talk about his emotions with fellow human beings, he can develop an increasing aware­ness of his feelings.


Learning emotional literacy is like learning a new language. In fact, learning emotional literacy is like learning a dialect of English, as different from spoken standard English spoken as, say, Ebonics (Black English Vernacular).


Ebonics, an African American dialect, uses English words but is definitely different from standard English: different syntactic structures and vocabulary, and many words not found in standard dictionaries. These are required to express desired meanings. Likewise with emotionally literate language, a different tone of voice is used, words are combined into strange-sounding sentences, and a number of neologisms are used to communicate the desired emotional content.


Emotionally literate expression may not make sense to the listener who doesn’t speak the “emotional language” and might conclude that what is being said is nonsense. It’s easier for an Ebonics speaker to speak to other Ebonics speakers; they find and speak to each other with pleasure. Likewise, being able to speak in an emotionally literate language is a pleasant, safe, and soothing experience in a world that is not hospitable to the emotions.


Let me now elaborate on the way we can develop an emotionally literate discourse.



Differentiation. As we discuss our emotions with others, we begin to recognize different emotions and their intensity, as well as learning how to speak about them to others. At this stage, we become aware of the differences between basic emotions like anger, love, shame, joy, or hatred. We also realize that any feeling can occur at various intensities. Fear can vary from apprehension to terror. Anger can range from irritation to hatred. Love can be felt at many levels, from affection to passion.


As we cross the verbal barrier (a virtual wall for some), we begin to recognize that we often have several feelings at once. Some of these feelings are strong and obvious, while others are weak and hidden. Some are brief while others are long-lasting. For example, when we are feeling overwhelmed by jealousy, we may realize that the main feeling is anger combined with weaker feelings of unrequited love, tinged by shame. Someone else might experience jealousy as feelings of fear combined with intense hate.


Let’s continue to pursue our troubled accountant, Lucas. When I asked him why he responded so strongly to his wife’s recriminations, he said,Because I was a little annoyed, I suppose.”


“How about sad?” I asked.


“I guess so. … Yeah, sad too,” he said with emphasis, “and afraid that I’ll lose control and retaliate and hurt her feelings. She is so thin-skinned.”


“How angry do you feel?” I asked again.


“Not very angry, just annoyed.”


“But if you are not that angry, why would you lose control?”


“I suppose I am angry.” He was quiet for a moment, during which I noticed his color redden. “Yeah, I guess I am.”




There followed a long silence. By now Lucas’s face was very red. Turning to his wife, his voice full of guilt and apprehension, Lucas finally said, “Yeah, thinking it over, I would say that I do feel very strongly about it.”


I questioned Lucas further, making sure that I was not putting words in his mouth. As I helped him become aware of his emotions, it turned out that Lucas felt intense, blinding anger about his wife’s accusations and was extremely afraid of “losing it” and “blowing up at her.” And when he thought about it, he also felt despondent and afraid. Quite a bit going on for someone who initially claimed to feel nothing.


Causality. As we begin to understand the exact nature of our feelings, we also begin to understand the causes of those feelings: the event that triggered our emotional response, why we feel strong pride or hate, whence our fear.


To illustrate, Peter began feeling jealous the night he noticed his girlfriend, Jennifer, laughing at their friend Michael’s jokes. At first he was unwilling to admit feeling jealous, even to himself, because he prided himself on being confident and secure. But he caught himself being irritable with Jennifer and had to admit that he was probably jealous.


This highlights the inevitability of emotional interconnections between people. Some will disagree, but we can cause feelings in others and they can cause feelings in us. We begin to discover the alchemy of emotions: how our emotional tendencies (to be thin-skinned, assertive, or jealous) combine with the emotional tendencies and behavior of others. Eventually we are able to investigate, and in most cases understand, why we feel what we feel.


In this case, Jennifer’s apparent flirtation with Michael made Peter jealous. Peter, feeling embarrassed, explained his jealousy to Jennifer. She told him she never meant to make him feel that. She explained that after a hard week at work she enjoyed a good laugh. Now that she was aware of Peter’s feelings of jealousy, she decided to make an effort to pay more attention to Peter while Michael entertained them.


Empathy. As we learn the different emotions that we have, the various intensities with which we feel them, and the reasons for them, our awareness of our own emotions becomes textured and subtle. We then begin to perceive and intuit similar texture and subtlety in the emotions of those around us.


Empathy is a form of intuition specifically about emotions. The workings of empathy can at times feel like clairvoyance. When being empathic, we don’t figure out or think about, see, or hear other people’s emotions. We just know, directly, what the other person is feeling. It has been suggested that empathy is actually a sixth sense with which we perceive emotional energies in the same manner in which the eye perceives light. If that is the case, then empathy takes place on an intuitive sense-channel, separate from the other five senses, and goes directly to our awareness.


Emotional illiteracy results when we fail, in our formative years, to adequately develop that sixth sense. The constant lying about and discounting of feelings that are commonplace to childhood experiences and the systematic refusal to acknowledge our intuitions result in the defeat of our intuitive sense.


Some people are born empaths with high sensitivity to emotions, and others are emotionally tone deaf,[xxiv] if you will. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, and all of us can learn or relearn empathic awareness.


There is risk inherent in empathic awareness. The empathic response is a complex event. We may or may not respond empathically to other people’s emotions, and if we do, we may or may not be aware of our own response. The ideal relationship from this point of view is one in which both are empaths, aware of their emotions. Most difficult is the relationship between an empath and an “unpath,” in which one person reacts to emotions the other is not even aware of. This latter situation can be very unsettling and when chronic, can be maddening for the empath.


Empathy, like all intuition, is imprecise and of little value until we develop ways of objectively confirming the accuracy of our perceptions. For example, returning to Peter and Jennifer’s situation, Jennifer had begun to suspect that Peter was becoming more and more uncomfortable around Michael. Her intuition told her, even though Peter denied it at first, that he felt jealous. She couldn’t understand why he would feel this way, since she was extremely affectionate and attentive toward him during their private time together. She thought that Peter’s jealousy might have to do with Michael’s good looks, and began to wonder if Peter was insecure about his appearance.


Jennifer had been reading about emotional literacy and learning some of the techniques, which she had described to Peter. When Jennifer decided to ask Peter if he was feeling jealous, Peter’s first impulse was to deny it. He thought his jealousy was childish and was embarrassed to admit to it.


“Be honest, please,” Jennifer requested, reassuring Peter she wouldn’t think less of him.


“All right, I do feel a little jealous,” he admitted at last.


“But Michael isn’t especially attractive to me. I’m much more attracted to you.”


“No, that’s not it. You’ve made it pretty clear how much you like me,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “But you know how tongue-tied I get sometimes. Michael is so at ease and funny; aren’t you kind of attracted to that?”


Jennifer thought a moment. “Well, I guess so. But you’re just as funny in your own way, when we’re alone. Anyway, it’s fun hanging out with someone like him, but you’re the person I want to be in a relationship with. There are always going to be other people we both know who have qualities we like, but I am with you because I love you.” She gave him a hug and they embraced happily for a moment.


But now there was something Peter needed to clear up. “Can I ask you a question about this?”


Jennifer agreed eagerly.


“I feel like you keep your distance from me when he’s around. Actually, I am afraid you lose interest in me when the three of us get together.”


She was shocked. “Not at all!” But thinking it over, she realized why he might feel that way. “I guess I’ve always thought it’s rude to be affectionate with a partner in front of someone who’s single.”


“I can see that,” Peter nodded thoughtfully.


She added, “But you may be right, perhaps I’ve gone too far. I think we could hold hands sometimes or sit closer together without making Michael feel bad. I’ll try to do that more. I just was being very careful to be considerate.”


Peter’s intuition that Jennifer was attracted to something about Michael was confirmed. Also confirmed was that she was avoiding contact with Peter when the three were together. But his fear that she was romantically interested in Michael, or that Michael had eclipsed him, turned out to be untrue. Instead, he was pleased to learn how much she wanted to fit in with his friends and how hard she tried to be considerate of other people’s feelings. An important aspect of his intuition was validated, his fears allayed, and he discovered something new about Jennifer—her thoughtfulness toward his friends—which he found very lovable.


Peter had sometimes dismissed Jennifer’s declarations of love as exaggerations, but hearing her talk calmly about why she’d chosen to be with him, he suddenly felt more sure of her love. By following up her hunch about Peter’s jealousy, and by initiating a discussion with him, Jennifer was forging a stronger, more emotionally literate connection between herself and Peter. Her intuition proved correct, and that gave her a chance to change in a way that helped Peter feel better—just a sample of the many fruits of an emotionally literate dialogue.


We hone our awareness of other people’s emotions by asking questions; if the other person is unwilling to be honest and supply truthful feedback, we cannot make progress. Honest feedback is the sole means of heightening one’s empathic intuitions. The process of truthful discussion and feedback greatly improves the accuracy of our subsequent empathic perceptions. Awareness of our own emotions is a prerequisite for empathy, and we learn to become aware of the intensity of other people’s feelings. We also learn to understand why these feelings occur, sometimes as clearly as we understand our own feelings. Eventually, as our emotional literacy improves, our empathic perceptions become more accurate and reliable. We learn to trust our feelings and perceptions and to be more open about them. This transformation is achieved through a continual formulation of our perceptions, gathering feedback to check them out, and correcting our misinterpretations.


It is important here to draw a distinction between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is an intellectual process with which we can deduce and even visualize another person’s emotional state. That helps us understand and even predict how he or she might feel and act. However, sympathy is not an emotional but a mental process. It stands in relation to empathy as a paint-by-the-numbers canvas stands to an artist’s rendering. We can fill in the proper spaces with the rights colors or emotions to get a reasonable facsimile of the real thing without actually involving ourselves in the emotional process.


Empathy is quite different. It involves our own emotions: We understand what others feel because we feel it in our hearts, as well as visualize it in our minds. Many people are not able to empathize with certain emotions in other people. In such cases, sympathy is clearly better than a total lack of awareness of other people’s feelings and emotions. But sympathy is a minimal form of emotional literacy. To move  to the next level of emotional awareness, true empathy is required.


Interactivity. As I have mentioned, being “merely” an empathic person, an “empath” if you will, has its disadvantages. The empath is keenly aware of a complex universe of emotional information not largely perceived by others, some of it painful, perhaps even unbearably so.


Knowing how others feel does not necessarily mean we know what to do about it. People’s emotional behavior seems to call for a response; but a response may not be wanted, welcome, or possible. Being highly empathic in a largely emotionally illiterate world can literally drive a person mad; an empathic person needs to know what to do with his or her awareness.


Emotional interactivity requires knowing how people will respond to each other’s emotions and when that interaction might escalate for better or for worse. It means knowing people’s emotions well enough to know how one person will react to anger or fear or sadness and how another will respond to love, sexuality, joy, or optimism. Emotional interactivity is based on the most sophisticated level of awareness, the ability to realize what you are feeling and what others are feeling, and to anticipate how emotions will interact. This further enables you to anticipate how two different people, given their usual emotional proclivities, will react in a given situation.


Emotions merge, fade, grow, and shrink in each other’s presence and over time. Interactive awareness has to do with understanding the way emotions, like chemicals, combine to create new substances that one could not have guessed at from examining the component parts. These combinations can be creative, inert, or explosive, as in the chemist’s laboratory. The ability to predict these reactions can come only from a great deal of accumulated experience or wisdom. The complicated awareness of how emotions combine—with each other, within people, and between people—is the highest level of emotional sophistication.


While this sounds very complex, a simple example of this wisdom at work is the way my friend David introduced his new love interest, Ramona, to his teenage daughter, Robyn, who tended to be shy and resentful of her father’s female friends. Knowing that a face-to-face meeting over dinner might be hard for Robyn, David instead decided that his new girlfriend should come along while he drove his daughter to another city to visit her mother. This gave Robyn a chance to observe him with his new partner while she sat in the backseat, safely out of sight. This way Robyn learned about her potential stepmother-to-be. She had a better chance to get to know and like Ramona than she could at a potentially difficult dinner, where she might be nervous about being in the limelight. David’s sense that the back seat drive was a better option than a dinner arose from his heightened awareness of emotional interactions.


Another more complicated example is John and Dawn, a couple who had been in a month-long conflict. John was angry because Dawn was spending more and more time at her new job, which was the first job she had ever had that really excited and fully challenged her. John was used to being the principal wage earner and was feeling inexplicable jealousy and envy. He had always been prone to emotional outbursts, and lately he felt dangerously close to losing his temper. John and Dawn had a good relationship of many years, and John knew that Dawn loved and trusted him. However, she was easily frightened by his displays of anger.


They had had a number of unproductive emotionally charged conversations, and Dawn was beginning to retreat emotionally from him. John was feeling increasingly at a loss. Brooding about what to do, John remembered the time he and Dawn had had a heated disagreement while dining with her sister Marsha. Marsha’s presence helped John control his temper, and Marsha had acted as a calm advocate for Dawn, which seemed to embolden Dawn to hold her own in the debate. John decided that it would be a good idea to invite Marsha over for Sunday brunch, explaining that he wanted her help to discuss Dawn’s work. He talked the idea over with Marsha and with her approval called Dawn. Marsha, Dawn, and John agreed on a good time and after a pleasant meal John gently suggested that Marsha sit near Dawn while he told her how he had been feeling. John knew that if he let his feelings loose under less protected circumstances he might get angry and Dawn would feel overpowered. He might get her to cut back on her work, but not without creating serious emotional repercussions later.


Marsha was a good choice for a mediator because she liked both of them and was not scared of John. Her self-assured, calming influence gave John the confidence to speak out clearly and gave Dawn the strength to stand up to his demands without being intimidated.


On the other hand, if Dawn was a different sort of a person, not afraid to hear John out even if he got excited and raised his voice, the situation would be very different and would call for a different, perhaps more direct approach that would not require bringing in Dawn’s sister to mediate. John was aware of his own feelings and tendencies and equally aware of Dawn’s. He knew from experience how their different styles were likely to interact, namely, that he would raise his voice in excitement and that she would likely comply but later be unhappy and irritable. He took steps to prevent the problems that would result if he acted impulsively. This kind of deliberate analysis of the emotional landscape of a relationship is the hallmark of emotionally literate interactivity.


Interactivity is a much-used concept in the communication age. In that context, it refers to intelligent interaction instead of passive acceptance. The same is true of emotional interactivity. Interactive awareness enables us to register the emotions within and around us, and to begin to see how they can be molded to creative ends, instead of going unnoticed and being allowed to run out of control. We can use our emotional awareness to have easier, more positive and productive interactions. Interactivity empowers empaths to use their awareness to navigate powerful emotional situations in a skillful way. Interactivity is the link between emotional awareness, which is the subject of this chapter, and the larger topic of emotional literacy, the subject of this book.


???. I have added this category of as yet unknown level or levels of emotional awareness to indicate a higher aspect of emotional awareness is quite possible. Perhaps there is awareness of the emotions of animals or other living things, which for most people is beyond the pale. Perhaps you, dear reader, are privy to such awareness. If that is the case I would be thankful if you communicated it to me via my web site: www.emotional-literacy.com.





Neocortical adult functions, in addition to language and symbolic thinking, are also applied to the modulation and even modification of the lower brains’ functions. Rational control of the procreative, aggressive, protective, and affiliative drives are one of the byproducts of human neocortical evolution. However, as Joseph LeDoux points out in The Emotional Brain, there is a distinct asymmetry in the way these two portions of the brain affect each other, namely that the reptilian and limbic brain have a far greater influence upon the neocortical brain than vice versa, “making it possible for emotional arousal to dominate and control thinking. … Although thoughts can easily trigger emotions, we are not very effective at turning emotions off.”


Emotional literacy seeks to reverse that order of things by equalizing the influence of the neocortex and the lower brain and vice versa. Awareness is an essential aspect of personal power, but as we have seen, it is not sufficient by itself to produce the changes that emotional literacy requires. As a person’s emotional awareness expands, he or she is able to learn the additional skills of emotional regulation necessary to act in an increasingly emotionally literate way. Learning awareness and literacy are essential lessons in this book.



Emotional Awareness


Awareness is an essential part of emotional literacy. You can question yourself on an emotional awareness scale and see where you stand.


The scale, from lowest to highest awareness, is as follows:


Numbness: You haven’t any awareness of your feelings.

Physical sensations:  You experience chaotic emotions but you don’t know what they are. You can’t discuss them or under­stand them.

Differentiation: By crossing the verbal barrier and talking about your feelings, you learn to differentiate between anger, love, shame, joy, and hatred.

Causality: Not only can you tell emotions apart, you also understand what causes them.

Empathy: You are aware of other people’s emotions.

Interactivity: You are sensitive to the ebb and flow of emo­tions around you and how they interact.






You don’t have to live in a state of emotional numbness, nor are you doomed to go through life feeling dejected, irritable, anxious, tortured by impulses, or out of control emotionally. And if you are an openly responsive empath, you don’t need to be enslaved by other people’s feelings. With a supportive environment and the transactional techniques outlined in this book, you can turn your emotions from being a drain to a source of power.


Research shows you can heal the emotional chaos [xxv] of even extreme trauma in an environment that lets you express your strong feelings. In an emotionally literate environment, you can go right to the heart of your problem and slowly but surely deal with its overwhelming emotions. The feelings that result from emotional trauma, including flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety attacks, and depression will lessen in time or even vanish when discussed with sympathetic friends, family, counselors, or therapy group members. Not only that, but you will discover a new emotional self and your relationships with others will be transformed.


It might seem that pursuing your emotional self is a fool-hardy adventure in a world such as ours. Those people around you who keep their strong feelings out of sight seem to have an advantage—they can stay the course when others are swamped by feelings. But in the long run, a truly productive life requires that we include emotional information in our choices. From a routine discussion of the news over breakfast to a critical decision such as marriage, you vitally need emotional knowledge for a well-rounded, effective approach to life.



Few things are as exciting as the rediscovery or refinement of our emotional selves. It is this excitement that fuels people’s interest in emotional literacy workshops and training. When people glimpse the implications of an emotionally literate life they are often struck by its potential beauty. This drives some people to become Emotional Warriors in a crusade against emotional illiteracy.


For instance, a recently widowed grandmother of 55 who took one of my workshops in Germany wrote me as follows:


“Since I was a child I have known that life can be lived differently and I always had the vague idea that it had to do with honesty about feelings and no compromise about what I want, together with a strong love of people. I have tried to love people, I love my daughters and my grandchildren, but I see now that love is not enough. It can go very wrong, as in my marriage. From now on I will be a crusader for emotional honesty. Nothing less will do. Thanks for showing me the way.”


This woman has set her goal very high. She can reach it, not all at once, but over time. The key is to work systematically. At the end of this chapter I briefly describe the three training stages I have developed to teach emotional literacy: opening the heart, surveying the emotional landscape, and taking responsibility.



But first, let’s take a look at the process that this training follows. It is possible to begin emotional literacy training by paying attention to any of the emotions, but over the years I have found that the most effective gateway through our emotional barriers is the expression our loving nature. Emotional literacy training begins and ends with the heart.


In my work with couples, women often complain that men do not love them or don’t love them enough, that they do not express loving feelings, or that they gladly take affection but don’t give it. (See Hogie Wyckoff’s article “The stroke economy in women’s scripts”[xxvi].) To be sure, there are always a few men who simply don’t love their wives (or partners). But more often than not, men do love them but suffer from an inability to express their love convincingly. These men often wonder, eventually, why it is that they can’t be more loving in their actions. Women make this complaint often about men, but men can have the same grievance about women—that they are cold and don’t show affection. This inability to show love is one example of emotional numbness. Emotional numbness is by no means exclusive to men, though research shows that their emotional range is, in the whole, more restricted.[xxvii]  But no matter which gender is involved, the solution is the same: Loosen the fetters upon your heart.


Let me give an example: Jack and Gina came to my office and were very upset. After a long courtship and a year and a half of blissful marriage, things were falling apart. They were fighting about “everything,” and their fights were getting so bad that their relationship seemed destined to end in disaster.


In a very brief preliminary discussion, I could tell that they were still in love. They had always been unable to deal effectively with certain emotional issues. But these issues—having to do with sex and money—were now piling up between them. I could have spent quite a bit of time asking questions about their childhood or trying to mediate their arguments, but instead—because I could see that there was a lot of good emotional capital between them—I suggested that they start talking about the good things in one another that made them fall in love in the first place.


This calmed them down and got them back onto common ground. Soon they were speaking civilly to each other and their feelings of love were reawakened as they remembered the “good old days” of their relationship. In essence, they had reopened their hearts to each other. Over the next month, I had them explore their emotional makeup. Using emotional literacy training transactions, I asked them to talk about their feelings for each other, revealing their anger, their deepest fears, and their greatest hopes.


By the time they finished exploring each other’s hereto hidden emotional landscape, they had a new understanding and appreciation for one another. This new understanding provided a way to recognize how they had damaged their relationship with a series of hurtful missteps that needed to be corrected. Now they were ready to accept responsibility for their actions. Painfully, they admitted their wrongdoings and accepted each other’s apologies. This was difficult but it brought them great relief, often mixed with tears of joy and hope. Their mutual love had returned and their relationship was strengthened. The above discussion, in a nutshell, shows the process behind this program. Following is a discussion of each of the three steps in the training process:


1. Opening the heart: This comes first because the heart is the virtual seat of our emotions. It is in our hearts that we feel good when we are happy, in love, or joyful. It is here that we feel bad when we are sad, angry, and heartbroken. So I start by freeing the center of our feelings from the restrictive impulses and influences that keep us from showing love for one another.


2. Surveying the emotional landscape: Once the basic heart-opening groundwork is done, you can look around and take note of the emotional terrain in which you live. You can learn to know just what you are feeling, how strongly, and why. You become aware of the ebb and flow of your emotions. With your loving feelings as a secure base you note the emotions being experienced by others and see how their feelings are affected by your actions. You develop empathy. You begin to understand how all the emotions interact and sometimes create feelings that can flood over us and others. In short, you become more aware of and wiser about your own feelings and those of people around you.


3. Taking responsibility: People make mistakes in their relationships, little ones and big ones. When you make a damaging mistake you need to apologize and take responsibility for your actions. It also stands to reason that you should make amends and correct your behavior so the mistake won’t happen again. Very few people are emotionally skilled enough to apologize sincerely and without any defensiveness.


Unfortunately, most people are loath to admit, even to themselves, that they have done something wrong. If they can admit it to themselves, they have trouble admitting it to others. Others apologize freely and repeatedly but never do anything to change their behavior, so their apologies are meaningless. Taking responsibility for our actions and correcting our behavior is the final phase of emotional literacy training.



What I have described may seem like a lot of work. You may think the process will drain you. However, at the end of the day it will, in fact, energize you. We squander huge stocks of emotional energy when we block the expression of our emotions. Whether it’s keeping silent about a shameful trauma, holding in our affectionate enthusiasm so we do not embarrass ourselves, or locking away a painful memory, we waste shocking amounts of energy hiding and repressing our feelings. Letting go of these feelings not only releases the power of our emotions, it also gives us back the energy we wasted keeping them pushed down. And letting others express their emotions brings them closer to us, energizing both parties with love and affection. That’s why those who learn these lessons report such dramatic energy-enhancing effects.


It’s an exciting prospect, isn’t it? But we shouldn’t rush forward blindly; it’s best to go about it in a thoughtful and systematic way. I’ll show you just how to do this using clearly explained, step-by-step, transactional exercises.



If you practice the three emotional strategies discussed in this book—opening the heart, surveying the emotional landscape, and taking responsibility—you will see dramatic changes in your emotional awareness, attitude, and effectiveness. In particular, you will learn:


* How to know what you want and what you feel; how to be truthful about your emotions; how to pursue fulfillment of your emotional needs. 


* How to manage your emotions creatively; when to hold back and when to express your feelings.


* How to deal with emotional numbness or turmoil.


* How to apply your knowledge of emotions at work, at home, in school, in social groups, and “on the street” to improve and deepen your relationships and forge long-lasting, honest connections with people.


* How to practice a love-centered approach to personal power in a society that is moving in the direction of mistrust, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.



What follows are the three stages, each made up of four steps of emotional literacy training. This set of emotionally literate transactions is arranged in order of difficulty. You may find that you already have some skills with transactions 3 or 4 and want to start with transaction 5. Or you may feel confident with all 15 but need to fine-tune your skills. But it will be useful to understand all the components of emotional literacy training before you can begin to practice it effectively. If you don’t know where you are going, it will be more difficult to find your way.


The stages and transactions of this process are like a road map to emotional transformation. Each step is a specific, emotionally literate transaction. As you learn each transaction and practice it in your everyday life, you will learn the elements of an emotionally literate communication and emotional style. Some of these transactions will be familiar to you; some will seem outlandish. Some of them will be easy, some extremely difficult. The transactions early in the list are generally easier than the ones toward the end. Here are the transactions and stages that will be covered in detail in the chapters ahead:


Emotional Literacy; Training Steps


0.             Asking for permission.


Stage One: Opening the Heart

1.                  Giving Strokes

2.                  Asking for Strokes

3.                  Accepting Strokes

4.                  Rejecting Strokes

5.                  Giving Ourselves Strokes


Stage Two: Surveying the Emotional Landscape

6.                  Action/Feeling Statements

7.                  Accepting an Action/Feeling Statement 

8.                  Revealing Our Intuitive Hunches

9.                  Validating an Intuitive Hunch


Stage Three: Taking Responsibility

10.               Apologizing for Our Mistakes

11.               Accepting Apologies

12.               Rejecting Apologies

13.               Asking for Forgiveness

14.               Granting Forgiveness 

15.               Denying Forgiveness






Training to Be Emotionally Literate


You don’t have to go through life emotionally numb or tyr­annized by your emotions. In the right environment, with sup­portive people, you can learn a more satisfying emotional existence.


You’ll find the quest for emotional literacy exciting and satisfying. The process will energize you as you experience the power of your emotions and as you stop wasting energy to repress or hide them. To do so, you must practice with others who share your emotional goals.


Opening the heart: With supportive people and friends, you take part in simple acts of mutual affection.

Surveying the emotional landscape: You focus on the ebb and flow of your own emotions and those of the people around you. Listening with an open heart, you strive to un­derstand emotions and their reasons.

Taking responsibility: You admit that your mi­nor or major mistakes have hurt people in your life. You apologize and make amends.

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