Resilience has been a hot topic over the last few years, especially when it comes to Millennials. The rhetoric often paints one very specific picture: Millennials don’t know how to cope with struggle because their parents have hovered, intervened and protected them at every turn.
And while I have witnessed this pattern firsthand many times, and totally agree that this is a significant contributing factor to the Millennial meltdown, I think it’s a little too convenient to reduce a complicated and nuanced problem down to a single root cause.
Instead, I want to highlight a pattern I’m seeing in the research and in my clients (Millennials and parents alike) that is 1) scaring the crap out of me and 2) a crucial missing puzzle in the resilience conversation:
we are emotionally illiterate.
It turns out that on average, people can identify and articulate a whopping total of 3 emotions: happy, sad and pissed off. And although there is conflicting research about how many core emotions we actually feel, I can personally attest to the fact that we experience a hell of a lot more than 3.
But why does this even matter?
Imagine this: I go to a doctor because I’m having pain in my shoulder. But when the doctor asks me to describe the pain, all I can do is cry. I can’t express when it hurts, specifically where in my shoulder I feel pain, whether the pain is dull or sharp, how often it hurts, which movements exacerbate the pain, how long it’s been hurting, how I injured myself in the first place, etc.
How can I possibly treat my shoulder pain effectively if I can’t articulate what I’m feeling?!
The same is true of helping our kids (and ourselves) to effectively navigate the emotional tornadoes that accompany adversity: the ability to accurately recognize and name emotions in the midst of a struggle is a key ingredient to being able to process difficult situations productively and bounce back more quickly.
Emotional literacy is at the very core of resilience and we desperately need to improve our proficiency. Plus, research has found that people who are emotionally skilled perform better in school, have better relationships, and engage less frequently in unhealthy behaviors.
BUT WAIT. THERE’S MORE!
Emotional literacy isn’t just important when we are the one in the midst of a struggle—it’s equally important when we are the one sitting across from the person in the midst of the struggle.
As parents, friends, co-workers and leaders, we are often faced with the critical task of supporting others as they navigate through hard times. The single most impactful tool we can employ in these moments is empathy. But we absolutely can’t empathize if we are unable to recognize and acknowledge another’s emotion.
If you still aren’t sold on the value of emotional literacy, know this: how we feel is inextricably linked to how we think and behave. Feelings, thoughts and actions are the holy triad of the human experience and each one directly impacts the others.
And when it comes to experiencing challenges and setbacks, emotions (not rational thoughts) get the very first crack at making sense of what’s happening. Our brain is hard wired for survival and can’t stand uncertainty or ambiguity, so within seconds, our emotions overtake our rational mind and often trigger maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. Being able to move through a struggle in ways that are productive instead of reactive requires us to, above all else, recognize and identify our emotions.
According to research from Dr. Brené Brown, these are the 30 core emotions we must learn to recognize in order to achieve emotional literacy:
Being able to recognize when we’re emotionally hooked allows us to make conscious choices instead of experiencing impulsive reactions to an emotional hijacking.
The very first step in being able to reckon with our emotions is practicing mindfulness. (I know that word sends some people running for the hills, but mindfulness is just another way of saying “paying attention!”) Bottom line: we can’t move through or change something that we’re not aware of, so learning how to notice your feelings, in real time as they are happening, is crucial. This can be a real challenge at first, so the best way to begin is by filling in the blanks of the exercise below when you are NOT in the midst of an emotional episode.
When I feel anxious (pick an emotion from the list above):
–I physically feel: a pit in my stomach, sweaty arm pits, racing heart, etc.
–The thoughts that constantly loop in my mind are: I’m not good enough, what’s going to happen, I have to work harder, etc.
–My go-to thought process is: obsessing and ruminating
–The first thing I want to do is: cry
–The only thing I want to do is: hide and avoid people
Once you’ve achieved this level of clarity around the warning signs of being hooked by a particular emotion, you are exponentially more likely to be able to recognize the onset of that emotion the next time around. And, to reiterate: being able to recognize when you’re emotionally hooked allows you to make conscious choices about your subsequent thought processes and behaviors, instead of impulsively reacting to an emotional hijacking.
For some people, the very concept of emotional literacy is just “too touchy feely.” Interestingly, Brown’s research revealed that a lot of how much or how little we value emotion comes from what we were taught or saw as we were growing up. These are the top 7 messages caretakers send that diminish the value of embracing emotions:
- Being emotional is a sign of vulnerability, and vulnerability is weakness.
- Don’t ask. Don’t tell. You can feel emotion all you want, but there’s nothing to be gained by sharing it with others.
- We don’t have access to emotional language or a full emotional vocabulary, so we stay quiet or make fun of it.
- Discussing emotion is frivolous, self-indulgent, and a waste of time. It’s not for people like us.
- We’re so numb to feeling that there’s nothing to discuss.
- Uncertainty is too uncomfortable.
- Engaging and asking questions invites trouble. I’ll learn something I don’t want to or shouldn’t know.
Do any of these resonate with you?
If we are interested in raising a resilient generation, we must commit to educating our youth (and ourselves) about the value of recognizing and communicating emotions.