Children are taught to read and write, but emotional literacy is neglected in many cultures.
As a result, it is common to find adults who are emotionally incompetent - not aware of how they feel or unable to express their feelings in words.
When someone is emotionally incompetent, parts of the person's self appear to be "split", said Dr Leslie Greenberg at a public forum on emotion coaching organised by Caper Spring two weeks ago.
The distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Canada is also the developer of emotion-focused therapy (EFT), an evidence-based and clinically validated approach in psychology.
This lack of self-knowledge may occur when people ignore, suppress or fear their emotions, which are connected to their most essential needs.
Emotion coaching aims to help people harness their emotions to improve personal productivity, become competent in understanding, expressing and managing their emotions, which would then make them more skilful in responding to other people's feelings as well.
Dr Greenberg taught the 300 forum participants six steps of working with emotions.
This ability to discern, sense or discriminate emotional signals both in oneself and in others can be trained.
When you have a good awareness of your own emotions, you are more likely to pick up other people's emotional signals too.
Try this awareness exercise:
Find a quiet place.
Recall a recent incident in which you experienced strong or intense emotions, such as in a heated argument.
Bring yourself back to that time and recall what your body was experiencing (tense shoulders, clenched jaws, trembling fingers?).
Narrate this experience to a voice recorder or device such as a mobile phone. Keep this to under three minutes.
Before listening to the audio clip, ask yourself what you were feeling (including bodily sensations) when you were telling your story.
Play the recording and ask yourself how you felt hearing your own story. Take note of your voice. You could also do this exercise with a person you trust, by narrating the experience to him while focusing on your feelings.
This is the ability to describe or label emotional signals using language, metaphors or images.
As you become more in tune or aware of your emotions, you will get better at symbolising or representing emotions.
You can practise this by describing to someone how you feel about a picture or a piece of music. This exercise makes emotions less frightening and more manageable.
This is the ability to moderate, manage and even tolerate intense or strong emotions, without which a person may turn to unhealthy ways to cope, such as substance abuse or self-harming behaviour.
Blocking difficult or painful emotions is regarded as poor emotion regulation.
Babies have their mothers to soothe them, but most adults can learn how to soothe themselves by regulating their emotions.
Useful strategies include:
a. Breathing in a deliberate manner.
b. Observing how you are feeling.
c. Delaying responding.
d. Having distractions.
This is the ability to accept emotional signals and integrate them with one's thoughts and actions.
People may have difficulties accepting a particular emotion because of past experiences ("I am not going to allow myself to feel sad any more") or through socialisation ("When I was growing up, no one was allowed to show their anger as it was deemed destructive").
When we accept our emotions, we become clearer about our needs and values.
5. MAKE SENSE
This ability to make sense of one's emotions and relate them to the situation or experience at hand is sometimes referred to as reflection.
Sense-making strategies include:
a. Keeping a journal.
b. Writing poetry.
c. Narrate about a situation, either to a voice recorder or a trusted person.
This is the ability to assess if one can be safely guided by one's emotions in different situations.
If you assess that the emotion is still felt but is an obsolete response belonging to a past situation, then the emotion needs to be transformed.
An example of a maladaptive emotion is when a woman who was sexually abused responds with fear each time her husband touches her.
Evaluating the response helps her to be aware of her fears so that she can overcome them, sometimes with the help of a therapist.
This article was first published on May 22, 2014. Get a copy of Mind Your Body, The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.