Emotional Literacy

When I was 20 years old, I went on a trip with other college kids to spend five weeks in Ecuador. On the part of the trip where we spent two weeks living with an Indian tribe in the Amazon river basin, I got into a debate with another young woman in the expedition.

She was from Brown University and she seemed to navigate the world with an air of intellectual superiority. In this case, she had moved on from the disdain of my friends on the trip who were pursuing English degrees (“what exactly will that teach you?” she’d say), and was expressing pity for the tribe we lived with because their language had primarily words that were related to the life they lived, not the spectrum of life in and out of the jungle.

So I shot back with something I’d heard about a Noam Chomsky study showing that in cultures where their language only has words for light and dark (white or black) as related to color, they still have the ability to identify specific colors. I thought I was proving that we aren’t limited by our language.

Thirty years later I look back at what I remember of this particular conversation with a little bit of a shudder. All that I think I knew at age 20 and was willing to argue about….

Because I’ve found how I’ve been limited by language – not in any way counter to Noam Chomsky who I believe was saying that the ability to think about things not named was possible, but in the practice of actually doing it.

In my family growing up, we didn’t talk about negative emotions. Words like anxiety, depression, dread, loneliness, disconnection – we didn’t talk about any of that. In fact, the only “negative” emotion that I recall that was fair game was “stressed” because it came with an assumption of Protestant productivity.

Then I had kids and somewhere in the wonderful book Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina was the guidance to help kids name emotions as they experience big feelings. Because to name them is to help tame them. And then the book counseled that parents needed to model owning and naming their own emotions. Reading that, I thought, “No way I’m doing that.”

Fortunately for me and my emotional literacy, there are books like Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart which maps out 87 different emotions and experiences. Because a few years into this parenting experience and I see how powerful naming emotions is for our human experience. And even though I’m late to the game in both recognizing and talking about these emotions, I’ve found so much goodness in being able to start to parse them now.


Any time I’d climb a big mountain, I used to write out a will. It was a bit silly given that my likelihood of dying on the mountains I was climbing was small but I recognize this now as a way I was trying to curb my anxiety. Now I feel it way more frequently – every time I take my two non-proficient swimmers to a swimming pool, travel any distance far from my kids, or just those days or weeks when I can’t put my finger on the source.

Anxiety and excitement feel the same, but how we interpret and label them can determine how we experience them.

Even though excitement is described as an energized state of enthusiasm leading up to or during an enjoyable activity, it doesn’t always feel great. We can get the same “coming out of our skin” feeling that we experience when we’re feeling anxious. Similar sensations are labeled “anxiety” when we perceive them negatively and “excitement” when we perceive them positively.”

Brené Brown in Atlas of the Heart

I found this information so helpful – because I think I often am both anxious and excited. I feel it in situations that deviate from the norm and/or I don’t have control of, and I flip between the positive and negative interpretations repeatedly.


I came into this world on the light-hearted side and I’ve worked hard to cultivate gratitude. But my lack of language around sadness has led me to grind out life a good deal of the time, all cloaked in a positive spin.  When I am not able to spend time alone, get outdoors, experience loss and doubt, and feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, I wither. And still I just push on through. No wonder my dentist made me a night-guard for my teeth years ago because of all the grinding I do.

“I’m not going to tell you that sadness is wonderful and we need it. I’m going to say that sadness is important and we need it. Feeling sad is a normal response to loss or defeat, or even the perception of loss or defeat. To be human is to know sadness. Owning our sadness is courageous and a necessary step to finding our way back to ourselves and each other.”

Brené Brown in Atlas of the Heart

When I resist sadness, I resist feeling. ANYTHING. More than that, when I communicate only the positive of my experience, it’s far less relatable.

Foreboding Joy

I can’t tell you how relieved I was to learn what foreboding joy was. I thought the feeling I experience when watching my kids sleep and then flip to “what if I lose them” was a premonition. Until I learned that there’s something called foreboding joy.

“When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding. No emotion is more frightening than joy, because we believe if we allow ourselves to feel joy, we are inviting disaster. We start dress-rehearsing tragedy in the best moments of our lives in order to stop vulnerability from beating us to the punch. We are terrified of being blindsided by pain, so we practice tragedy and trauma. But there’s a huge cost.

When we push away joy, we squander the goodness that we need to build resilience, strength, and courage.”

Brené Brown in Atlas of the Heart

Oh no – something else I need to learn to do better: embrace vulnerability.

Back in the jungles of Ecuador when I was 20 years-old, I was clearly experiencing some defensiveness when engaged in my debate. Another emotion defined in the Atlas of the Heart. Thank goodness I’ve learned that I have so much to learn about this thing called life.

I’d love for you to check out and follow my latest project – The Heart of the Matter. It’s a blog of fantastic writers and thinkers delving into what matters in life (and also what doesn’t). You can find it at https://sharingtheheartofthematter.com

For most posts like this – a little story-telling mixed with philosophy, please visit my personal blog at https://wynneleon.wordpress.com 

And if you want to follow me, you can find me on Instagram and Twitter @wynneleon

(featured photo from Pexels)

29 thoughts on “Emotional Literacy

  1. I love Brene Brown’s thoughts about anxiety and excitement…so much of her work speaks to me, and I know many others, and her perspective is liberating for those of us, as you said, who do a lot of the flipping and pivoting! 🤍

    1. Yes, Brene Brown is fantastic! I haven’t yet read Atlas of The Heart, but it sounds as if it’s filled with wisdom. I had never thought about naming emotions as being an important part of our human experience, but it makes so much sense. Thanks, Wynne! So much food for thought here.

      1. I hadn’t thought of naming emotions either until I had kids, Erin. But it is amazing to watch how it works to tame them for kids — and then think of it for ourselves!

  2. I just bought Brene’s book! Foreboding joy is something I’ve experienced that I didn’t know had such a simple definition. I really enjoyed her Ted Talk on embracing vulnerability, and it looks like I need to give it another listen. Thank you for the great post!

    1. Oh, I love this comment. Yes, I didn’t know foreboding joy had such a simple definition either and it’s so widespread! Thanks for reading and the comment!

  3. Someone penned the phrase “Life is a journey” and for me that means experiencing and learning new things. Maybe if we can wrap our heads around thinking of everyday as a journey we might understand that learning never stops. I’m not sure everyone sees just how multi-layered the concept of learning really is. It goes far beyond the literal way many of us think.

    1. I love your perspective about learning every day and the many aspects of that. Ah, so true and what a blessing when we can see it and we can be around people who inspire learning – like you, Deb!

  4. The girl “I am the best and you cannot compare with me” is the typical person I would have argued in a younger age. Nowadays I would just go away or pretend not to listen to avoid any useless discussion (that would drain my energy down). I don’t know how to name this emotion. Is it intolerance or indifference? In both cases, they are not positive emotions but I am sure that great Brené would find some explanation that would make me comfortable again. Interesting article Wynne! By the way, I will buy her book.

    1. What an interesting question about what that emotion is – I hadn’t thought of that. I wouldn’t argue with that person now either. So I’ve thumbed through the book and come up with “resignation” – I’ve lost the motivation to keep trying?? Fascinating question you’ve asked, Cristiana!

  5. As usual, Wynne, you’ve managed to hit on so many great things, all in one sitting. I don’t know if I’ve ever said this before, or if I’ve just thought it… If I’m repeating myself, please forgive me, but one thing I love about your posts is you know how to tell a mean story, but you also back it up, so to speak, with research. There’s meat to your posts, which I so appreciate.

    Beyond all of that, the foreboding joy part really jumped out at me too. I think for those of us who are somewhat intuitive, it’s a great reminder that sometimes we feel things simply because of our own emotions and fears. ❤️

    1. What an incredibly lovely comment, Kendra. Thank you, my friend! And I think (going from memory here) that Brene said 95% of all parents feel foreboding joy – it’s such a common experience that I’m so glad that I have the name for!

  6. I just love your willingness to dig into your head and heart to find the truth within yourself—I know from experience, it isn’t always fun! Sometimes there are some demons lurking around down there in the dark. But your perseverance always wins out in the end, and you inevitably emerge bigger, better, and wiser as a result. Your ability to express so beautifully what you learned from it all is the gift you bring back with you to share so that others can benefit by your experience. Thank you!

    1. Julia, you’ve just made me feel as if I’ve ventured into the depths to slay the Minotaur and emerged a hero. Thank you for holding the thread for me and allowing me the room and opportunity to grow! I’m so thankful for you and this wonderful community!

  7. You have brought so many important concepts into sharp focus, Wynn. My grandparents and parents seldom put many of these experiences and feelings into words, and I am not sure I was much better at dealing with my children’s emotions, though I hope I was. I remember once my daughter, who was working with autistic twins at the time, explained to me that after you discipline a child, it is important to reassure them that you love them and that the incident is over. I also learned from her the phrase, “Good job!” That’s something children need to hear when they accomplish something. Maybe your children will turn out to be great parents as a result of your good example! <3

    1. What a lovely and encouraging comment, Cheryl. I think you highlight what we all hope for – that we can grow enough to be a little better. There’s sometimes I think I manage it and sometimes I’m not so sure but thank goodness I get to learn and try again! I can imagine your daughter did a beautiful job with those twins.

  8. Brent Brown is great, love her books, but I think you need to work on one of your own Wynne! You bring up so many great points. Since reading this earlier today, I’ve been thinking about how my family talked about negative emotions when I was a kid. We simply didn’t and it’s interesting to see how the affects over the years. Love how you’re so willing to share what you’ve learned. Thanks so much.

    1. I find it fascinating to learn that your family didn’t either. Thanks for letting me know I wasn’t alone in that. Yes, the ripple effect then is interesting in many ways. Thank you so much for your lovely and encouraging comment, Brian!!

  9. My family was the same. No discussion about or expression of emotions, no warm fuzzies, no hugs. It was all very stoic—My mother was an extremely responsible young widow with 3 small children and no money who lived through the great depression— the days when folks developed a “suck it up, get over it, and get on with it” mentality. It left me struggling to deal with unexpressed, confusing emotions that I neither understood nor knew what to do with— which which might explain a couple of those divorces! 🙃 The gift of it was that it prepared the field for later healing for us all. A blessing in the long run, but at the time, not so much!

    1. What an interesting history. I can only imagine how tough it was for your mother. I’ve heard the psychologist Dr Ham theorize that generations that suffered great trauma like war or the great depression could only focus on safety and finances. It wasn’t until the next generation came along and had the luxury of the solid ground to stand on that they could ask “what about emotions?”

      Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that you did a lot of healing and more to become the luminous person you are. I’d be so curious to know how that shows up in your kids and grandkids. Thanks for a great comment, Julia!

  10. Wow! You sure have done some exciting things with the Amazon trip and mountain climbing!
    Something about this post reminds me of an ongoing conversation I have with my wife where she basically accuses me of being too negative, and I counter with something about how engaging so called negativity, sadness, etc is actually healthy in proper doses. I think she believes I’m overstating my case for arguements sake, but I’m not. To me, not engaging with those negative feelings is like eating sugar all day. It tastes good for awhile, but the real nutrients come from things like greens, which can taste bitter.
    I don’t know if this ramble makes any sense- I’m up past my bedtime and brain foggy! 😰🙃 BTW- I have a night guard too- that thing is a real tooth saver!

  11. Feeling our feelings is so important isn’t it? Allowing ourselves to know when we are upbeat about something, or experiencing trepidation. There has been quite a range of emotions my fiancé and I have been feeling as we plan our wedding, and it has been important for us to acknowledge the validity of them, but not let them guide our actions alone.

    I enjoy many of Brené Brown’s books and your writing here has encouraged me to add Atlas of the Heart near the top of my reading list!

    Thank you for sharing this. 😊

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