Make your own free website on



[ref: Claude Steiner, Emotional Literacy, Transactional Analysis Journal, Vol 14, No 3, July, 1984:162-173]

At one time psychological therapy was supposed to be "supportive" and nonanalytical.  The idea was to get at your feelings and let them out.  And this was to happen, preferably, not on the couch of a psychoanalyst, but in a group of your peers. 

This approach is now being abandoned by many who doubt that this is a worthwhile way to go.  Too many badly trained therapists cast a bad light on the procedures of activities like sensitivity training, self-improvement workshops, encounter sessions held in country retreats. 

The fashion was to get in contact with how you were feeling.  A session was good if a lot of negative emotions were expressed, especially anger.  The more angry feelings got expressed the better the session.  This, of course, is bunk.  Eric Berne, the originator of Transactional Analysis (the I'm OK, You're OK philosophy) called this "chicken soup therapy" - long on getting people to feel good, short on thought.  Some people need this.  It's doubtful this is the solution to everyone's emotional hangups.  Practical thinking can be helpful too.  As Berne used to put it: When in doubt, think.  If you can't help someone today, go home and try to figure out what you might do tomorrow to help get a cure.

Think and think hard.  Don't get stuck in the mire of emotional issues so deeply that you can't get out.  Be clear about what's happening, "crisp and to the point".  What we need are think-tanks, not soup kitchens.

All this seems reasonable, but lets not forget also that emotions are part of what makes us vibrating, living, dynamic expressions spirit.  As students of Concept-Therapy, we know that emotions can be expressed destructively as well as constructively.  Eric Berne has something to teach about how we may use our emotional expression lawfully or harmfully.  We can enrich our lives through proper emotional expression or we can harm ourselves and others through inappropriate emotional expression.

An inappropriate emotional expression is a "racket", says Berne.  Rackets are emotional expressions that are not sincere or are exaggerated, used to blackmail people into getting them to do what you want.  Better not to sympathize with anyone showing feelings which are not genuine.  This does not mean that we have to be hard-hearted, merely perceptive, so we can discern spiritually the genuine expression from the false.

The other end of the polarity, of course, is to be cynical, to doubt that genuine expressions of feeling are possible.  All emotional expression is not just an attempt to get attention.

In trying to be scientific and rational, we do not have to go to the other extreme of being unfeeling, uncaring and unsympathetic.

The psychological study of human emotions seems to have fallen from favour with the appearance of the theory of behaviorism.  Behaviorism favoured the objective measurement of human responses to external stimulation.  This all happened around 1910.  Any other method, like having people report what they were feeling, was considered unscientific, or introspective and "subjective".  Attention was given to learning, the human senses, and human physiological responses.  The study of emotional response was shelved temporarily.  To do "science" was after all to get human bias, largely due to human feelings and emotions, out of the way of human observation and judgement.

Love, anger and fear are simply not the proper object for scientific study.  Skinner, a foremost advocate of behavioral psychology, never had much to say about human emotions in his study of humans.  In fact, he made it quite clear that he did not think feelings were important.  He blamed Freud for suggesting that feelings be taken seriously by psychologists.  They're too intangible to be studied scientifically.

Berne's concept of "strokes" suddenly made feasible the scientific study of the expression of love and other human emotions.  Not everyone agrees about the number of emotions humans are capable of expressing.  Perls listed anger, sadness, sex, joy and variations on these four as the major emotions.  Steiner names love, anger and fear.

Emotions are a form of energy which express through the human personality.  I think, from a Concept-Therapists point of view, this would be safe to say.  Freud suggested that emotions are ultimately irrepressible.  We can temporarily repress our feelings, but finally they will show themselves in some way.  We may show a repressed feeling by getting sick, by getting a lump in the throat, a numbness in the body, a loss of memory or hearing or speech.  All because we refused to show any genuine feelings of love, anger or fear.

What is meant by emotional illiteracy?  An illiterate person is one who cannot read or write.  An emotionally illiterate person is one who cannot tell what he or she is genuinely feeling.  Nor would they be able to accurately interpret the genuine feelings of others.  Or express their own feelings appropriately.

The emotionally literate person, on the other hand, can show his or her feelings in a variety of ways and with different degrees of intensity.  Can make feelings know to others and express them in a constructive way.  They can judge the feelings of others and respond genuinely and constructively to them.  This enables them and others to live and work together harmoniously and positive- ly.

I could not improve on Steiner's description of what happens when we hide behind of emotion:

When not openly expressed, pent-up emotions distort thinking and communication and produce seemingly erratic behavior and even physical symptoms such as head, back and stomach aches, and possibly chronic conditions like arthritis, ulcers, colitis and hypertension.  Heart disease and even, it seems, some forms fo cancer, can all be the result (at least partially) of inadequately expressed feelings, as can depression and addiction to drugs (165).

To be emotionally literate is to know both what we are feeling and the cause of our feelings.  To know that we are feeling angry, guilty, happy, loving is not enough.  To know the cause of these feelings is equally important.  First, determine what you are feeling.  Then, figure out the cause.

No one knows yet precisely how many different feelings there are.  Emotions may be positive and negative in expression.  Every positive emotion has its negative opposite, like love and hatred.  Likewise, every positive emotional expression, like love, can be negative in its expression.  Too much love can result in an overprotected and self-indulgent child. 

An emotional experience may be a strong or a weak one.  Anger can range in expression from mild annoyance to blind rage.  The emotionally illiterate may acknowledge an emotion only when they experience its extreme expression.  Mild forms of anger, for example, or often denied.  I'm not angry, just disappointed. 

How can we learn to be "better read" emotionally?  How long does take to learn to "read" our emotions?  Can everyone learn?  Are some so stupid that they will never be able to learn?  Is it easier to learn about one's emotions at an early or a late age?  What's the best age? 

Emotional abuse takes many forms.  We abuse people emotionally when we unlaod our feelings without warning on others who are unable to cope with them.  We abuse others emotionally when we use them to intimidate others or weild them like clubs to get to do what we want out of fear of us.  We are emotionally abusive when we expression our emotions along with judgments, accusations, exaggerations and lies.

The idea that only you can make yourself feel angry or happy or sad is questionable.  I say it's a terrible thing to say.  And furthermore, not true.  Expressing your feelings can cause others to respond with feeling.  One does not go around saying I am going to deliberately feel so and so.  One does not see or hear something and then stop to think about it to decide how one wants to feel about it.  To think so is simply silly.  We are all affected by each other's emotions.  And if you choose deliberately to go and vent your anger on someone, you better be prepared for the consequences of your actions. 

What suggestions do some psychotherapists offer for guiding us in confronting other with our feelings?  Here are some ideas I have found worthy of consideration.

Ask for permission.

Like: "can I tell you something I like about you?"  Or, "I have been feeling something that upsets me lately.  Can I tell you?"  "There is something going on between us which I don't like.  Would you be interested in hearing about it now?"

Be sure you are giving them a genuine choice.  Don't go on if they say no.  Don't push it.


Giving compliments.  Asking for compliments and rejecting compliments that are not wanted are important for the healthy expression of feelings.

Making a feeling/action statement

When you (action), I felt (emtoion).  In this expression, there is no judgment, accusation or reproach so as to provoke guilt or defensiveness.

Like: "When you hung up the phone last night, I felt hurt at first and then angry."

Sometimes people make mistakes when making feeling/action statements; two kinds of error usually occur

Error 1: confusing action and motivation

E.g. "When you so rudely hung up the phone last night......."

This is a judgmental addendum, and not simply a statement of action.

Error 2: confusion of feeling and thought

Like: "When you hung up on me yesterday I felt that you were angry...."

Not a feeling at all.  It is a thought.  The expression "I felt that" expresses a thought.  Properly, I felt angry or afraid or ashamed, would express a feeling.

Like| "I felt rejected"

Not a feeling.  Does not say how you were feeling.  You are stating instead a theory about the other person's motivation.  Were you feeling sad? angry? embarrassed?

The reception of feeling/action statements

We must also know how to accept the feelings of others, as well as how to express our feelings to others.

Like: "I hear you" or "I understand that wehn I hung up you felt hurt and then angry".

Error 3: defensiveness and guilt