The Human Condition: Read my lips, I'm huggy

Emotional literacy (aka having feelings) is the latest US import. Will we ever get the hang of it? asks Hester Lacey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Announce to one of your colleagues that you are feeling low and you need a stroke or a warm fuzzy, and they are likely to back away nervously. This is because they are emotionally illiterate. "Strokes" and "warm fuzzies" are shows of affection, whether a verbal compliment or a physical pat, and being able to give, receive and ask for them is a vital part of emotional literacy. (But beware of the insincere, who offer "plastic fuzzies", and the downright nasty, who deal in "cold pricklies".)

The fuzzies and the pricklies are the concept of Claude Steiner PhD, who incorporated them into a fable called The Warm Fuzzy Tale that has been a worldwide success. His latest book, Achieving Emotional Literacy (Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99), has just been published in the UK. Our emotionally literate Prime Minister is already introducing the notion to the nation. "I think most people who have dealt with me think I am a pretty straight sort of guy, and I am," he said on TV a week ago about the Formula One scandal. "I am sorry about this issue," he added, neatly giving himself a stroke, opening his heart and making an apology - keynotes of emotional literacy - in the space of two phrases. In the US, the term is already well-known; Dr Steiner, a clinical psychologist and founding member of the International Transactional Analysis Association, has been working on emotional literacy since the mid-Seventies.

"Fundamentally, emotional literacy teaches you to manage your emotions so they work for you rather than against you," he explains. "We are not taught anything about emotions and how to handle them. Most people come out of their adolescence with very poor skills in this area. But emotional literacy is teachable and learnable - it's like learning a foreign language." The first step in the process, says Dr Steiner, is "opening your heart": learning to give and receive sincere strokes. The second, "surveying the emotional landscape", involves learning to speak about emotions, and thus to analyse what's going on. The third, and most difficult, is taking responsibility. "In any relationship we have, we will cause pain at some point," warns Dr Steiner. "The emotionally literate recognise their errors, apologise and make amends."

A high level of emotional literacy, he says, is a life-transformer. "It improves your relationships and makes them more fulfilling. And it influences work performance - it makes you more productive and when you can deal with your own emotions it makes you better able to deal with others." Except, that, ahem, demands for warm fuzzies and the like are likely to send colleagues scurrying for cover behind the photocopier. Surely, the famous British stiff upper lip could never lend itself to such outpourings? Nonsense, says Dr Steiner, robustly. "The average Brit is as emotional as anybody else. There is a great cultural sea-change going on. The royals' stiff upper lips were something people took big offence at recently. Diana was a perfect example of someone who said, 'I don't like this, I want to be different' - what she was talking about was emotional literacy."

And, he says, New Labour means New Feelings. "Tony Blair is another perfect example. He's a human being, he loves his family - I don't know if he is more of a human being than the previous guy, but that is how he is presented. There is nothing to say that a stiff upper lip makes a better politician; we like them more if they can say, 'I'm human, I made a mistake and I'm sorry for it.'"

And Dr Steiner, now 62, knows what he is talking about. For, he says, as a young man he was an "emotional imbecile". "In the late Sixties, I was an emotional retard in a relationship with a committed feminist, who made me start looking at my feelings and asking for what I wanted. She taught me emotional literacy at the point of a bayonet. I learned step by step, I felt the changes in my life. I learned to say 'I love you' and it had an immediate, magical effect." He also practises what he preaches, moving his own literacy quest up a gear by entering into a relationship with someone he terms "a highly sensitive person"; his wedding is planned for June. "Every day there is some new thing to learn," he says. "It is wonderfully rewarding."

But he does admit that being too emotionally tuned-in can cause problems in itself. "If you talk about your emotions you may create problems for yourself... you may feel like a stranger in a strange land where no one sees what you see," he writes. So, the cream of the emotionally literate may find themselves oppressed. "I believe the highly sensitive are a new minority that need to stand up for themselves," says Dr Steiner. "A lot of people say 'Oh, they should just get over it' but that is prejudice. They have the right to be treated with respect."

HOW EMOTIONALLY LITERATE ARE YOU?

To each of the following statements, respond Yes, No or Not Sure.

1A I have noticed that sometimes when I find myself with a person who is very emotional I am surprisingly calm and without feeling.

1B At times when I am about to interact with people I don't know well, I feel sensations like heart palpitations, stomach cramps, a lump or dryness in the throat or a shortness of breath.

1C Sometimes I am flooded by emotions that disorganise and confuse me.

1D From time to time, I am aware of having feelings of anger, from slight irritation to rage.

1E If another person is emotional, I am usually able to tell what emotion they feel, such as fear, happiness, sadness, hope or anger.

1F I enjoy situations in which people are having strong positive emotions of love, hope and joy, like at weddings or in church services.

2A Sometimes after a difficult time with another person I feel as though parts of my body are numb.

2B I take one or more over-the-counter drugs to deal with headaches, stomach and digestive symptoms or body pains that my doctor can't explain.

2C I know I have very strong feelings, but I am frequently unable to talk about them with other people.

2D I am aware of having feelings of fear, from apprehension to terror.

2E Sometimes I can feel other people's feelings in my body.

2F I am appreciated by other people because I know how to cool down emotional situations.

3A I could easily kill a small animal like a snake or chicken without feeling anything in particular.

3B I am often jumpy and irritable and I can't help it.

3C I find myself lying about my feelings because I am embarrassed to speak about them.

3D I am aware of having strong feelings of love and joy.

3E I often do things for other people because I sympathise with them and can't say "no".

3F I am good at helping people sort out their emotions because I usually understand why they are feeling them.

4A I can be around people suffering from physical pain without getting upset about it.

4B I get sweaty palms around people I don't know.

4C I know I have strong feelings, but most of the time I don't know what these feelings are.

4D I am pretty good at knowing what I feel and why.

4E Sometimes other people's feelings are very clear to me and that can be a problem.

4F I can usually handle people who have very strong feelings and unload them on me.

5A I very, very rarely cry.

5B Sometimes when I watch a television commercial, tears come to my eyes, and I don't really understand why.

5C Sometimes when I am feeling bad, I can't tell if I am scared or angry.

5D I am a person who at times feels shame or guilt.

5E I have had the opportunity to shoot an animal and was not able to do it because I felt bad.

5F I often change the way I act towards another person because I figure it will make things easier between us.

Calculate how many "yes" responses you have to question types A-F.

High scores for A, B and C questions but low for D, E and F: you haven't paid much attention to your own feelings and are puzzled by those of others. You need to work on your emotional literacy.

High scores for D, E and F questions but low for A, B and C: you know how you feel and why for the majority of the time. You are in a position to develop a high level of emotional literacy.

High scores for C, D and E questions but low for A, B and F is an average profile: you understand some of your emotions but are puzzled by others. Most of the time your feelings are a bothersome, chaotic jumble which you try to get away from by ignoring. More work needed.

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