Building Emotional Literacy

If you have a dissociative disorder, emotions can suck. Parts can experience too much or too little, and you have a lifetime of practice detaching from your feelings as a defense mechanism.

To help yourself, and ultimately to heal, you first have to be able to identify your own emotions. Here’s how we do it in therapy.


As with any mental health work, it’s significantly easier if your body isn’t anxious. Grab your favorite relaxation tool (deep breathing, grounding, etc) and take a few minutes to find some chill.

Start at the top.

There are a handful of core emotions that most people can identify: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and confusion. A feeling of “I’m sad” or “I want to cry” is a start, but on it’s own, isn’t enough information. Especially if your inner communication skills aren’t strong enough to help you figure out where the feeling is coming from.

Focus on the emotion, don’t push it away.

Be prepared: strong emotions create strong physical responses. You might tense up, your breathing can get shaky, and you may start to feel overwhelmed.

Dig deeper.

Scan the emotion lists below and look for words that more accurately describe the feeling. Capture the emotion name, ideally in a journal, along with any connected feelings.

You might realize “sadness” is more accurately “unloved”, or fear is really “apprehensive”.

There will likely be a few words that jump out at you, and these emotions are far more likely to be actionable.

Ask why.

Now that you’ve got a good idea what the feeling IS, ask yourself (and your other parts) why they feel this way. And keep asking! Emotions are like ogres and onions, they have layers. Peeling back “sad” to “unloved” might lead you to “rejected” or “left out”, or any number of other things. Ask “why” until you feel like you’ve found the root cause of the feelings, and that you understand them.


Emotions need to be felt to be resolved. Sticking them in a box doesn’t work long-term. Processing strong emotions is best handled in therapy. Even if you can’t do that right now, you CAN validate that the feeling exists and is justified.

Your emotions occur for a reason, and acceptance without aversion is a large step towards healing.

Relax. Again.

Grounding, breathing exercises, meditation, you know the drill by now. You’re probably drowning in painful emotions, and these tools are like a dial. You can safely turn the volume on your emotions down, without disconnecting from them via dissociation.

Claude Steiner, a pretty smart guy, said:

Emotional literacy is made up of the ability to understand your emotions, the ability to listen to others and empathize with their emotions, and the ability to express emotions productively. To be emotionally literate is to be able to handle emotions in a way that improves your personal power and improves the quality of life around you.

Like everything else, this gets easier the more you practice. You’ll be able to do it without the relaxation, on the fly, whenever you’re start feeling emotions. And being able to identify your emotions quickly and correctly is a really, really nice skill to have in your toolbox.


Our HUGE Emotion List

Kid friendly versions

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