This article will guide you through all the essential components of what emotional education is, why it matters, and how it can help you. But first let’s start with a definition.
Emotional education is the process by which a person acquires and develops emotional knowledge and skills. It helps a person to be able to understand and express their emotional experience, influence how they feel, and use their emotions to better understand themselves and others, develop deeper relationships, and cultivate practical wisdom to live a life with purpose, meaning, and authenticity.
Why do we need emotional education?
Historically, emotions have been seen as separate from thoughts, separate from actions, and separate from us. They have been seen almost as things that happen to us in situations - we get angry or sad for example. And because they are distinct entities we need to navigate our way around them somehow, to hold on to those that make us feel good and avoid, ignore, or conquer those that do not.
So we see a lot of writing about not letting our emotions get the better of us, or using our head over our heart, or overcoming our feelings. Such attitudes are a naïve view of emotions - that they are somehow separate from who we are.
Such a view leads us down the road of not needing any education about emotions because what is there to be educated in? We feel things much like we breathe or our heart beats. We don’t need education in those things because they just happen automatically without us needing to do anything!
Consequently, there has historically been very little education in emotions in schools. This has started to change in more recent years, however, with more acknowledgement about the importance of emotions to a person’s experience of the world, which has given rise to social and emotional learning in schools.
But what happens when we leave school? How much education is available to adults on emotions? And of what is available, how much does it really help?
Entering adulthood is a strange experience of societal emotional neglect, where a person’s emotional needs are consistently disregarded, ignored, or unappreciated by the people, organisations, and institutions of our society.
Instead, we are expected to work things out by ourselves or with others who also have little education in emotions in the context of being an adult, in adult relationships, with adult pressures, and expectations. No matter what you learn as a child, everything changes as an adult and our emotional worlds are like new.
We need emotional education to be able to express our emotions in healthy and constructive ways or we may end up harming ourselves and/or others. Without emotional education we cannot give ourselves fully to the world, use our unique talents, fulfil our potential, and engage with others in satisfying and fulfilling ways.
What are the theoretical foundations of emotional education?
The general foundations of the theory of emotional education are that:
- Human beings experience emotions
- Emotions are complex experiences that are influenced by a person’s identity, perceptions, thoughts, actions, bodily sensations, social interactions, history, relationships, society, and culture
- Humans have the capacity to become consciously aware of their emotional experiences and express them in constructive, helpful, and understandable ways
- Humans have the capacity to alter, change, or influence the various factors that influence their emotional experience
- By influencing the process by which a person feels something, they are more able to think, feel, and act in ways that are in line with who they are and what they want
- By understanding and managing their own emotions, a person is more able to understand, empathise, and interact with others
The three main areas of concern are, therefore, experiencing emotions, expressing emotions, and influencing emotional experience. Let’s take a look at each of these to show why emotional education is important and how it can help.
While we can all agree we have feelings, there is no consensus in the academic world on what an emotion is.
In brief, we can consider there to be four main perspectives: A basic model, an appraisal model, a psychological construction model, and the social construction model. There are many others, such as the psychoanalytic model or linguistic models, for example. And there are theories that span different perspectives and do not neatly fit into certain categories.
If you are interested in these academic theoretical underpinnings then click on the tabs below to find out more. Otherwise just skip past them to carry on with the article.
At the heart of basic models of emotion are discrete biological entities we call emotions that are considered to exist in the brain. As they are biological they argue that these emotions are universal for all human beings. While emotions like fear, happiness, and sadness are usually considered basic emotions, there is no consensus between basic emotion theorists about which emotions are basic.
At the heart of appraisal models of emotion is the idea that emotions are triggered by thoughts (cognitive antecedents). Some appraisal theories view emotions as biological entities but not all do. Some view the cognitive appraisals as universal, i.e. the same thoughts triggering the same emotions in all human beings, but again not all do.
At the heart of psychological construction models is the idea that there are basic psychological processes that come together to create an experience we call an emotion. They do not believe emotions are universal but rather certain psychological processes are, such as experiences being pleasurable or displeasureable and the body being aroused or relaxed.
At the heart of social construction models is the idea that there is no biological basis for emotions and that emotions are made up of experience and context by specific groups of people. Learning how to feel is an important component of enculturation and being able to enact a social script in the right context is a way of engaging with the world and those around them.
The important point is that not only is there no ‘correct’ way of understanding what an emotion is, but even if there was we do not need a ‘correct’ view to know we feel them.
What all the academic perspectives do agree on is that the wider experience of emotion consists of many different components. From a personal and emotional development point of view, it is these components that we need to understand to learn, influence, and alter so we can have greater clarity of our present reality, engage more meaningfully with the world, and develop deeper personal relationships.
So the experience of an emotion consists of these following factors:
- A social interaction, whether real, implied or imagined
- A bodily, physiological, reaction
- Physical movements or gestures
- Non-verbal communication
- What is said and how it is said
- The type and quality of the relationship(s)
- The type and quality of the interaction
- The social group and culture the interaction took place within
- The social group and cultures of those involved
- The person’s historical personal and emotional experiences
- The perception and meaning the person gives to the interaction, words gestures, and bodily sensations
To many, feeling an emotion is a fleeting experience that is part of life but not worth dwelling on. But when we look at what makes up an emotional experience, we can see that an experience of an emotion tells you a lot about who you are, where you have come from, what you think of yourself, what you have experienced in your life, and how you feel about others and society. Importantly, it is how we feel that influences how we act and what we do with our lives.
Emotional education involves a deep understanding of these factors so you can understand what you experience, how you experience it, and what you can do about it.
It is only by becoming knowledgeable about yourself and how you feel that you can really break free from making decisions that are in some way influenced by your unresolved emotional issues and be able to empathise with others to create deep and meaningful connections with them.
Otherwise our unresolved emotional issues lead us to create masks to cover up those parts of ourselves that we believe would be unacceptable to others. We become blind to how and why these masks were created in the first place. We start interacting with the world and others through a position of instability. This affects how we express our emotions, which only leads to an ever greater inability to interact with ourselves and others in ways that builds our self-esteem, confidence, and improves our relationships.
If we look at the possible ways we can deal with how we feel, it starts to become clear why we need emotional education as adults. I have created this ‘emotional response scale’ to illustrate the different forms of responding to our feelings. It is a scale in that the middle is a balanced position, while the extremes are unbalanced:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these, as you are likely to have experience in all five responses. Although, you may find that you have a dominant, or habitual, response.
To find your dominant response take this quick quiz:
There are many reasons why a person may repress certain feelings. Previous childhood experiences that were traumatic at the time and are now too painful to re-experience by going over the experiences in the mind are typical. Others may be feelings that a person just cannot face because they are too threatening to their identity and/or relationships.
One way to defend against such experiences is for the mind to prevent such thoughts and feelings from surfacing into conscious awareness. The issue is that this means these thoughts and feelings are not processed to achieve a resolution. Instead, these continue to exist outside of conscious awareness but influence other emotional experiences and importantly our behaviour.
The consequences of repressed emotions are a decreased immune system which can cause many health related issues.
Gross and Levenson define emotional suppression as
the conscious inhibition of emotional expressive behavior while emotionally aroused
It is a strategy used to try and make uncomfortable or overwhelming thoughts and feelings more manageable.
While there may be some logic to this strategy in some cases, in most it is a reaction in the moment to thoughts and feelings that seem intrusive or unwanted. But there are consequences to using such a strategy.
There have been studies that have shown that suppressing your emotions can and does affect your body and your mind and others that have shown that it affects social interaction, leading to lower social support, less closeness to others, and lower social satisfaction.
Some research has even indicated that it is a risk factor for earlier death (by more than 30%) and a significant risk factor for being diagnosed with cancer (by 70%).
And one study from the University of Texas found that suppressing emotions can actually make these emotions feel stronger inside leading to them being acted out later.
Healthy expression of emotions involves recognising how one feels and communicates this/these feelings to oneself and others in an appropriate and effective manner.
What is considered appropriate will be determined by one’s familial, social, and cultural background that provides unwritten rules for how to express emotions so others are able to understand and respond in appropriate ways.
Not only does this lead to personal insights about oneself but it also develops stronger social bonds through greater understanding. This in turn makes decisions and problem solving easier and reduces anxiety.
Furthermore, research has shown that when a person feels distressed, such emotional expression leads to a resolution to the source or significance of the distress - in other words, it takes the power out of the feeling and makes you feel much better.
Resolution can take many forms. For example, telling your partner why you are upset with them can make you feel better. Discussing ways to address the issue you have with your partner can resolve things further. And understanding the deep rooted reasons why some issues you have with your partner are so intense can help give context and compassion to yourself and your partner, which can provide a new layer of resolution.
Healthy emotional expression is the foundation of personal development, discovery, and growth and it is the cornerstone of emotional health and wellbeing.
Overexpression can be a conscious or unconscious exaggeration of feelings. In some cases the context may make overexpression desirable, such as Arlie Hochschild’s work on airline stewards having to feign or exaggerate certain emotions to make passengers feel safe and comfortable. However, most overexpression is a more unconscious affair.
In some instances, the suppression or repression of feelings can lead to exaggerating those feelings that are allowed to surface. For example, suppressing painful emotions while overexpressing more pleasurable ones. For example, telling yourself that you feel great, when in fact, deep down, you are far from it.
It can be that a person has developed a need for others to like and rely on them and so praising and flattering others is one strategy that can be used to achieve this, even if it is not genuine.
Equally, however, a person may have developed a general fear and so certain emotions may be amplified in their minds and feelings, being expressed in more dramatic and potentially aggressive ways.
How ever a person comes to overexpress their feelings, the result is a disingenuous interaction with the self and others. It isn’t congruent with who the person really is, it may keep them safe or get certain needs met but it does not help them to grow as a person, and it does not allow for space for genuine relationships to develop.
The consequence is that any underlying issues remain underlying. Anxiety, pain, and distress remains unresolved with no opportunity for resolution. Feelings of isolation are more likely as there is no way for others to really know and understand the person.
Acting out is behaviour that is based purely on feelings - it is an impulse to act in ways that are detrimental to the self and/or others.
A person can be conscious about what they are doing, and even why they are doing it, at the time but feel helpless to do anything about it. There are many examples, such as saying something mean when angry, having an alcoholic drink when upset, or cheating on a partner during a challenging time in the relationship.
Mostly, however, a person is unconscious about the reasons why they are acting out. Repressing or suppressing emotions can lead to these impulsive actions as they can have unknown and unpredictable effects. It is a way of saying there is a problem but they don’t know how to say there is a problem, or even what the problem is.
You can see this kind of behaviour in children. My daughter gets very upset when she feels left out because I am paying attention to my son. She can have a meltdown to the point where she is screaming and crying uncontrollably. You would never know she is feeling left out and jealous and your instinct would not be to comfort her in the way she wants. You have to really know her and her context to know what is going on for her. But this is typical of 3 year olds! They act out their emotions.
It isn't just children who do this though. Many adults also do and the consequences can be quite devastating. From addiction, to harming the self and others, to destroying lives and relationships, acting out never resolves personal issues.
Influencing emotional experience
What you can start to see is that our lives are made up of an everlong series of emotional experiences that reflect our personal and social history, which we respond to in different ways. Some of these ways are healthy and helpful and some are not.
For most people these unhealthy ways of emotional expression are by virtue of not having had any education in the matter. You cannot be expected to be good at something unless you have learned how to be good at it. And the best way to learn is to be supported and guided.
Emotional education teaches people
- How to know what you are feeling
- How to communicate what you are feeling
- What these feelings mean
- How to express your feelings
- How to influence how you feel
This necessarily means that the teaching explores all the components of emotional experience listed above. It is an exploration of the person as a whole in their historical and present context.
Emotional education as a practice is not wedded to any particular theory or method of teaching. It is pragmatic.
The aim of emotional education is to facilitate a person’s learning about how and why they feel what they feel. This entails helping people to see what their emotions are telling them about themselves and their past and present. Enabling people to get past their self-limiting beliefs and perceptions and break free of social and cultural constraints and oppression. Supporting them to face their fears and overcome the debilitating effects of their past pain and hurt. Learning to embrace their uniqueness, their talents, and abilities. To be able to get life as it really is, not as it might seem. And finally, 'to become the person they were meant to be, not the person they were made to be'.
Because emotional education gets to the heart of who you are, it necessarily requires you to work with someone who is very knowledgeable about emotional experience and handling emotions. It is almost impossible to learn, unlearn, and then learn a different way again all on your own. Most of us can't even see what it is we need to learn in the first place! I didn't. I remember meeting Jean at the Atlow Mill Centre for Emotional Education in 2001 and telling Jean I didn't have any unresolved issues! She laughed and I had no idea what was so funny. It takes someone to has guided many people through a lifetime of feelings to get it.
Books and reading can help the start of the process but they can only take you so far. As emotions are highly personal and often involve deep seated issues that we are blind to, emotional education is best learned with the help and guidance of an experienced practitioner.
Reading and watching material can be helpful but this will not reach the levels that can be achieved by engaging in a process with someone who knows how to facilitate deep emotional learning. Jean's book has some excellent ideas, examples and exercises in it, but she even stresses in the book how important it is to get support from others.
Equally, as emotions are inherently about a person’s social relationships, learning in groups can be extremely powerful. Group learning allows for familiar patterns of behaviour, defenses, unresolved emotional issues, and habitual experiences to surface and be reflected back. This can be extremely helpful in learning the important life lessons quickly.
By learning about your emotional experience you start to learn how to recognise your feelings in new and different ways.
By learning about your expression of emotions you start to learn to recognise when you may be responding to your feelings in ways that are not helpful.
And by learning about yourself you start to learn how to influence what you feel so that your emotions become a resource to draw from rather than something that holds you back and need to be overcome.
Emotional education is an experience
As Werner Erhard used to say on the est training:
In life, understanding is the booby prize
He was inspired by Zen Buddhist teachings, and what he meant was that there is a difference between intellectually understanding something and really ‘getting it’ with your whole body - in other words getting it on an emotional level.
Emotional education is an experience because it seeks to take people beyond intellectual understanding to really know how their past experiences have shaped who they are and the choices they have made and to ultimately really know who they are deep down. It is difficult to describe the difference between ‘understanding’ and ‘getting it’, but when you do you realise there is a chasm between them.
I got it (or some of it at least!) on a course I did with Jean in 2001 and it was a combination of the surfacing of deep repressed and suppressed emotions, experiencing those emotions almost for the first time, releasing those emotions in a safe environment, realising how these have been affecting me, big parts of my life suddenly made sense for the first time, as well as a feeling of being lighter and freer and more open all at the same time. I walked out of the course room the same person but at the same time totally different.
Clarity of your own experience is not only a freeing experience in and of itself but it opens up possibilities to think, feel, and act in ways more in tune with the world around you. Experience becomes richer and relationships deeper.
This also allows you to let go of past hurt by forgiving yourself and others. Such letting go frees you from the unresolved emotional issues that have been causing problems, whether known or unknown for many years.
So emotional education is an experience of learning about how you came to feel the way you feel, how you came to see the world the way you see the world, and how you came to be the way you are. It is also the experience of unlearning how you have been made to feel, see, and be, so that you can start to learn how to feel, see, and be in ways that are better for you.
How does emotional education relate to emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence, often referred to as EI, is the more commonly used and known term, being popularised by Daniel Goleman’s book in 1995. So how is emotional education the same as, and how is it different from, EI?
Broadly, EI refers to the ability to process information related to emotions competently, to use it to guide thinking, and to focus energy on behaviours that will be helpful to the person. This is broadly the same concern as emotional education, although emotional education has deeper aims, such as addressing unresolved emotional issues.
EI has a number of different versions and there continue to be debates about what EI actually is. Broadly, there are two forms: an ability based model and a mixed model.
An ability based model of EI refers to an ability to recognise the meanings of emotions and to reason and problem-solve on the basis of them. It involves the capacity to perceive emotions, assimilate emotion-related feelings, understand the information of those emotions, and manage them.
Mixed models adopt a broader definition encompassing multiple aspects of personal functioning that are loosely related to emotion, such as stress tolerance, self-control, conscientiousness, adaptability, conflict management, leadership and communication.
A big focus in the field of EI is on it being an indicator of individual difference. Tools for EI assessment have been created as a result. Despite the contested nature of some of the models of EI and their tests (are they measuring a person’s EI or are they really measuring a range of personality characteristics and traits?), this is big business.
Typically, however, intelligence refers to a person’s capacity to learn and their ability to do certain things. You don’t teach someone’s intelligence, you use it. So it does not make much sense to speak of teaching emotional intelligence but rather it is something that a person uses in their learning. You could focus on how great a person’s capacity or ability is, leading you down the testing route, but that is neither helpful nor fair from an education point of view. Consequence and context have a lot to play in how a person’s capacity and ability display. EI generally has a very individualistic focus that does not pay enough attention to social and cultural factors that are also important in emotional experience.
Emotional education is about education, not intelligence. The point of education is to help, support, and guide someone’s learning so they are able to maximise their potential in that area. It is not interested in testing, much like we do not use intelligence tests to grade and rank students. It would cause more harm than good. So while there are some overlapping concerns, the field of emotional education is much more a practice of education than an attempt to make money out of intelligence tests or academically prove there is such a thing as EI. Equally, while emotional education and EI share the modest aim of being able to understand and manage emotions, emotional education seeks much deeper learning about emotions personally and socially and a person’s potential.
How does it relate to emotional literacy?
Emotional literacy was outlined by Steiner in a 1984 paper and his 1997 book. He breaks it down into five parts, which shows the parallels between emotional education and emotional literacy:
- Knowing your feelings.
- Having a sense of empathy.
- Learning to manage our emotions.
- Repairing emotional problems.
- Putting it all together: emotional interactivity.
There are perhaps two perspectives of emotional literacy, however. A narrow perspective that relates to being articulate about emotions, having knowledge about emotions and being able to communicate about them. And a broader perspective that includes a more social view of how people feel emotions, which is more in line with emotional education.
There is a problem with the term, however, which is focused on a person’s ability - their ability to be literate about their emotions - rather than on the activity that achieves that. It is a focus on the outcome not the process and it is the process that we need to know and understand to help people achieve the outcome.
Equally, the term has a narrow focus, an ability to communicate about emotions. While this is a very important focus, and one that is shared with emotional education, being educated about emotions is much more than learning about how to communicate about them. It is also about resolving emotional issues, influencing emotional processes, and using emotions to discover your potential, engage deeply with others, and being able to stay true to who you really are in difficult circumstances.
Ultimately, Steiner starts to talk about how to educate for emotional literacy and that is entering into the territory of education and away from the idea of literacy.
How does emotional education relate to therapy and counselling?
Emotional education is education. It is conducted by an educator or facilitator of learning. This means that the process has learning objectives, focused teaching sessions, group and individual exercises, with the aim of progressing someone’s knowledge and skills in certain areas. It is not usually a tool used to address psychological disorders.
Therapy and counselling is undertaken by therapists and counsellors. Their aim is to address personal and psychological issues, generally through a nondirective method. Usually they do not have learning objectives and do not typically have specific teaching sessions.
However, education can be therapeutic and it can resolve personal and psychological issues. Equally, therapy and counselling can develop someone’s knowledge and skills. But you wouldn’t call emotional education therapy, even though it could be seen as such. And you wouldn’t call therapy emotional education, even though it could be. So there are parallels. And to blur the lines even more, some emotional education is undertaken by therapists and counsellors. And some draw from the same theories and ideas that are typically used by therapists and counsellors.
But from my perspective, emotional education offers greater potential for human growth, development, and progress because education can be much more emancipatory than therapy and counselling. In my view, one of the main legitimate criticisms of therapy and counselling has been that it seeks to help people adapt to the world to function better within it. But as Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed states:
There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.
And in this sense emotional education is much more about freedom than it is about conformity. For many, emotional education draws on much more than psychology and psychotherapy and their limited worldviews centred around individualism, albeit useful ideas and concepts to understand ourselves. It equally seeks to draw from ideas about the individual in society, created and constrained by their cultural norms, standards, and expectations. It looks to work with communities and groups to challenge social structure and power. Just read Jean’s book and see how she advocates for a form of individual and social agitation.
So while emotional education has many similarities to therapy and counselling, it is typically different in its aims, foundations, and form.
To sum up
Emotional education is a theory of personal development with a strong evidence base. It is a practice with a strong lineage of professionals working to help, support, and guide the emotional development of others. It is an experience of catharsis, resolution, and personal freedom.
There are a wide range of research studies that strongly support the need for people to understand their emotions and express them in healthy ways. Not doing so can be damaging to your health, wellbeing, and relationships.
We are experts in emotional education, having been the first to create a centre dedicated to work in emotional education. Indeed, Jean Bond coined the phrase in the 1980s well before people were even talking and writing about emotional education. Now there are books, talks, and even an academic journal on the topic. But we have always been at the forefront of the field, having developed the first academic course in emotional education with the University of Derby.
We continue to research and develop emotional education as a theory and practice and welcome everyone to experience our courses, coaching, and community.