Emotional Wisdom

In the past decade we have made tremendous strides in education, enabling us to intervene with precision with reading disabilities; we have insisted on maintaining an arts curriculum despite budget challenges; we taxi to team, social and enrichment events to give our children every opportunity.  Yet we remain confused about how to best help them when they are unhappy or unsettled.


With the pace of 21st Century living and its truncated, sometimes isolating means of human exchange, how can we give our children the gift of emotional wisdom?  How can we teach them that our relationships influence our emotions and our emotions reciprocally influence our relationships?

We need to begin by teaching them about emotions – why we have them, their names and how we communicate them.  Emotions drive our behavior.  Emotional behavior is very immediate and efficient.  Think of a mother who sees her child run into a busy street.  She will not stop and rationally think of what to do.  The emotion of fear will drive her action to run and grab her child out of harm’s way.

If emotions play such an important role in our survival, why do we pay so little attention to learning about them?  We assume that we know about emotions because we all have them, but try asking someone how they feel.  Often, the answer is “good” or “bad” which is a judgment of the emotion, or shorthand.  For example, if we take a bite out of an apple and the apple is bruised, the fruit dry and mealy, we might say, “This apple is bad,” which is shorthand for the more nuanced description.  When asked to describe how we feel, we often find ourselves searching for an appropriate lexicon, unable to sort out the details of what we hope to be an acceptable response.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) was developed by Marsha Linehan, PhD.  DBT teaches emotional education within a framework that creates a common language for observing and describing emotions.  DBT is like sheet music for the band – a reference point.  Emotions resonate, like music.  And we, like instruments, all resonate differently, depending on our temperaments.

Before we can learn to play music we first need to learn to listen to music.  In order to become better at participating in our lives with awareness we need to learn to be mindful.  Participation in life without awareness is characteristic of impulsive and mood-dependent behavior.

In DBT we start by naming the eight or so basic emotions.  These are the “notes” we come into the world hard-wired with.  We progress from naming them to recognizing what triggers them and how the action urge that
accompanies them is affecting our behavior.  There is a physical experience that accompanies an emotion, whether we are aware of it or not. There are also physical after-effects, or “emotional hangovers.”

It is rare that we experience just one emotion at a time.  An example of experiencing a basic emotion might be our reaction when we see a new baby or a puppy.  We automatically smile and experience pure joy for a moment.  Most of the time, however, we feel a mix of emotions, or “emotional chords.”  For example, if a relative, who has been sick and suffering for a long time, passes away, we feel a “chord” of sadness, relief, anger – each of which has a physical sensation and action urge attached.  We become confused about how to act because we get mixed signals from different emotions:  when we are sad we want to isolate; when we are relieved we sigh, smile and relax; when we are angry we want to fight.

Learning the complex vocabulary of emotions is like learning to read music and taking the first rudimentary steps toward playing an instrument.  When we have mastered that we can then decide what kind of music we choose to play.

What do I want to resonate in the world?  This is when the art of emotional wisdom comes into play.  Emotional wisdom includes not only exhibiting effective behavior, but also doing the right thing.  We acquire empathy, self control, fairness and a sense of reciprocity.  When we have built mastery our interpersonal relationships are authentic, regulated and beneficial.  We are able to become more differentiated, better adapted and more confident in work and life.

[blockquote class=blue]Maureen Patten L.C.S.W. has a private practice in Tarrytown.  Telephone (914) 255-0174[/blockquote]

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About the Author: Maureen Patten L.C.S.W.