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Emotions As a Second Language - Or Should They Be Our First?

Emotional Literacy: A Forgotten First Language to be Remembered

"Resplendent Sunrise", oil, F.J.Ninivaggi
Source: "Resplendent Sunrise", oil, F.J.Ninivaggi

Why is Emotional Literacy Relevant?

For humans as sentient beings capable of expanded knowing, emotions are a step beyond raw sensation and a step before cognitive interpretation. Emotion is the raw truth within human beings. The primary emotions are sensed, felt, and universally shared by all. The biological side of emotions lives in the deeper parts of the brain’s neurocircuitry---amygdala and limbic system---and has been responsible for survival for millennia before conscious thought emerged.

Emotions can be said to be the fire of attraction and repulsion between human beings. Emotions convey information and generate action. The intensity of such feelings is responsible for mating, families, and protection against predators by the detection of threat and the erection of defense.

As healthy development proceeds, emotional processing yields the capacity for empathy. As cognition matures, its integration with emotional literacy enables one to understand another’s perspective and to resonate with his or her feeling states. Emotional connections dynamically link one person to another. This common point of reference creates the fabric of our social lives. Understanding and using emotional literacy helps us to become who we truly are and profoundly enriches our interpersonal relationships.

Because prehistoric generations used more implicit and less consciously intentional means to identify and transmit emotional data to one another and children, our generation requires, if not demands, explicit teaching and instruction. An important mental health aim is to decrease children growing up with a sense of affective/emotional emptiness and mood instability. Such primary prevention seeks to avoid the onset of specific diseases or disorders via risk reduction: by altering behaviors or exposures that can lead to disease and disorder development, and by enhancing resistance to the effects of exposure to a pathogenic agent or unhealthy psychological situation.

Emotional literacy is being able to feel, identify, and adaptively use one’s feeling states. This emotional fluency enhances emotional self-regulation, lessens over-reactivity to negative emotions such as anger, and is the basis of interpersonal emotional modulation. Agreeableness and conscientiousness are enhanced. Grasping one's feelings and understanding them enables both emotional and cognitive perspective-taking. This is a fundamental basis for empathy and facilitates cooperative social relationships.

Emotions are elements within one’s broad personality (temperament, motivational drives, and cognitive abilities). Emotions are akin to primary colors or the elemental musical scale (i.e., do, re, me, and so forth). Emotions may be studied as entities in themselves, but they are never found in isolation. The immense variation of these emotional factors in any person---along with an almost infinite number of other traits, characteristics, and learned behaviors--- makes each person unique.

"Resplendent Sunrise", oil, F.J.Ninivaggi
Source: "Resplendent Sunrise", oil, F.J.Ninivaggi

Emotions, affects, and feelings are the excitation of biomental responses as a reaction to changing stimuli inside and outside the individual. Emotions are triggered in various ways, for example, seeing another person, thinking about them, or being presented with situations evoking positive and negative feelings such as music, works of art, sports events, or scenes of disaster. “Resplendent Sunrise,” oil, 2015, on the left, is a painting by the author that may elicit emotional responses. Processes of sensation, perception, and its cognitive interpretation are mechanisms bringing emotion into biomental experience. How one grasps a situation or person in either a positive or negative evaluative manner---human relations---has a strong basis in one’s emotional orientation.

"Human relations" is the intimacy between two persons. In the seminal age of depth psychology, explorations into unconscious processes playing out in real-time interpersonal relationships was named "object relations," object referring to the subjective construals of each participant. The relation was the vital flame of the emotional intimacy that charged and made vital the relationship. In an earlier article on Psychology Today, "Envy Theory: A New Model of the Mind," I discuss the crucial influence of emotions such as envy on individual and interpersonal development. I emphasize the healthy maturation of envy into admiration, emulation, gratitude, and empathy.

Fundamentals of Emotions

Emotions have two fundamental components:

1.) feeling state, and

2.) the person or situation eliciting that feeling.

Emotions as states of feelings can be characterized by two dimensions:

1.) valence: positive or pleasurable, and negative or distressing, and

2.) level of arousal: a range from low to high intensity.

When speaking of valence and intensity, this academic formulation is useful. It, however, does not capture the nuances of emotional states that are multifactorial. The variance in neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine, norepinephrine), blood pressure, fatigue-energy level, and contextual factors such as experiential precedents, memories, and dynamic interpersonal feedback play an important part in emotional processing.

Brain circuitry---dynamic systems of interrelated neuronal circuitry---uses emotion for threat detection, a process largely nonconscious. Emotion recognition has a center of gravity in the deep brain structure termed the amygdala. The amygdala and its preferential role, notably in signaling negative emotion such as threat, are under genetic influence. The amygdala reacts instantly and activates the autonomic nervous system and endocrine system; shortly, the cortex and prefrontal lobe begin to infuse meaning into this emotional arousal to generate the emotion of fear. Individual differences in emotion recognition between people are inherited though not completely. And---all these processes are largely nonconscious operations. In fact, the construct “emotion” is typically understood as an unconscious reaction and perception originating in a physiological matrix that reverberates psychologically as it organizes itself first in infancy and continuing throughout childhood.

Emotions Are Our First Language

The most recent consensus among academic developmental psychologists is that infants are born into the world with already prewired temperaments. These sets of automatic reactions have been classified into a few core substrata that seem to persist and stay constant throughout life. One of these is emotional disposition. The others include general reactivity/self-regulation, activity level, and sociability.

By age four years and then thereafter, personality formation develops into limitlessly unique arrangements. Personality refers to an individual's unique set of consistent behavioral traits, sets of durable dispositions to behave in adaptively flexible ways in a variety of situations. Emotional tone, an element in the core of personality, covers a spectrum ranging from attraction to that of distancing and so exerts a profound influence on all other capabilities.

In its elemental status, when influenced by the higher processes of cognition, both emotion and thinking may be powerful "humanizers." By this I mean striving to approximate one's personal best: richly feel the feelings, think through the thoughts, pause, and make informed choices.

Emotional processing is nonconscious and dynamic. It has a nonconscious language that acts to organize internal states. This language is communication between and among dimensions of the mind---living biomental neurocircuitry. Elements of this language dynamically interact between people, yet this common human experience (emotional processing), retains its virtually unique accent, grammar, and prosody both intrapsychically and when interpersonally transacted.

All emotions, have an underlying foundation in unconscious processes—amorphous experiential mixtures of organic impressions, sensory imprints, imagination, and fantasy. These processes are present in the newborn whose consciousness during states of wakefulness may be characterized as ones of “phenomenal awareness.” This immediacy of sensory awareness is substantive yet without the capacity for sustained attention.

For example, in adults, the well-recognized neurological condition “blindsight” (to respond to visual stimuli they do not consciously see) has called into question what was once believed to be true: that perceptions first must enter consciousness to influence behavior. Blindsight proves that experience and behavior can be guided by information of which one is unaware.

In early infancy, such an awareness of environmental phenomena is more of a “noticing” rather than a definitive “attention to.” In adult life, all these multidetermined cognitive processes are influenced by one’s imagination, fantasy, and subliminal preferences, which are emotion-based.

Although nuances of theoretical interpretation of the aforementioned abound, most agree that below surface behavior, a substratum of desires, beliefs, and intentions does exist. This level of information is predominantly occluded from awareness but is instrumental in formulating meaning, explanations, and predictions both conscious and nonconscious.

Emotions, therefore, are principles that organize mental functioning on multiple levels from birth through adulthood. They are alerting signals, notably mediated by eye contact, that inform—consciously and unconsciously—parents and children of a perception, idea, or object requiring attention and appropriate response. Emotions help regulate biomental homeostasis and ensure survival. Human survival denotes not merely staying alive, but also minimizing discomfort and attaining a better quality of life with meaning. In addition, emotions act as signals of expression and reception for all social communication. They are noteworthy nonverbal messages that communicate unconscious attitudes. Needs, responses, wishes, affections, reinforcements, and disdain may be communicated.

Emotional Processing

Emotions are at first nonconscious arousal reactions.

First, the stimulus must be important and significant;

Second, the stimulus is appraised as good or bad and to be approached or avoided;

Third, the stimulus is nonconsciously categorized into specificity a specific emotion.

When nonconscious emotions are expressed behaviorally, they are called affects; when these are consciously identified and labeled with words, they are called feelings. Thus, the vivid colors of emotions are typically given shape by the forms of thought that correlate emotional arousal with some cognitive meaning. Because emotion is heavily laden with unconscious content, affective forecasting or predicting one's emotional reaction to future events is fluid, ever changing, and an unreliable endeavor. The aforementioned "processing" sequence is merely a simplified description of a highly complex and nuanced biomental process. Identification, significance, and salience are mediated by integrated neurocircuitry systems in the thalamus, amygdala, limbic system, and prefrontal cortex.

Emotional Literacy: The Refinement of Emotional Intelligence

Positive emotions and attitudes such as love and affection, happiness, enjoyment, surprise, acceptance, cooperativeness, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion, for example, act as linchpins to secure relationships and support a sense of emotional integrity and self-containment. These contribute to enhancing self-concept and self-esteem in both sender and receiver. The perception of happiness with its variants of love and affection appear to be universally recognized by people across cultures.

Negative emotions such as hostility, anger, fear, disgust, contempt, and disappointment are disruptors and can act as repellants toward affectionate engagements. They also act to modulate positive emotions producing, for example, states of ambivalence or confusion. If identified and tempered, negative emotions can be used constructively to help reconfigure feelings and stabilize mood.

Negative emotions, therefore, behave to disrupt the status quo and offer the potential to reconfigure more constructive personality reformation. When modified, the influence of negative emotions can thus add to both personal and interpersonal emotional integrity. Negative emotions must exist with positive emotions; their interactive dependency modulates all experience—both self-experience and experience with others. Left unchecked, negative emotions have the potential to be acted out in self-destructive ways. The spectrum of aggression---ultimately destructive killing and murder---is energized by the negativity of envy and hatred.

Subjectively experienced feeling states are communicated through both words and facial expressions. The perception of a person’s nonconscious and often subtle emotional displays by an outside observer is derived from seeing or hearing the brief emotional signals organized into consciously felt “feelings.” These external manifestations of subjectively experienced feeling states are both brain-based and culturally determined. They have both innate and universally shared genetic substrates shaped by culture and convention. In common parlance, the terms “emotions” (brief nonconscious states), “feelings" (subjectively identified conscious states), and “affects” (visually perceptible facial expressions) often are used interchangeably.

For those interested in technical precision, emotions and feelings are universal across cultures. This denotes that "emotional perception"---identifying emotions in oneself, others, voices, stories, music, and art---are hard-wired and universally shared.

Identifying means recognizing and discovering the emotion as an emotional experience.

Giving a name to an emotion or labeling it occurs somewhere between emotional "perception" and emotional "understanding" as the "affect' takes shape materially.

Affect, however, is defined as the visible, intentional, and public display (facial, verbal, gestural) of emotional and feeling states. Affects are culturally determined to some extent and differ among people, ethnic, national, and cultural groups ("display rules"). Affect has a fluid quality and can change from moment to moment in the same individual depending on that person's mental status (e.g. happy, pensive, depressed, and so forth). Display rules and social contexts correlate with "emotional understanding" and "emotional regulation," both of which are culturally influenced. Some theorists view emotional intelligence to comprise three domains: perception, understanding, and regulation.

Emotions exist at birth. Infants and children, however, do not cognitively understand and label their emotions as conscious feelings until later childhood. From birth, however, babies can sense the emotional communications of others and respond adaptively. This “nonconscious” foundation of emotion and affect persists throughout life, but is complemented by a more conscious focus (named “feelings” and thoughts about feelings) toward the end of childhood. One’s emotional stability and successful social interactions have their basis in healthy emotional development starting in infancy and refining itself thereafter.

Conventional academic psychology has outlined the following schematic regarding classifying emotions. In fact, no one scheme can capture the diversity and fluidity of human emotion although provisional attempts such as this abound.

Primary emotions include happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. These are basic and diffuse states of mind understood to have the same meaning for all people across cultures. Secondary emotions are more complex composites of primary emotions that become more defined as conscious feeling states. These develop between eighteen and twenty-four months of age. They include guilt, shame, embarrassment, pride, and envy. These secondary emotions are understood as self-conscious emotions because they entail an emerging sense of self-reflection and consideration of the self in relation to others. For example, shame entails feelings of being “bad,” while guilt is the distress about having done something “bad.” The special denotations of ‘envy’ as used by the author have been delineated in the book, “Envy Theory.” In that perspective, unconscious envy is understood as the decisive personality dynamic rather than merely an emotion or trait.

The Developmental Psychology of Emotions in Infancy

Mainstream psychology, besides naturalistic, observational studies, uses scientific methodology that includes, for example, neuroimaging and electrographic studies to sketch a timeline for the development and expression of emotional states. Newborns’ emotional tone is unformed and can be classified as states of attraction that are felt in positive ways (as tranquil) and states of withdrawal and avoidance (felt as distressful). Positive states, for example, are expressed as the “social smile”—the clear-cut, responsive, affectionate facial gesture—at about six weeks, and the “belly laugh”—the first laugh of the as yet nonverbal infant—at about four months. Between three and four months, infants can clearly synchronize their own emotional states to those observed in others.

By four to five months, infants can distinguish positive from negative emotional tones in others. Between seven and twelve months, electroencephalograph tests measuring the electrical activity of the brain show clear distinctions in infants’ emotional processing; typical infants can discriminate among different emotional expressions of others. Feelings such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear can be differentiated as distinct and evaluatively distinguished. Between four and six months, infants show signs of anger and fear. At about seven months, “stranger anxiety”—an infant’s fear response when a stranger appears—is apparent. The phenomenon of “social referencing”—when infants look to parents for emotional cues correlating with safety or danger—is clear at ten months and confirms infant’s basic understanding of the emotions of others.

Cultivating Emotions and the Primacy of Love

The psychological attitude of love is held by humans as a fundamental biomental experience whose positive nature encompasses an array of emotional manifestations: affection, pleasure, happiness, joy, warmth, attachment, cooperation, and closeness. These features go beyond mere sentimentality, a romanticized view of interpersonal life, and evolutionary adaptedness. They have both survival and quality-of-life implications.

In contrast, negative emotional states such as anger, depression, and inordinate anxiety, for example, are inevitable counterpoints modulating human experience. Recognizing and managing these negative factors is both necessary and useful. Negative emotions help shape, refine, and enhance positive emotions. Both are mixed in the complex process of nurturance. Being conscientious of one's own feeling states, moods (long-term feeling states), and those of others refines emotional literacy and enhances social cooperation.

Emotions, however, are fleeting embraces of exquisite arousal; and their innate transience is best appreciated with an open hand. Heraclitus, Greek philosopher of antiquity (c.500 BC), is famous for saying: "One cannot step into the same stream twice." The dynamic, ever-changing and impermanent nature of emotions is akin to such a step in a pulsating stream. Recognizing this helps one to witness the rise and fall of emotions along with the cognitive imprints they may leave behind. Experiencing the intimate grasp of emotion---and permitting it to move on and fade---may be one of the best ways of "learning from experience."

Appreciating and respecting the developmental transitions that are an inextricable part of maturation throughout the long childhood years acts to safeguard the very nature of childhood itself. This idea argues against dismissing the natural importance of these formative years. In this sense, it may be advisable not to grasp too tightly and prematurely speed up features of development such as cognition, reading, or physical prowess in isolation.

The natural rhythms unique to childhood and how each child expresses these stages must be acknowledged and their innate timetables respected. Unnaturally accelerating is not advised; recognizing and sensitively facilitating a child’s natural capabilities and potentials is healthy.

Emotions and Motivation

Understanding emotions is allied to and requires an appreciation of motivation. Motivation denotes a level of biomental activation and interest toward self-expansion achieved through goal attainment and resource acquisition—both of which yield pleasurable satisfaction. The construct of motivation encompasses innate drives pushing one toward a goal, and environmental incentives pulling one toward rewards.

Motivation includes two main components:

1.) wanting or desire, and

2.) effort exerted toward a desired goal.

Because emotion creates an orienting arousal toward or away from a goal, motivation energizes the intensity of these pursuits. It is the force inherent in seeing past immediate challenges and striving toward a path of continued forward movement.

Motivation is one force enhancing adaptation to conflict through resolution via problem-solving. For example, seen through the biomental lens, an individual's psychological distress and physiological discomfort caused by hunger will prompt the cycle of seeking and obtaining food. In addition, the need for love and belonging makes pair-bonding a vivid, attractive, and sought after striving. In both these examples, emotion fuels the intensity of the pursuit. And the pursuit encompasses both individual and social goals with benefits toward a better quality of life---both individually and shared with others.

Besides the primacy of love and affection, parents can facilitate a child's development in the following way. Motivated performance is enhanced, for example, when caregivers introduce desired behaviors in an almost glaringly exceptional light so it becomes preferred over another behavior (such as lethargy or procrastination) thus making it possible for the child to see that the developmentally more facilitating behavior better meets his or her needs in a specific context.

One must also take into consideration that however much motivation may drive a person to optimize capabilities, there are built-in ceilings beyond which achievement may not be possible. In addition, factors such as resistance to change (“I won’t”) are important to uncover.

From a cognitive perspective, both emotions and motivation enhance executive functions—attention, working memory, organization, planning, inhibiting distractors, error correction, and successfully attaining a goal.

Emotion, motivation, and executive functions, therefore, power volition---the efficacy of implementing decisions. Contemporary MRI findings (2015) [published Jan. 28 in the Journal of Neuroscience,] at Northwestern Medical Center show that “superagers” (those age 80 and older who are healthy and successful) have a healthier part of the brain called the “anterior cingulate gyrus.” This region correlates with memory, executive functioning, conflict resolution, motivation, and perseverance. The significance of appreciating the value of motivation in parenting is discussed at length in “Biomental Child Development” in sections on ‘motivational messaging.’ I have stressed the importance of affectionate, corrective feedback in endorsing nurturance, discipline, and living example.


Resilience denotes the ability to bounce back to healthy functioning when under stress. Well-recognized resilience factors include realistic optimism, the ability to face one’s fears, a strong moral compass, social support networks, a sense of the spiritual, mental and physical fitness, having resilient role models, psychological flexibility, and skill in finding and constructing meaning in one’s life.

A major theme of the biomental perspective is that emotional literacy is the foundation of resiliency at all stages of life. Emotional literacy enhances both agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Emotions are akin to verbs. They are action oriented approximations. In a latter article, “You Are Your Child's First Verb,” how this idea has pragmatic meaning in parenting will be discussed.

All the aforementioned have outlined perspectives on emotions and their significance for individuals and their interpersonal relationships at all stages of the life cycle. Emotions are our personal truth.

The biomental perspective views emotional intelligence and emotional literacy as capabilities---undeveloped competencies to be identified and improved. Real world skills---effective communication and interpersonal sensitivity---are enhanced.

Emotional literacy goes hand-in-hand with resiliency, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Such a teaching program can only speak about the material it points to; internalizing it requires an introjection over time accompanied by introspection, practice, and real-time experience.

In later articles, the practical application of what has been discussed above will be embedded in a series on parenting. I hope you stay tuned in!

A state of the art discussion of emotion---theory and practical application---can be found in my new book, "Making Sense of Emotion: Innovating Emotional Intelligence."


Ninivaggi, F.J. (2013) “Biomental Child Development: Perspectives on Psychology and Parenting.” MD: Rowman & Littlefield. []

Ninivaggi, F. J. (2017) "Making Sense of Emotion: Innovating Emotional Intelligence." MD: Rowman & Littlefield. []



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