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Introducing the A-Z of Emotions

Iniva Creative Learning is launching a new set of cards – A To Z of Emotions – in December (available for pre-order from 18 November in our store). Here Lyn French (A Space Director) reflects on the importance of developing our emotional literacy throughout life. She draws our attention to what we might call ‘meta emotion’, that is understanding not just what we feel but what we think about feelings. She also touches on the unconscious impact of parents’ emotional history on their children. The images featured are from the new set; A to Z of Emotions.  

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NEW Set of Emotional Learning Cards: The A-Z of Emotions

We all know that building emotional intelligence is necessary if we are to manage diversity, differences, conflicting agendas and our own difficulties or discontents more effectively and with greater compassion both as individuals and a society. Simply put, building our understanding of emotions requires that we do not excessively or automatically repress, deny or minimise our feelings. We need to be able to name them and to have developed our capacities to contain and reflect on them so that we do not act out as frequently or floridly as we might otherwise do. Emotional intelligence also depends on understanding our own processes, that is, how feelings can consciously and unconsciously influence our thinking and our perceptions of ourselves, of others and of the world around us.

Being able to step back in the heat of the moment opens our consciousness and gives us the space we need to gauge whether or not our feelings – or their intensity – are in keeping with the circumstances. At the same time, examining whether or not there is a more complex emotional response under the surface is important. For instance, most of us recognise when we’re angry but it’s useful to delve deeper and face up to what can be quite uncomfortable feelings that we might be uneasy about acknowledging even in the privacy of our own thoughts. Guilt, fear or humiliation can fuel the flame of anger however these mental states are usually painful to admit to. It’s tempting to stay with the anger as it often comes with a secondary gain: we can, for example, feel morally superior or indulge in being ‘the wronged one’. Anger may be accompanied by a surge of omnipotent power – having the strength of mind to forego this rush of energy means that we get in touch with more vulnerable-making feelings but the reward is that we feel more connected to others and ‘real’ as a result.

Experiencing a strong, uncomfortable or unpleasant reaction to another should also give us pause for thought. In such instances, we may be seeing ‘writ large’ what we do not want to own in ourselves. Again, checking in with ourselves and asking, why is this person (or group) arousing such a strong reaction – is there something of me in this? is not only useful in our quest for self-knowledge – it also helps us to stop projecting onto others what we dislike in ourselves and enables us to stay in a more reflective rather than reactive space.

As babies and young children, none of us possess the cognitive capacities to name feelings or give meaning to our experiences. Infancy and early childhood are marked by ‘felt experiences’ which cannot be communicated verbally but are instead acted out through, for instance, crying, screaming or smiling. Being silent and fearful, or ‘frozen’ with anxiety are both states that are less likely to draw adults’ attention so sounds often accompany feeling states in early years. It takes time to develop the language to name feelings and the capacity to contain them instead of being ambushed or overwhelmed by them. In a good enough family, the parents and other adults perform these functions on behalf of the baby or young child until such time when they can take them over.

We all have feelings that are harder to own, perhaps because they still carry a painful emotional charge from infancy or because we grew up in an environment where we picked up the unspoken message that certain feelings were ‘not allowed’. The story of early development has a hidden narrative, something psychoanalysts have called ‘the ghosts in the nursery’. This refers to how unconscious or unacknowledged and unprocessed feelings in a parent’s history can colour how that parent reacts to certain emotions. For example, a parent who has had a significant loss which they have found too painful to mourn might find a child’s sadness or tears unbearable and may give out the signal that never crying is a strength to be admired.

Building emotional intelligence is not a finite exercise but continues throughout life. Our strongest feelings are usually triggered within a relational context, one which is usually unavoidably complex.   The relational field encompasses our relationships with others, with our own self (or, more accurately, ‘selves’) and with the world of politics, culture, schools of thought and beliefs. To support us in our own development and in our professional role working with others, Iniva Creative Learning is publishing a new resource in December – the A to Z of Emotions. This set of cards is designed to foster the development of an emotional vocabulary and deepen our understanding of what triggers our feelings as well as how to make sense of them. Each of the of 26 cards in this set features an original artwork by a contemporary culturally diverse artist on the front and psychoanalytically informed descriptions of key emotions and their opposites as well as what triggers them on the back. Questions are also included to prompt individual or group exploration.

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Illustrating insecure Digitised collage, acrylic ink on paper with archival lithograph by Shiraz Bayjoo

The presentation of this set has been designed by Amira Prescott with input from Consultant Designer Therese Severinsen. The cards can function either as a starting point for emotional learning or be used to explore more complex feeling states and process intimate personal experiences. For instance, Shiraz Bayjoo’s image illustrating – insecure – is created from a digitised collage combined with acrylic ink on paper and an archival lithograph. His artwork features an illustration of a manatee on its own in deep waters. Manatees are more commonly known as sea cows and are large, gentle mammals that, as a result of conservation efforts, have been moved from the ‘endangered species’ list to ‘threatened species’. Interpreted literally, this means that their future still remains very insecure. Read more symbolically, the manatee could convey the experience of not being valued or appreciated for who we are. Or the manatee’s possible fate can be a representation of how a community of people can feel if they are marginalised by a dominant culture or their very survival is at threat because of conflict with a bigger, more powerful nation.

The A to Z of Emotions explores the opposite feeling state as well – confident – which brings balance into the frame. We feel confident when we are assured that we ‘count’ for others and we know that our place in the world is secure. However, confidence, like any of our experiential states, is not usually a constant. It can ebb and flow, depending on who we are with, where we are, how we imagine we are perceived by others, how we experience ourselves and what the particular circumstances are. It’s easier to sustain our confidence when we are in a known situation with people we’re comfortable with. Venturing out into new or unfamiliar ‘terrain’ is bound to make us feel at least temporarily wobbly as what psychoanalyst Ricky Emmanuel has called ‘the uncertainty cloud’ descends.
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Image illustration No Hope / Optimistic, The inter-parallel Adventures of Cloud 9, Digital Montage by Larry Achiampong

The images in the A to Z of Emotions span drawing, collage, painting and digital montage. Larry Achiampong has created ‘The inter-parallel Adventures of Cloud 9’ as a vehicle for communicating emotional states. His art work for the letter ‘N’ shows the opposite of negative thinking – optimism – represented by the concept of ‘seizing the day’. All of the original artworks featured in this set can be used as inspiration for creating original ‘dictionaries of emotions’. If you are working with individuals or groups, you can facilitate art making to illustrate any emotions that you choose to feature and, through the process, open up discussion on what triggers these feelings, how we manage them and what we can learn from them. We are also developing resources to further explore emotions and are running a series of workshops based on themes featured in the A to Z of Emotions. Watch for further details on this website or email jstarr@iniva.org. Pre-order your set of A-Z of Emotions in store.

Written by Jenny Starr