Values are much more nuanced, complex, and beautiful than some might imagine. Self help and pop psychology might have you thinking they’re just words to describe what you care about in life. But values are much more about the journey to uncover them, the self exploration that helps you understand where those values come from, and about being curious to how they evolve throughout our lives.
There is a heavy emphasis on values being described verbally, which tracks with the mental and behavioral health systems’ adherence to upholding colonialist standards. Of course commonality in communication is helpful when you have to work with a professional in those fields, but we must think beyond words when it comes to values. Perhaps your values are a set of experiences in your heart that are meaningful guides for you or perhaps art best communicates the values you hold meaningful in life.
…we must think beyond words when it comes to values.
The majority of guidance to help people uncover their values is based on written or spoken verbal communication. Perhaps that can be seen as a starting point for folks, but later values may take on more abstract qualities. I used to think the words “stewardship” or “environment” or “interconnectedness” described a value I had related to the earth and nature connection. Now I realize that it is a collection of experiences and feelings that come together and hold deep meaning that can’t be described well with words. I move towards this value when I connect to feeling the earth in my hands, sprouting seedlings, feeling the wind, appreciating the lovely sting from our star warming me as I am filled with moments of peace, strength and connection. This fills me with meaning in my life and I no longer feel compelled to find a value “word” to fit. Understanding this value did start with an initial exploration of value words and an attempt to understand why available, mainstream resources on values didn’t seem to fit right in my journey.
Curiosity and exploration is all that is needed to start your journey to see how connecting to your values might fit into your growth. We at Blooming Abilities have a values activity we do in our “values” caregiver training module that many participants have reported they enjoy for exploring their values. It looks at idioms or sayings that many people may have heard and explores what values may be tied to that saying. We have turned this into a quiz (because who doesn’t love Buzzfeed style quizzes?) for folks to give it a try too. We would love to know what you think in the comments section.
I consider my work to be that of learning about my privilege to best use it to do my part in untangling us from the grips of colonialism. But what is colonialism? Those that know me, know how much I love the power of naming things. Naming helps improve our awareness of something and allows us to develop the ability to explore what that thing means for our selves on a personal and intimate level.
Colonialism is something I have found value in naming. For my understanding, it is the force of systemic, cultural, internal and interpersonal violent oppression that:
Tries to force people to conform to the dominant culture at enormous expense of self destruction, especially to the parts that don’t fit with the upheld ideal
Tries to tell me my way of feeling, connecting and being is wrong
Stripped me and my ancestors of our way of creating and connecting to the earth, universe, our children and each other
Tells us the way to survive is through disconnection, suppression, isolation and power over others
The intersecting narratives of our lived experiences with colonialism are both personal and shared. When we name this experience we can better recognize its effects and work together to consciously heal. I know that naming this and finding others who have experienced and understand colonialism has given me the power to articulate this force over the narrative of my life so I can move forward in healing myself, my family and the earth.
Once I named and learned more about colonialism, I saw the deeply embedded threads of its work everywhere. I have found myself defeated and hopeless as I have clumsily attempted to pull at every thread I saw while surrounded by people who simply didn’t see what I saw. At times I was causing harm with my efforts. Now I realize that I was missing crucial pieces that I needed to find the names for: self compassion, community, collective wisdom. I want to continue doing this work and I have renewed vigor and hope thanks to hearing from the collective wisdom of a community of people who offered my soul some healing and reconnection. I’d like to offer gratitude to the Institute for the Development of Human Art for their amazing panel for the Decarcerating Care: Community-Based Healing Alternatives +How to Build Them talk. It quenched a thirst I didn’t even realize I was dying from.
Emotional learning has become a popular topic in our culture. Because of this, emotional learning is being more and more integrated into school curricula with school staff teaching these skills to a wide range of students. My field of ABA has also been jumping on this bandwagon. Unfortunately, the tendency in these education and therapy realms is to focus on feelings like mad, sad and happy paired with real or cartoon faces depicting the emotion. With such limiting and vague words, they don’t come close to capturing the complexity and nuance of emotions, especially when the external presentations of emotions can vary greatly within a culture and even more between cultures. Teaching these skills with a focus on contextual understanding is often missed as well.
“We adults see through biased lenses of adult tolerance levels, adult logic and adult experience and can get it wrong”
Adults often focus on emotions they feel most confident at guessing, which tend to be the more activating emotions seen in the child’s behavior. When adults are helping kids label their feelings, they really are just guessing what that emotion is, based on their own experience as an adult as well as what they see going on around the child in the moment. As such, we adults see through biased lenses of adult tolerance levels, adult logic and adult experience and can get it wrong. Sometimes kids get stuck on one emotion label like “mad” or “sad” and use it for all types of emotions that they may feel strongly or maybe they can only notice the strong emotions and gentle ones are missed. This is often because of what they have been taught from well meaning adults guessing at their emotions. Children can learn to name more complex emotions when the adults around them meet a child at their communication level, vary their communication mode (verbal, written, pictures, AAC, etc.) and expand their own understanding of emotions.
Naming has so many important connections to skills like emotional development, problem solving and self care. When we give our emotions names, it helps us better recognize the emotion when it pops up again and to remember what we need to work with that emotion in the moment. I was recently reading a new book with my children called “I’m Happy-Sad Today” which has a nice take on naming emotions aimed towards kids. The book had some great ideas for doing something I have loved doing with my kids for a few years now: giving personal names to complex emotions. While the book had some focus on basic emotions (happy, sad, mad), it got to the gist of what is important to recognize: emotions can feel confusing, conflicted and messy at times.
Sometimes in my home we refer to feeling irritable as being “prickly” like a cactus. We still love our family and don’t intentionally prick others, but like a thorny cactus, we would like others to avoid us or approach mindfully until we’re feeling better.
“Emotions can feel confusing, conflicted and messy at times”
Another label we have for an emotional state in our house is known as “Pikachu”. This evolved from situations where my kiddo felt crowded by people looking over their shoulder or others just being too close and they’d have an urge to throw elbows to get everyone away. When we first started recognizing these situations, elbows were usually already thrown and there were reprimands and everyone ended up upset. Once we figured out the context of the situation that led to this, we worked together to name it. When the situation came up, we’d remind kiddos to name it and – the most important piece – we respected it as communication for help, no matter what tone was used.
Culture and Language
The focus on naming emotions seems to be one with an English language, westernized bias to it. There are many different languages that have names for nuanced emotions that don’t quite exist in the English language. In Yiddish the word “kvell” means feeling proud of another’s achievements…because feeling proud of yourself is a similar but a different feeling. For me, being proud of a loved one swells my heart so big it may burst but feeling proud of myself has a little embarrassment and relief at being done with a lot of hard work. I never realized this until I learned this word.
“With knowing how much language and culture influences our perception of emotions, we must make sure were meeting someone with cultural competency and respect when helping teach emotions”
When pressed to think of emotions we have personally experienced beyond the basics, we may struggle to come up with examples. Yet if I described the emotion of nostalgic homesick longing for a place you have never been, imagined or real, you may start nodding. More folks may start nodding when I give examples of longing for places like outer space, Hogwarts, or Spain. Perhaps this is a feeling you’ve never stopped to examine and understand until this description. This is a feeling that the German language has a word for: “fernweh”.
Have you ever seen a video of a baby giggling uncontrollably over something delightful like bubbles? Have you ever found yourself so happy for that baby and perhaps watching with a huge grin on your face? A Sanskrit word of having joy in another’s happiness captures that – “mudita” – and now perhaps you’ll notice it the next time you experience this delight.
This is the power of having a way to talk about feelings.
Maybe now you have a story related to one of these emotions and will share it with someone or share this newly uncovered emotion with someone when you feel it. By doing this, you are developing a narrative around this emotion and solidifying it into your understanding for when you experience it. This is the power of using language to name something and giving it a story. With knowing how much language and culture influences our perception of emotions, we must make sure were meeting someone with cultural competency and respect when helping teach emotions.
In fields like mental health, professionals focus on naming emotions as well, but the method of recognizing and naming emotions is far too limiting. We need dance, visual arts, music….ways to feel seen and heard which humans have used since ancient times. Maybe a song can help explain your feelings and needs, maybe a picture or art piece can communicate the sense of a situation. The arts have always been great communicators of emotion and we need to expand the perspectives we have when teaching children how to identify and name emotions along with the story and narrative that accompanies them.
The above photos probably evoke some emotional reactions that are almost certainly personal. If a child with difficulty verbally communicating used one of these pictures to express their emotional state, we’d probably understand what they were going through, especially if we had a good connection and trust with them which is essential to this kind of teaching and learning.
“As professionals, educators and parents, we can raise the bar and change what is standard”
Let’s shift away from the basics and what is easy for us adults when it comes to helping kids understand their emotions. Let’s open up what recognizing and communicating emotions means and teach children emotions can be nuanced, complex, gentle, strong and that there are a rainbow of ways to communicate them. As professionals, educators and parents, we can raise the bar and change what is standard.