DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 13: EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS, your monthly blog for discovering new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. Today, we discuss emotional intelligence, a concept that might be a little (or a lot) different than is typically perceived.
TOPIC OF THE MONTH
“We cannot tell what may happen to us in the strange medley of life. But we can decide what happens in us — -how we can take it, what we do with it —- and that is what really counts in the end.”
—- Joseph Fort Newton
Emotional intelligence was, at least for me, a concept that seemed a lot more foreign than one might think it would. As I like to say to clients, 10 years after beginning to look at myself in this light, I can’t truly report I have any more control over my emotions. What I can say, however, is that my comfortability gained in the process has made a world of difference in how I react to them.
At first glance, emotional intelligence seems to be a synonym to being polite, courteous, and socially aware. While these are all very important pieces that could result from a high EI, they run a high risk of misleading us to assume that emotional intelligence therefore has a set script to follow. The key part of emotional intelligence is that we are aware and honest about the emotions that WE are PERSONALLY experiencing, regardless of how socially acceptable. The emotional “intelligence” portion comes from how we handle things.
To make things more concrete, let me give you a parallel hypothetical example to one that I recently discovered in a book about emotional intelligence. Imagine you are with a child near a busy road. Knowing cars are coming, you warn the child that it would be dangerous to run into the street and this would make us upset. The child runs into the street.
Of the following options, which would you guess would show the most emotional intelligence?
Express emotions, become upset with the child for actions
Master emotions, then calmly explain to the child why this choice was dangerous
Master emotions, then decide subsequent punishment
For the half-dozen clients I have asked this question to, and for my own initial answer, the solution clearly appears to be option 2. We want to have a handle on our own emotions, we want to convey important information, and we do not want to create any extra anxiety or fear around a situation that might impact others. Fair enough.
However, this is actually only the second most emotionally intelligent response. Breaking down this hypothetical, we have told the child about the danger of the street, and therefore both parties have been alerted that this threat is real. We have also expressed that this would make us nervous, and furthered predictability in the situation. With these two factors in mind, displaying our honest emotional reaction is not only going to allow ourselves to fully process and experience our reactions, but also indicate to the child that we needed to have been taken seriously in this situation, creating a natural consequence that effectively communicates the appropriate danger level and has the end result of better understanding for future self-preservation. Additionally, we model a healthy reaction to emotion, and assuming the followup to this situation includes effective explanation and processing, have then displayed advanced emotional intelligence. The end result of the situation has created more emotional intelligence in the child.
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE?
Emotional Intelligence is defined as “the ability to perceive, interpret, demonstrate, control, evaluate, and use emotions to connect and relate to others effectively and constructively.”
Now while that sounds spectacular and maybe even idealistic, one key implication that is perhaps not clearly defined is that these have to be in scope of self. Someone who is very naturally introverted may read this and assume it means they need to learn how to be extroverted, but the message is actually that an introverted person should learn how to best integrate their introversion into life despite an overt pressure of extroversion. “Toughing it out” with an extroverted friend at a party would not be very emotionally intelligent, but suggesting an alternative plan the following week that would be more mutually enjoyable would be a better display. Often, emotional IQ can actually be seen as weighing what appears to be the most socially accepted response against what is the best response for ourselves.
We will continue to elaborate on this further, but for now, the most simple way to describe this concept might just be the ability to accurately accept and manage one’s emotions as they occur.
SIGNS OF HIGH EMOTIONAL IQ
Signs of high emotional intelligence are more likely to be subconscious and latent, and therefore it is more common to have an intuitive “feeling” that someone has high emotional awareness than deduction based on obvious, explicit signals. That being said, the following behaviors are commonly associated with high EI:
Strength in identifying feelings of self and others
“We are all feeling tired today, let’s move our plans to a time we will probably enjoy them more fully”
Awareness of personal strengths and weaknesses
“I am very creative and independent, but this can make it difficult for me to collaborate with others”
“I really appreciate you and how your perspective challenges mine”
Self acceptance and resilience to failure/mistakes
“I really suck at admitting fault, it’s scary and doesn’t feel good when I do it, but it seems to improve my connections when I do and though it doesn’t feel like much, I get slightly better.”
Strong ability to accept and embrace change
“The most important skill is openness when we need to adapt”
Curiosity, empathy, sensitivity, and respect when discussing others’ lives
“I can’t even imagine how brutal that root canal must have been, how are you feeling now?”
Ability to take accountability/responsibility
“I apologize for acting cold, I know this makes our relationship strained. I am open to discussing this with you whenever you feel comfortable, and ask for your forgiveness.”
Ability to manage emotions even in difficult situations.
You could go through this list and say that all of the developed skills eventually lead to the last one. The “end goal” of developing emotional intelligence would be to have mastered not emotions themselves, but sitting in the uncomfortability of hard emotions– emotional management. A person with a high EI in an uncomfortable situation is going to be able to recognize their feelings as uncomfortable and operate from there, rather than try to override, ignore or mute those feelings— which typically create a worsened emotional condition with even less clarity on the root.
ROOTS OF STRONG EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
You may have hit the point where you are wondering, why does this sound so simple? Or, doesn’t everyone know this? While there is truth to natural abilities and human proclivities towards possession of more or less emotional awareness, we are probably most hindered by our own self perceptions. As you have heard many times (and will continue to hear going forward!), this may be more connected to societal expectations and the social contract than anything else.
The rudimental skills of EI are perceiving, reasoning with, and understanding our emotions. While we are quick to see this one way— don’t take emotion out on innocent people if you are upset with something— we also must see the need to address that emotion appropriately, not just stuff it down and hope it goes away. Considering we realistically will not have access to the most easily accessible coping mechanisms (we cannot take a bath or go exercise immediately in response to feeling enraged by an offhand comment in a discussion), our next best option is to become more comfortable sitting in our anger so that we can better express and process emotional communication that will be more proactive than that, still completely valid, initial response.
Perhaps the best example of emotional intelligence in action comes in the scope of my job. It’s an interesting (and frankly, slightly dystopian) concept to think that therapists have somehow trained themselves to be neutral robots that no longer experience emotions; the truth is that this too is simple emotional intelligence. A great therapist is not “turning off” bias, did not “defeat” or “eliminate” their preconceived judgments, but rather remain extremely aware of their biases and consciously work beyond their own opinions by acknowledging what they are susceptible to. A therapist should still share their contrasting thoughts at times, not with intent of persuasion but with intent of a better mutual understanding, to be on “the same page” rather than agree. This is typically much easier from a professional standpoint, but that does not mean that it does not have equal effectiveness from an interpersonal one.
Emotional intelligence could also be colored in as an understanding that our emotions will always hold utmost value and importance to us, and taking that emotional confidence to become wisdom to know when and how to use them.
EMOTIONAL CONFUSION AND EI
One of the largest barriers to emotional intelligence comes from emotional misattribution, or the tendency to react in an emotion which we think is being appropriately displayed rather than what we actually feel.
I love to use this example: let's consider how a muscular bodybuilder might react to two different negative emotions. Let’s say one day he comes to the gym and someone has truly insulted him. It is both emotionally intelligent AND socially expected for this bodybuilder to become upset, angry, and hurt by an insult, and his response to confront the insultee with high emotions and self-advocacy would make sense and, within limits, even be justified. Let’s even say he did not communicate effectively, or as effectively as he could have– while a large reaction may escalate the situation, the dynamics are clear, the emotions are accurately processed, and both parties can eventually move on with closure on what happened.
Now let’s say this same bodybuilder loses his dog and becomes very sad and scared. Although these emotions are clearly an accurate response to what the bodybuilder is feeling, it is no longer the implicit social expectation to see such a burly and powerful-looking human in a vulnerable and fearful state. While he may have found great ease and comfortability in showing anger when he was wronged, the same can not be said for allowing himself to be crying and look despaired. When the bodybuilder goes to the gym this time, he has still not removed his negative feelings, likely increased them by not acknowledging them, yet is not comfortable displaying sadness and hurt. He instead finds himself being short with people, becoming angry over less important things, and displacing these emotions in favor of actually addressing the root cause.
This not only creates further misinterpretation by the body, but also by others. It is understandable that the bodybuilder became upset in direct response to being insulted, but now he’s just being a jerk with no identified stressor. Negative emotional behaviors that cannot be attributed to a clear source will create fear, judgment and other unwanted responses to result in a negative image around the bodybuilder on a micro level and further disorient societal emotional stigmas on a macro level.
Of course, this is just a hypothetical example, and certainly not the way that every bodybuilder might misinterpret emotion. However, we can see with more clarity where confusion around the idea of “emotional intelligence” can become murky when considering societal norms and expectations. While drastic, a simple misunderstanding in a worst case scenario can indeed lead the bodybuilder to continue receiving negative perceptions, continue to act negatively himself, and eventually become very overwhelmed by all the negativity that it becomes significantly impactful on his life and perception of self going forward.
APPLICATION OF EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Emotional intelligence, perhaps more directly than other strategies, shows a clear end motive in living a more present, aware, and enjoyable existence. While this is obviously an overlying influence that will positively affect life in thousands of different little ways, there are even further applications of emotional intelligence which can be utilized in a more direct and tangible way.
For perceiving emotions, we not only get better at communicating with other humans, but also may get better at reading emotions as well. Improving this skill will create a better ability to “read the room”-- resulting in more appreciation during positive experiences and reduction of situations that may lead to negative experiences thanks to improved recognition and comprehension of a social situation.
In regards to understanding emotions, we may find ourselves becoming more comprehending with outside emotions and therefore create a larger tolerance and empathy for others. One of the more interesting truths within psychology is that most emotions are at least partially displaced, and though we often feel that others are directing their emotional messages to us specifically, it is very rare to see a situation of interpersonal expression that does not involve some sort of interplay from completely unrelated emotions going on in each individual’s outside life. When we begin to see anger as fear, fear as sadness, sadness as frustration, and the uncountable other unsuspecting but common emotional “substitutes”, we in turn begin to feel much better about ourselves as we manage to disconnect from feelings of personal attack. And as you likely have experienced, it’s much easier to help someone with a conflict that does not involve ourselves.
Managing our emotions is perhaps the facet of emotional intelligence with the most apparent benefits: we learn to tame our feelings when they would typically exacerbate a situation, create a sense of calmness in areas that are typically chaotic, and develop a stronger sense of logical anchor when we are in emotional moments. However, these expected benefits are only “level 1”, if you will; a full mastery of emotional management actually means that we are able to effectively show negative emotions when appropriate, advocate for ourselves in a much more assertive manner, and even the ability to amplify important emotions that would typically be considered taboo (for example, how mad or disgusted you are at someone) in a productive and constructive way.
And finally, we can understand how we act emotionally and begin to almost “hack” our brains to understand emotion at a far greater level. Let’s say you have a friend that has a bad habit of getting defensive when you bring up certain topics. You will always become annoyed when the friend becomes defensive, and that emotion is unfortunately out of our control. But when emotional self-understanding is developed, you will also understand that your annoyance is going to influence your emotions in a certain way, and acknowledging and accepting the annoyed feeling and the effects creates an opportunity to react differently than you normally would. When we break a pattern like this, we will naturally begin to get differing reactions from others, and this is one of the most effective ways to actually shift interpersonal dynamics.
TIPS FOR IMPROVING EI
A good comparison to improving our emotional intelligence skills would be similar to learning a language: we best integrate this by practicing constantly and continuously reflecting on where we are feeling strong as well as areas for improvement.
While it is indeed 100% accurate, I do not feel that simply stating “being mindful” is much help at all. Here are some more concise ways that we can improve emotional intelligence.
Observe yourself when you react to people. Personally, I have felt it easiest to do this by imagining myself as a third party: if I am a character in a book, how do other characters perceive me? If I am in a video game, what are my attributes? If I am a part of a sitcom, what is my role? Our largest barrier to this understanding is almost always going to be ourselves and the shame, guilt, and fear around seeing and accepting all parts of personality. If we find the courage to accept ourselves being overly judgmental, closed off, obnoxious, or any other “unwanted” trait, we can absolutely improve! The key thing is identifying that we have these patterns, and much more difficult, accepting this as something we want to improve.
Putting self in others’ shoes. The easiest way to reach empathy is just trying to imagine something from another person’s perspective. We may not even feel any further empathy from this exercise, but we at least have considered another perspective and therefore have naturally pulled ourselves, to some degree, out of our own biases.
Looking at self in adversity. While it is true that we have no control over what emotions come up in adversity, we can again understand what our typical reactions are, and this is the key ingredient to managing emotions. Are we quick to blame others for issues? Ourselves? Do we want to get out of misery as quickly as possible at all costs? Perhaps we stay in the rut too long? While the ability to stay “cool, calm, and collected” is overly glorified in a way that typically presents to be closer to emotionally suppressive than regulated, it is also attainable in a healthy manner should we build the ability to stay comfortable in discomfort and continue to manage our reactions.
Take an emotional intelligence quiz. While IMPORTANT TO NOTE this will NOT give you ANY HARD OR CONCLUSIVE answers, you may find yourself interested to see what areas were surprising to you. The last time I took one, I fell somewhere in the B- range, and found that the answers that I did not understand to be the most helpful ones.
Simply taking responsibility and accountability while favoring communication over avoidance. It can be one of the most extreme and difficult challenges in the emotional world to simply own up to mistakes and acknowledge that we hurt others. But much of this comes from the barrier of the initial discomfort, shame, and guilt that comes with approaching a situation we mishandled, and prevents the understanding that the more we do this, the better we become at not making the same mistakes. A very common question that arises when working with clients around this area is “would you rather address something, feel immediately bad, then move on to the healing, or not address something, avoid immediately feeling bad, but begin to feel worse and worse as the issue remains unresolved?” This is, UNFORTUNATELY, the dilemma that we face in these situations every single time.
If there is one message that I think concisely sums up the value of emotional intelligence, it would be this:
While we may live in a society where the main focus is around logic and removing emotional bias, it is still illogical for us to make decisions without considering our emotions.
There is ample stigma attached to this idea of making “decisions based on emotion”, yet we contradictingly do not have control over our emotions; where is the middle ground? A much, much better way to word this would be we want to make decisions WITH emotions in consideration. In theory, the true MOST logical choice can only be made once every involved party has been emotionally accounted for. Failure to do this results in a large negative manifestation of hidden issues, and once we have started thinking from a “purely logical” perspective, it can be hard to backtrack and instead tend to continue ignoring emotions creating further and further problems.
At the end of the day, humans are simply emotional creatures that have a very hard time accepting that they are not purely logical.
Ironically, it is emotions that create this difficulty.
WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH
ATTACHMENT & RELATIONSHIPS
Now that we have covered emotional intelligence, we will zoom in to view how and why our emotional patterns work the way that they do, and where we can use emotional intelligence skills to improve our relationships with more effectiveness
At Connected Roots, our three core pillars are connection, grounding, and confidence.
We share dedication to creating nonjudgmental and safe spaces where clients can
express themselves authentically and reach their goals.
For more information on Connected Roots or Nick Serro, please visit our website or contact us at 720-593-1062.