Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence

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In this article, I discuss the elements of becoming emotionally intelligent which can ultimately dramatically improve your life. The term Emotional Intelligence involves becoming aware of one’s emotions, managing and communicating them effectively while also recognizing and responding to other people’s emotions well (Salovey & Meyer, 1990; Goleman, 1995).

As we enter the world as infants, we express our emotions instinctually—crying when distressed, smiling or laughing when content or happy. As we grow, both our conscious and unconscious mind gather information about emotions which ultimately leads to our core beliefs about them (Gottman, 1997). We observe how our families experience, cope with and express emotions. We form beliefs such as whether or not it’s okay to have emotions or if only certain ones are “allowed.” Are emotions a normal part of being human and having relationships or are they scary, unpredictable and destructive to others? Do emotions make life richer and inform us more about who we really are or are they signs of “weakness” and meant to be controlled and avoided at all costs?

Take a moment before reading further to reflect upon what you may have observed or what programming you may have acquired about emotions from the way you grew up. Often families struggle with emotions and in expressing them constructively. Consequently, many people say they don’t want to “do emotions” the way their families did but don’t know how to approach them in an alternate yet effective way. In this article, I would like to present what is perhaps a fresh perspective and some guidelines on how to use your emotions rather than being controlled by them. Increasing your emotional intelligence is an area many coaches specialize in and I encourage you to connect with a coach if you’re one of the many whose lives are being complicated by your emotions.

Why do we have emotions?

When discussing emotions, I first find it helpful to reflect upon why we have them in the first place. I know some people who, if given the choice, would do away with most emotions in exchange for being rational or logical. However, not only do our emotions add richness and meaning to our lives, they also serve an evolutionary purpose—otherwise natural selection would have eliminated them over time.

Emotions are powerful tools for helping us, as well as animals, navigate life more successfully. I find it helpful to think about our emotions as another sense—like our hearing, sight, taste, smell and touch. Our senses provide us information that we interpret to draw us towards those things that are pleasing and beneficial while also prompting us to avoid those which may be dangerous. Similarly, our basic emotions are designed to provide us information to prompt action or navigate our lives more effectively. Below are some examples of the messages our primary emotions may be trying to tell us:

Fear:  there is an immediate threat, take action to either escape or defend oneself
Anxiety: there is something coming up in the future that you need to do something now to prepare for, so start taking action
Anger: there’s been some sort of violation of your person, territory or something you care about, do what you need to do to protect your boundary
Frustration: what you are doing is not working, it is not an efficient use of resources so stop what you are doing and reevaluate the strategy you are using or at least its timing
Sadness: there’s been a loss or injury, take the time you need to retreat and heal or grieve
Happiness: this thing, person or experience brings joy, move toward it
Love: this person or thing is important to you, protect it, nurture it and keep it close to you

Ironically, despite our superior intelligence, animals tend to do emotions more effectively than we humans do. Animals simply let emotions occur when they have them. Emotions are energies that flow through our system. When an animal experiences an emotion, it just lets the energy flow and listens to what the emotion is prompting it to do. Many humans, in our infinite wisdom, have decided that we don’t like certain emotions (such as anxiety, fear, sadness, anger) so we choose not to “have” them.

In our attempt to not experience certain emotions, we have developed an extensive portfolio of avoidance strategies—obsession or compulsion (alcoholism, substance abuse, perfectionism, workaholism, being obsessed with body image, wealth, status etc.). It is these avoidance strategies which complicate our lives rather than the underlying emotions per se.

In addition to these avoidance strategies, humans also tend to convert primary emotions into secondary ones. For example, instead of experiencing anxiety, fear or sadness, many people feel more comfortable converting these emotions into anger. Thus, anger, is secondary to the actual emotion (anxiety, fear, or sadness) the person was experiencing. Humans tend to choose anger as one of our most common secondary emotions because it comes with an increase in strength and power which many people prefer over the sense of vulnerability that often accompanies anxiety, fear and sadness. The problem with secondary emotions is that they often keep us from resolving the real issue to which our primary emotion was trying to alert us.

Getting out of the river

To learn how to approach emotions more constructively, I find it helpful to use the metaphor of a river. Picture for a moment, a large river with sections of rushing whitewater rapids. Now imagine you are right smack in the middle getting pelted by the current as you feverishly try to hold back or move forward. Overwhelming, right? That’s how many people feel when they experience what we call emotional hijacking.

Emotional hijacking is when the emotions from the more primitive part of our brain, the limbic system, overwhelm the more sophisticated thinking part of our brain, the frontal cortex (Siegel, 2013). In these situations, people lose the ability to think and respond rationally. Have you ever had the experience of being so angry you couldn’t think straight? In those moments, a functional scan of your brain would have shown the energy of the emotions from your limbic system overpowering your frontal lobe like a tidal wave.

It’s when we get overwhelmed by intense emotions that we tend to look toward avoidance strategies or secondary emotions to cope. While avoidance strategies, if used sparingly, aren’t necessarily a bad thing, they often quickly take on a life of their own, complicating our lives and controlling us rather than the other way around. A much more effective strategy for coping with emotions is developing mindfulness skills (Siegel, 2007).

Mindfulness allows you to become an observer of your emotions without being overwhelmed by them. To illustrate this perspective, imagine the same rushing river we just mentioned above but this time instead of being in the river, picture yourself on a nice sturdy high bank well above the reach of even the highest waves. From the perspective of the riverbank, you can stay perfectly still and peaceful even as the river is rushing by you. That is the mindfulness perspective. From this vantage point, you can simply observe what is in the river—what emotions may be coming up for you without having to be concerned about blocking or “censoring” the river.

The power of the mindfulness perspective comes largely from the fact that it allows you to respond to your emotions rather than react to them. When you respond, you get a moment, even a brief moment, to observe what might be coming up for you and then decide whether or not you want to engage or act upon a particular thought or emotion. Think how many times in your life you may have said or done something in a moment of intense emotion that you regretted or wouldn’t have done if you had just a few moments to calm down. That’s how mindfulness has the power to not only increase your emotional intelligence but also dramatically improve your life.

Listen to your body

Your physical body is a great resource for increasing your mindfulness skills with regard to your emotions (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). If you pay more attention to your body, you will notice that your emotions all have some physiological correlation. Our muscle tension and blood pressure increase with anger, many of us feel queasy in our stomachs with anxiety and an actual feeling of warmth in our hearts with love. By paying attention to your body more, you will likely become more aware of your emotions before they become too intense.

Look for the thoughts behind the emotions

The mindfulness perspective of the riverbank allows you to bring your conscious attention to not just the emotions you may be experiencing but also the thoughts behind them. Many people don’t realize that our emotions result from our thinking or the interpretations we make about a situation or experience. Because our thinking is so efficient and automatic many people are not aware of our thoughts—it tends to be easier to become aware of our emotions because they linger longer in our system than our thoughts. But in order to start changing our emotions and increase our emotional intelligence, we need to learn how to change our thoughts.

So when you become more mindful of your emotions, the next step is to ask yourself what it is you’re thinking that is giving rise to these feelings. It is often helpful to write your thoughts down when you’re trying to become more conscious of them. When you start seeing your thoughts and how they are fueling your emotions, try changing the way you are thinking and see what happens to your emotions.

For example, let’s say you are hosting a gathering at your home. In this situation, many people fall into the trap of thinking, “Everything’s got to be perfect,” or that it’s their responsibility to ensure that everyone has a good time. Such thoughts often give rise to feelings of anxiety and stress and take away from one’s enjoyment of the party. Instead, consider the following thought, “I’m going to do what I can to provide food and an environment where people can enjoy themselves and I hope they have a good time but whether or not they do is really up to them. I know I’m going to choose to focus on enjoying myself and everyone’s company.”

By focusing on what’s actually within your control (providing the food and environment) while letting go of that which is not (everyone has a good time), many people describe they feel more empowered, relaxed and positioned to really enjoy themselves. The key to understand is that even if you can’t change a situation, you always have the option of changing the way you think about it and by doing so you change the emotions you experience. While learning this process does take some time and effort, it is well worth it because once you learn to control your thinking you are better positioned to become a conscious creator of your ideal life.

I hope this article has helped change some of your thinking when it comes to emotions and that you’re able to approach them more constructively rather than feeling pressured to avoid or censor them. A coach can certainly be a powerful resource for helping you change some of the habits and pitfalls in how you handle and think about emotions.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.

Gottman, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York, NY: Bantam Dell (Random House).

Marra, T. (2005). Dialectical behavior therapy in private practice. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Salovey, P., & Meyer, J.D. (1990). Emotional Intelligence. Imagination, Cognition & Personality, 9, 185-211. In: John Mayer, Marc Brackett & Peter Salovey (2004) Emotional Intelligence: Key Readings on the Meyer & Salovey Model. Port Chester, NY: Dude Publishing.

Siegel, D. (2013). Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive: 10th Anniversary Edition. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Siegel, D. (2007). The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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