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  • paulinethepsychologist

Understanding Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Updated: Mar 21, 2022

Emotions. We get so much skewed information about them. What are they? Why are they important? This blog series will give you some foundational knowledge as well as practical tips for mastering them and living with more ease and confidence.

You may have heard about emotional intelligence (EQ) popularized by Daniel Goleman in the 1990s. His theory of EQ broke it down into five components that I will describe below:

1. Self-awareness

Basic question: Do you know what you are feeling it when you’re feeling it? 

Complicated application: Many of us have been taught that certain emotions are good, okay or acceptable and others are not. Thus, we fight and repress and deny and push aside those emotions. We feel uncomfortable or afraid of certain emotions. Getting in touch with the full spectrum of emotion - so we can have a clear rather than distorted picture of what is happening - is an advanced (and necessary) skill. It requires us to take stock of our emotional biases, patterns, and fears to understand that all emotions are data.

I encourage you to notice which emotions you feel comfortable feeling and expressing, and which ones you tend not to want to feel or express. Having a clearer sense of what emotions you try and avoid or bypass will highlight any possible blind spots in your self-awareness around emotions. This is important because you can't effectively work through an emotion that you're in denial about feeling.

2. Self-regulation

Basic question: Can you control and manage your urge to act when you’re feeling emotional?

Complicated application: The more we repeatedly respond to a certain emotion with immediate action, the more those actions become habitual. If we curse and honk and lose our s*** whenever we are cut off or stuck behind a slow driver, the more easily that pattern of action will be accessible to us in the future. Some of these patterns have been modeled for us (i.e., a parent with road rage) and modeling is a powerful form of learning. In order to regulate our emotions, we have to have self-awareness and then have tools for tolerating the distress we are feeling without immediately acting to relieve that distress. Distress tolerance skills like mindfulness, urge surfing, and self-soothing can also be practiced until they become more habitual.

Mindfulness refers to being aware of the present moment without evaluation or judgment. You are not judging whether your emotion is bad or good - it just is. Not having a judgment will help you move through that emotion more easily than trying to fight it because you are caught up in moralizing it. After you have noticed what you are feeling, you can add some self-compassion to your mindfulness with the addition of self-kindness and common humanity or universality. Self-kindness means offering kindness, gentleness, and grace to ourselves in the midst of whatever is coming up. Common humanity or universality refers to remembering that we, like every other human on this planet, has emotions and feels things. Not feeling alone or isolated in the feeling already helps to soften it.

Urge surfing means noticing an urge to act with curiosity and openness. It means noticing our impulses without having to immediately give in to them. If you are caught behind the slow driver, notice the growing tension in your gut, the urgency of your thoughts, the agitation in your hands, and your desire to get out of your current lane. You can notice and let go, notice and let go. The more you can do this, the more you are building the capacity to have a strong urge and not immediately react. This can help you in ALL aspects of life - from keeping harsh words to yourself when in an argument or not eating an entire bag of something that doesn't make your body feel very good in the long-run.

Self-soothing is about finding ways to calm, comfort, and soothe ourselves when we become activated. Grounding is a powerful way to bring ourselves into the present moment and help us feel more in charge rather than out of control in relation to our emotions. Simple things like taking 3 deep breaths, moving your eyes from side to side, doing a couple stretches, letting out a large sigh, planting out feet firmly on the ground, splashing our face with cold water, or taking a walk can help us reset and reorganize.

3. Internal Motivation

Basic question: Are you intrinsically motivated?

Complicated application: In order to be able to use our emotions to navigate the world, we have to have a deeper sense of why. Being externally motivated (by money, validation, etc.) can only take us so far and while we may feel good when we’re on top, it’s a fickle and unstable place to be. Our motivation, drive, and sense of self crashes when met with criticism, failure, lack of acknowledgement, or other inevitable challenges. Having a passion for what you are doing leads to sustained motivation even in the face of adversity and obstacle and helps us make better decisions.

Being internally motivated also means believing in your capacity to learn, grow, and evolve. It means believing in your self-actualizing essence. In nature, inside the seed is embedded what it needs to become a plant or a tree. Believing that in you, you are geared toward growth and progress - always in a state of becoming better and blossoming - helps build a sense of hope and optimism. Not just feel good emotions, hope and optimism also help encourage resilience to keep practicing and trying even in the face of challenges or drawbacks. Becoming EQ is a skill like anything else and it will take grit and continued commitment.

4. Empathy

Basic question: Do you have a sense for how others might be feeling?

Complicated application: Empathy refers to seeing the other person as someone, who just like you, is worthy of all good things - kindness, gentleness, honesty, understanding, and more. When our emotions are high, our lens becomes myopic. We are internally focused and it can be hard for us to get out of our heads and hearts and imagine what someone else is feeling .. and care about it! There are complex physiological (calming ourselves enough to have access to our higher level brain functioning), psychological (understanding of emotional states as well as verbal and nonverbal indicators of these) and cognitive (ability to think about the situation from another perspective – i.e., engage in metacognition from multiple vantage points) aspects at play.

Empathy, like the elements above, can be strengthened through practice. Loving-kindness meditation (LKM), for example, is a way to strengthen our empathy and compassion skills. In LKM, we first imagine ourselves and send ourselves love, peace, health, happiness, and more. Then we imagine someone we love, someone who is a stranger, and even someone with whom we have a difficult relationship. We can also send positivity out into the world at large. Practicing this helps us to build self-empathy and empathy for others.

5. Social skills

Basic question: Can you move through the rules of engagement in social settings with ease?

Complicated application: The rules of engagement are pretty complex. Social cues and norms are all culture- and context-specific. Culture can dictate what is and isn’t appropriate and as we know, culture changes over time. The context also matters. How we might greet our boss or colleagues at work is different than how we might greet our friends at a bar. Additionally, some cultures (Western cultures) are low-context (more emphasis is placed on the exact words being said) and others, (Eastern cultures) are high-context (more emphasis is placed on the context) which means that depending on the speaker, we may have to pay attention to different things. Socialization refers to our training in these social skills and like some of the other aspects of EQ, if we don’t have good models or ample opportunities for practice or if we have certain psychological challenges to social skills (e.g., being on the autism spectrum), we may need social skills training.

While every one of us is going to have a unique personality (and I LOVE that and want you celebrate YOU!), in our Western culture, some universal things actually build a sense of closeness and fondness with others. These things include:

-Active listening: Being present, making eye contact, and really listening to both what is being said (the content), the emotions being conveyed (the feel), and the way it is being said (the nonverbal process). Taking all of this in will give you more to respond to. Active listening also includes nonverbal signals like nodding your head, saying "mmm" or "yeah," smiling (or having the appropriate facial expressions in response to what is being shared), and other cues that let the speaker know that you are paying attention. It also means reflecting back what was said to you to ensure that the message they were trying to convey was received. This is particularly useful in professional conversations to reduce any miscommunication.

-Showing interest: Asking open-ended questions, being curious about what the person is saying, expressing understanding, and empathy.

- - - -

These components are not binaries (we have them or we don’t have them). Think of them as being on a continuum and when combined, they give us a sense for how emotionally intelligent we are. Lots of research points to the importance of EQ not just in our personal lives but also in our professional lives. EQ works in tandem with IQ to help us navigate the world, make good decisions, and thrive in relationships.

So how do we start developing EQ? The next few blogs will help give you more information about emotions and speak to a number of ways that you can grow your EQ.

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