The "Emotion" Part of Emotional Intelligence
We have been talking about emotional intelligence: what it is, how it intersects with IQ, and how it’s related to learning. Let’s focus on the “emotion” part of EQ. Let’s start talking about a more informed framework of emotions, giving you a better sense for how to view emotions and debunking emotional myths.
The first component of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is self-awareness:
Do I know what I am feeling when I am feeling it?
In order to become more self-aware, we need sound emotional information. We need to understand what emotions are and to investigate the way we have been taught or modeled to deal with our emotions.
What is an emotion?
Emotions are electrochemical reactions to something internal or external (triggers) that then result in a cascading phenomenon that includes physiological and cognitive symptoms and prompts us to act.
"Electro" refers to the fact that the neurons firing and the action potential that is built in each neuron to prompt its activation means that a charge is being created.
Do you know that if we plugged in our brains, we would light up a 40 watt lightbulb? There is electricity moving through us!! Emotions are created by a charge!
"Chemical" refers to the fact that the charge then results in a release of chemicals. These chemicals impact our bodies in a number of ways and accompany a number of physical reactions. When we are angry, there is an electrical charge and the chemical release might result in a sped up heart rate, adrenaline pulsing through our veins, tension in our jaw and hands, and heat moving to our face,.
Do you know how long it takes a primary emotion (a single trigger and reaction) to move through our system?
A close colleague beats you out for a promotion --> Disappointment
In this scenario, the electrochemical reaction that moves through our system lasts for ...
Isn’t that wild?
Something that many people fear will last forever can actually be metabolized by our bodies in a mere matter of seconds.
However, when our emotions get muddied, interrupted by cognitions, prompted by multiple triggers in a short period of time, or bleeding into additional feelings, unpacking and working through our emotions requires much more time. Sometimes, this is unavoidable (aka, when a lot is going on in our lives). But other times, we go from having a primary emotion, to having an interpretation, to then having a secondary emotion.
Trigger --> A close colleague beats you out for a promotion
Primary emotion --> Disappointment
Interpretation --> "It is bad for me to feel like this because I like this person"
Secondary emotion --> Guilt
Interpretation --> "They are more qualified for the promotion anyway"
Tertiary emotion --> Shame
.. and this can keep going. Each of these cycles adds more emotional charge and chemicals to the mix and the emotional water at the end is much murkier to wade through.
Also when we suppress or try and change an emotion, it interrupts the natural process. What some people do thinking it will save them time actually extends the amount of time it takes to let the emotion pass through you if you just let yourself feel it.
I have a few ways of explaining emotions to clients but let me explain the framework for how I see emotions first.
Emotions as Messengers: You’ve Got Mail!
I see emotions as providing us vital information. They are messengers giving us important messages about life. They help us navigate situation and make decisions in the world of work, relationships, and life. I think that the messages they offer need to be deciphered and decoded. Our systems for deciphering and decoding have often been influenced by our families of origin and cultural influences.
Our work in adulthood is to look at the emotional messaging system we have - the system that deciphers the coding - and decide whether this system is working best for us. If it isn’t, it’s not our fault but it is our responsibility to change the system. This is the work we each have to get to do for ourselves as adults - something we couldn’t choose for ourselves when we were kids.
Emotions themselves are biological but the way we respond to them is developed in relationships and through learning. While we all feel emotions at some level, we differ in our ability to recognize that we are being sent a message and what we do with the message even when it’s been recognized. Some of us don’t even know a message is being sent until it’s being blasted on the PA system and others, even when we hear the messages, don’t know how to respond to what is being said.
How do I explain emotions to clients?
When I worked with teens, I used to say, “feelings are our friends but they aren’t facts.”
Feelings are adaptive. They help us navigate the landscape of life. They offer information different than the sensory inputs we are getting from sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. They provide information. Also, all biology is geared toward survival. That means that emotions wouldn’t exist if they weren’t there in the service of helping us protect ourselves and survive. They are our friends. They want to help.
And yet, they are not facts. There are many reasons why we feel how we feel and these are based in all sorts of personal, biological, historical, and associative reasons. Just because you feel something doesn’t mean that it lines up with reality. We can feel that someone is mad at us when they are not. We can feel afraid, even if there is no present threat in our environment.
In this way, while emotions are coming from a place of support, the messages they provide are not entirely based in objective reality. They are based in subjective reality.
I also describe emotions with this equation: emotions = information + opportunities.
They give us information about our stance toward something that is happening. Then they give us opportunities to respond to them or to the situation. We have a lot of choices in the opportunity section. Once we have the information, it is up to us how we want to deal with things.
Many people have grown up with misinformation and stigma around emotions. Rather than see them as natural biological functions, they view them as moralistic, completely controllable choices. They have learned that there are “good” emotions (like joy) and “bad” emotions (like sadness or anger). I don’t even love the dichotomy of “positive” and “negative” emotions because I think it misrepresents that the “negative” ones have very positive purposes. I tend to call them “comfortable” and “uncomfortable” emotions as this refers to how they feel in the body without all the weight of the social and familial messages.
Some view emotions as useless. This is completely false. Emotions would not have existed over all of these years if they did not serve an adaptive function. All emotions have an evolutionary purpose.
Others view emotions as nuisances, problems, things to be avoided. They tend to over-focus on the fact that we can become hijacked by emotions and thus, prone to emotional thinking, and fail to see that reducing the emotional intensity but holding onto the message in the emotions will actually lead to better thinking and decision-making. This is what emotional intelligence is about - understanding, working with, and harnessing the power of your emotions rather than trying to avoid them.
Many people who disregard and look down upon emotions have a deep fear of emotions. The judgment of emotions actually comes from a place of inadequacy to deal with the emotions they feel so to regain control, they tighten the reigns, think about how to avoid these “completely nonsensical” things (myth!), and think this is a “better” or “more mature” way to be. In truth, they are truly missing out on all the valuable information their emotions can give them.
We cannot handpick which emotions we do and don’t want to feel. If we numb or ignore some of them, we crate distance from all of them. Feeling disconnected and numb to our emotions, life can also lose a sense of vitality and zest. In cutting out feeling vulnerable, we have also sacrificed feeling so much joy, peace, and goodness.
How well would it work for you to try and avoid the fact that you need to use the bathroom? Do you think you will be able to be present with your work, sit in class, attend to your partner or child in a conversation, or enjoy an activity while trying to deny a basic, physiological experience you are having? Not likely. But many people do this with their emotions.
Do you know what happens when we avoid an emotion? Sometimes it goes away for a period of time, yes, but if the message is important enough for us to receive, it comes back STRONGER.
In the next blog, I will breakdown two different familial emotional environments, give you a more accurate and balanced framework, and debunk a list of common emotional myths.