What is Emotional Intelligence?
In 1995, Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book brought the concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) to main stream society. Nearly twenty-five years later, many of his insights continue to be taught in business conferences, teacher development and personal growth seminars. Success in relationships, happiness and health are often attributed to elevated emotional intelligence. If all this the EQ hype is correct and emotional intelligence does catapult success in key areas, then we should harness this incredible power to bless our lives.
Although emotional intelligence was popularized by Goleman’s book, emotional competency isn’t new, existing for thousands of years, littering the pages, speeches and thoughts of many prominent philosophers, both in western and eastern societies.
“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” ~Aristotle
The ability to properly use emotion to achieve goals and build relationships is the foundation of emotional intelligence. EQ includes components of self-awareness, self-restraint, skilled channeling of the energy flowing from feelings, and empathy and expertness in social relationships. By increasing emotional competencies, recognizing the flow of emotion in ourselves and others, and directing passions towards skilled responses, we act intelligently, gaining richness from the flow of feeling while avoiding chaos of directionless tantrums of emotion.
The concept of EQ (emotional quotient) suggests a measurable competency similar to IQ (intelligence quotient). While researching emotions, I discovered several quizzes promising to provide an EQ score. These quizzes suggested, by their structure, that EQ is easily determined. Don’t be fooled. Emotional intelligence is much more complicated than a number rating from a ten-question quiz.
Emotional intelligence is the skilled coordination between feelings and logic to guide relationships, action, and healthy development in a person.
Whole Body Intelligence
The term ‘emotional intelligence’ is misleading, suggesting an isolated intelligence different than standard intellectual measurements. EQ is a whole-body intelligence, integrating information from many regions. The emotionally mature person isn’t devoid of logic but integrates the rationality of cognitive reasoning with the powerful impulses of feeling (see Emotions and Logic). The cross communication between these prominent modalities creates a partnership, with logic and emotion working together for the betterment of the individual.
Humans have theorized about conflicting dualities for centuries—the brain and the mind, logic and emotion, body and spirit, the material and immaterial. Emotional intelligence is a bridging of these different functions. For instance, in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) this duality is described through concepts of “emotional mind” and “reasonable minds”, and the bridging of the two as “the wise mind.” The idea of a wise mind correlates with a high-functioning emotional intelligence.
Each avenue of processing information has evolutionary strengths and weaknesses. The emotional mind is easily hijacked, creating havoc from small disruptions. The reasonable mind disconnects from emotion, pushing feeling back into the darkness where external information is missed or ignored. The wise self finds balance, retrieving wisdom from both sources (2012, Dijk. Pp 31-34).
Why is the Wisdom of Emotions Important?
Emotions are infinitely more complex than the original stirs of feeling that recruit action. Through awareness, we can widen our view, giving handles that incorporate more of the surrounding landscape, perceiving the reactionary feelings within the broader contexts. This includes seeing the impact from childhood learning on current instances of emotion—our pasts give life to the present.
Like experts in any field, repeated contact increases vocabulary to describe the subtle differences only recognizable through greater familiarity. Through repeated exposure, we begin to see emotions with more granularity, adopting greater skills to label feeling experiences. “People with low emotional granularity will only have a few emotional concepts.” (Barrett, 2018, p. 106).
When we see the world from a narrow perspective of anger, sadness, and pleasure, we imprison our minds to very confined responses, such as, “I like this; I don’t like that.” Over simplification fails to maneuver through the complexities of relationships where much more flexibility is required. The inadequate guidance, forcing the square pegs of simplified concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ into the round holes of complexity inevitably creates confusion when life fails to match our lacking interpretations. Our predictions of what should be compared to the reality of what is leads to frustration, and limiting achievements in relationships, careers—or both.
Increasing Our Emotion Vocabulary
We need to “beef up our concepts.” (2018, p. 179). Instead of simply being angry, we can describe the feeling affect with more preciseness. We may feel frustrated, resentment, irritable, displeased, or impatient. Each of these more granular concepts provide deeper grounding in the underlying emotion. The labels (handles) we adopt interact with future feelings affects, changing the incident of emotion that follows. We are effectively integrating logic into the emotion.
All the modules or regions of the brain are interconnected, trillions of axions spread of from one locale to the other, sending and receiving information. Networks do not exist in tidy corners of the brain, solely dedicated for specific functions. Our expanding concepts (logic) impact the feelings and the feelings impact our concepts.
Learning is circular and preferably cumulative. When I define a feeling effect erupting from being cut-off on a busy highway with “impatience,” rather than anger, I am more likely to avoid unnecessary conflicts, soothe my system, and get to where I am going without an escalating conflict with another emotionally immature driver. This is the foundation of emotional health and the beginnings of emotional intelligence.
Childhood Development and Emotional Intelligence
Early childhood experiences profoundly contribute to emotional competency. Children learns to disregard emotions when their emotional expressions are received with ridicule, rejection or punishment.
Emotionally immature parents are frustrated by a child’s emotional expressions, slapping the child with painful and rejecting feedback, thrusting their own emotional incompetence onto the developing mind of the child. The youngster quickly adapts by burying emotions and losing contact with this valuable source of information (see Emotional Guidance System). The child, emotionally stunted, must stumble through the complicated world of relationships and interactions missing this key component of information flow.
Emotionally barren environments curtail healthy development. Many children fail to bridge the gap between emotions and logic. However, the unrecognized processes remain present and in force, exerting influence over choice and action. Both minds (rational and emotional) still exist, operating in ignorance of the other, with one mode typically acting in consciousness and the other in the dark. When emotions and logic operate independently, they often conflict, creating internal dissonance, wasting precious resources clashing against the other (see Cognitive Dissonance).
Emotional Intelligence can be Learned
The good news is that emotional intelligence can be developed. Goleman wrote, “one simply has the potential to become skilled at these competencies.” (2005, Location 181). We are not imprisoned by biology and early programming. We can make the weak become strong, developing the neglected areas. This development may require assistance from skilled instructors, attentive focusing, and humble openness.
EQ is not something we have or don’t have. It’s much like IQ, possessed in varying competencies. We should purposely work to develop emotional intelligence throughout our lives. There’s no finish line; no checkered flag signaling final enlightenment. Our task is to establish an environment safe enough to provide shelter and to employ self-awareness subjective enough to provide accurate information.
When living in constant stress or with misleading information, we squander, failing to draw valuable lessons from experience. Life stagnates and we miss the embedded lessons that develop our emotional intelligence. When overly stressed, we adopt strategies, utilizing protective adaptations instead of life-giving wisdom. We neither gain insights from successes nor learn from failures.Key Functions of Emotional Intelligence
Emotions impact all aspects of our lives. The functions of emotional intelligence are many and varied. However, there are three key functions that we can develop. These are self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy.
Emotional Intelligence and Self-Awareness
Mindful living bridge the gap between logic and emotions, minimizing conflicts by bringing hidden motivations to light. Self-awareness is essential for bridging this gap. A familiarity with the internal activity of feelings connects the body and the mind. These connections are especially important to build and maintain relationships. Instead of rebuking a partner because their action upset us, we curiously examine triggering events together with our feelings, noticing the moving feeling affects surging through our bodies. Our shift of attention to internal processes down regulates the intense arousal (see Relationship Drama).
Pause and reflection
We can then reflect on the external and internal happenings together from a dispassionate position, eventually invoking the intellect to give the feelings a more complex handle, “her words really sparked an intense feeling. I wonder why?” These reflections exercise the muscles connecting emotions and logic, improving the flow between these primary modalities (see Focusing on Feeling).
The pause and reflection break previous chains of reaction that lead to an emotional hijacking, where emotions explode, and reflexive actions serve purposeless needs. We learn little during emotional hijackings while potentially damaging a lot. Our egos refuse to recognize the error and excuse the stupidity with protective justifications that continue to invite destructive silliness into our futures.
Practices of deepening awareness invite preciseness to our perceptions. Emotions are constructed from biological feeling affects; but are refined through concepts drawn from culture and the environment. Our biological system winces in reaction to environmental triggers. These are survival mechanisms, escaping or attacking threats, and grasping or chasing advantages. Our awareness of their presence allows for an evaluation of their appropriateness for the situation. Sometimes emotional reactions are relics of our past; other times biologically evolved givens for dangers in the distant past. We expose these faulty cues to act through mindful examination.
Emotional Regulation and Self-Restraint
An essential ingredient of emotional intelligence is harnessing feeling affects to motivate goal achievement. Recognizing emotional pushes and shoves allows for conscious directing of passions (see Passionate Purpose). We succeed in life and relationships by constructively adapting to environmental triggers. Life is dynamic and we must respond—either blindly or intelligently.
The strategies we employ to navigate life are many and diverse. We can’t rely on a single technique for psychological wellness. The hallmark of emotional health is flexibility; and the availability of many strategies is essential. Intentionally using new strategies requires self-regulation to keep focus on more adaptive goals.
Without sufficient connection between hot emotions and cooler logic, situations send us spinning in wrong directions–emotionally hijacked, leaning on immediate goals of protection instead of growth. When we live right, giving attention to the future and present, we improve the feeling experience, developing an integrated approach with complex and reality-based appraisals. Emotion and logic collide in the moment, impacting action. We perform best when our information systems operate in tandem.
Common Strategies of Self-regulation
Improve external resources:
We improve functioning through attending to the basics of well-being—safety, rest, exercise, and diet. When we neglect the basics, well-being suffers, resources dry-up, and regulation collapses.
Improve budgeting of mental resources:
We improve our skill of perception through periodic reflection on past predictions. The closer assessments are to reality, the better we can prepare in the future, effectively budgeting limited resources (see Realistic Optimism).
Life, however, isn’t perfectly predictable. There will be deviations. We can intelligently use stumblings as opportunities for wisdom as well. Learning should be circular and cumulative; building on the past, celebrating successful accomplishments in the present and avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
Shorten Negative Emotional States:
When disrupting and painful emotions linger, they impact well-being. An overwhelmed stress response system becomes dysregulated, blurring reality and inviting mismanagement of resources. We can address lingering emotional states through self-soothing (mindful breathing, healthy escapes, optimistic thinking) and attention redirection (distraction, flow).
Some moments are powerful, bullying our fragile sense of security; putting our heads down and charging forward isn’t necessarily best. Sometimes, forced action wears down the soul, leading to bouts of debilitating depression and anxiety. Often moving forward requires recovery—a temporarily respite from the noxious emotions. We need to incorporate practices that rejuvenate our souls.
Through productive reflection, we learn from experience. We can identify emotional triggers and temptations and avoid many of them. We often achieve healthier actions by structuring futures that minimize stressors that drain precious energy.
If we know our addictions, we stay away from environments where they are present. If we over-spend, we avoid the mall and Amazon. And if we lack restraint when the open package of Oreo’s beckons from the pantry, we avoid the cookie isle and the grocery store, keeping the pantry clear of the sugary poison. We purposely design our life to nudge us towards healthy behaviors and away from temptations (Thaler. 2009).
Often a triggering situation is not the main culprit sparking emotions. Sometimes faulty interpretations create an emergency where no emergency exists. We react emotionally to the moment because memories intrude, recalling a traumatic experience, and tainting the moment. The present, however, is not exactly the same as the past.
In the present, perhaps, no reaction is necessary. This is the theoretical foundation of Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (RERT). The goal is to reinterpret the meaning of a stimulus, unveiling hidden beliefs that give life to unjustified emotions. Our cognitive reappraisals eventually are integrated into the unconscious, minimizing disrupting over-reactions to mundane events.
Sometimes feeling affects continue to spark impulses contrary to desires, demanding action that is destructive. Many situations will present this challenge. We must resist temptations to comply with impulses that destroy goals. Many unthoughtful sojourners act first and then employ the rational brain only after the deed has been done, utilizing words to justify; this inevitably leads to disappointing futures and broken relationships. We must resist these unhealthy compulsions to act.
Resistance alone is not sufficient. Eventually wills weaken. When the ego depletes, resistance fails. We continue to nurture the other strategies, building effective means to avoid the constant strain of mixed logical and feeling pulls. Yet, no matter how well prepared, these instances will occasionally visit, and we must act appropriately to bless both our present moments and futures.
Regular reliance on healthy strategies boosts emotional intelligence; but when life derails and strategies morph into maladaptive protections, we lose the balance of thinking with our wise mind, fracturing healthy cooperation between the ‘reasonable’ and ‘emotional’ minds. During these trials, we need planned escapes and supportive others. When living in despair, constantly threatens, we adapt, acting out of fear and not from the ‘wise mind’ of whole-body intelligence.
We must be flexible. In some situations, one or more of the strategies may be maladaptive. We employ some misguided and harmful strategies. We may deflect attention when we should be reflecting. Accordingly, we may reinterpret situations with faulty (more amicable) information when we should face the brunt of a harsh reality. Strategies are simply coping tools we develop. We become skilled at regulating with practice, by pulling the right strategy from a growing tool box of options, using the best method, at the appropriate time and in a skilled manner.
Emotional Regulation and Empathy
A third component of emotional intelligence is connecting with others. We should expand simplistic judgments beyond “nice,” or “mean” (or whatever other limiting definitions we habitually use). Applying more granularity to our personal emotions easily correlates with more granularity describing the emotions of others.
During interactions, we read face and body expressions, seeking information about the internal experiences, motivating a behavior. Recognizing outward signals is essential for healthy connection. Words do not always match intentions. With more emotional competency, we understand beyond the words.
Often, initial assessments miss less salient contextual components. The furrowed eyebrow is a sign of emotion—typically signaling displeasure or anger; but the exactness of the other person’s experience remains hidden.
A growing familiarity with emotion assists with healthy interactions. We notice the feelings brewing in others early and can intelligently respond. Our improved assessments assist in knowing when to run, embrace, soothe, or instruct.
Science has shown that relationships contribute to well-being. Like self-awareness and self-restraint, improved relationships are circular and cumulative, creating healthier environments, bolstering strength, and giving greater satisfaction with life. Emotions are essential to creating bonds and maintaining the connections that provide a foundation for well-being.
Our growing connection with emotions—in others and ourselves—familiar with the flow of energy that gives life, is the essence of wisdom. With practice, we become masters of emotion, harnessing their power to direct healthy lives. We don’t simply express anger, but we express anger in the right situations, at the right times, and to the right degree, in a manner that improves our lives and the lives of those around us. We become emotionally intelligent people, gathering new wisdom from the complexity of life.
Barrett, L. (2018). How emotions are Made. Mariner Books; Reprint edition
Dijk, S. V. (2012) Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions and Balance Your Life. New Harbinger Publications; Original edition
Goleman, D. (2005) Emotional Intelligence: Why It Matters More than IQ. Bantam Books; 10th Anniversary edition
Thaler, R. H. (2009) Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Penguin Books; Revised & Expanded edition.