There’s a lot of buzz about emotional intelligence (EQ). Many psychologists and social researchers now believe that it is more important than IQ for a successful life. So, if it’s so intrinsic to our wellbeing, what is it? I’ve been having a look around and trying to get a clear understanding of emotional intelligence for myself, and so that I can help my kids to establish a healthy EQ.
The Oxford dictionary defines it as:
“The capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”
That’s a lot. Let’s begin by looking at each section of that definition, starting with:
Awareness of Emotions:
Becoming aware of our emotions is both a vital, and difficult, skill. It’s made more difficult because looking at our emotions and learning about them is something that, as a culture, we just don’t do in any depth.
As Karla McLaren points out in her book, The Art of Empathy, “Our emotional training is often insufficient and confusing (and even backward), and subsequently, our emotional understanding tends to be low.”
One of the reasons for this may be that we are conditioned to accept and reject emotions. This can often be seen along gender lines. Girls are generally encouraged to feel the ‘soft’ feelings of compassion and kindness and discouraged from feeling or expressing the ‘harder’ emotions like ‘anger’. Conversely, boys are discouraged from exploring their sensitivity and often told to ‘be a man”.
I recently saw a powerful documentary called “the Mask You Live In”. It explored the socialisation of boys and highlighted the cultural norm of preventing boys from expressing emotions that weren’t traditionally “masculine”. I think we’ve all heard the very common phrase “big boys don’t cry”. If boys internalise these messages (and the film suggests that many do), imagine what that does to their ability to identify and become aware of their emotions. You can’t identify what you are trying to suppress.
Another reason it’s difficult for us to become aware of our emotions is our habit of classifying them into categories such as “good” and “bad”. There’s such a desperate search for happiness in our culture that we know that happiness is “good’, just as we know that sadness is “bad”. So, we often train ourselves to reject the emotions that we don’t value. This makes it harder for us to get to know our feelings because we are busy trying to deny them. It also causes us pain because we then judge ourselves for feelings that we think we shouldn’t have.
It’s strange to even question that some feelings are bad. Of course anger is bad, right? It feels like crap and often makes me say and do stupid things. Karla McLaren argues that actually all emotions are here to help us. Just like hunger signals that we must eat something, your emotions are here to give you a message. She says, “Emotions are your tools; they’re your empathic entrée into understanding yourself and others more deeply.”
For example, an emotion like shame or guilt can arise to show you that you may have hurt or embarrassed yourself or others. If you look at that emotion (instead of run away from it) you can learn from your behaviour and moderate it so that you don’t hurt others. You can make amends and move forward towards appropriate action, thus improving your relationship with yourself, and others.
By welcoming all our emotions and not denying or shying away from difficult ones, it becomes easier to identify them. When you make space for the vast array of emotions, they can be easier to see and define.
Rumi, a philosopher and poet from the 13th century knew this. Below is a beautiful poem that illustrates this understanding:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
‘Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
For some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.
For next week I’m going to read about teaching children how to identify and work with their emotions. Hopefully I’ll learn a thing or two!
Have a beautiful day