Being mindful of your emotions and those of others around you can help set you up for success at work, with friends, and in your love life and make you a happier, healthier person. In this post, you’re going to learn precisely how to boost your emotional intelligence. This guide also includes a guide to emotional numbness and what to do about it.
You’ve likely met and possibly admired someone with an intellect far superior to most; someone whose ability to crunch numbers, calculate odds or keep volumes of facts in their brain threatened to put most Eggheads contestants to shame. But did this person strike you as a good listener? Someone thoughtful, grounded, or sensitive to others’ needs?
A strong intellect is admirable, but it doesn’t always lead to healthy and successful relationships, nor does it always correlate with sturdy mental health. That’s why psychologists who study intelligence have expanded their focus from intellectual aptitude alone to another type of know-how that entails more than just book smarts; emotional intelligence (also known as EQ, or “emotional quotient”). And it turns out the concept has a lot more influence over our well-being than most of us may realise.
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The Power of Emotion
The other day, I bumped into a former colleague. “How are you?” she asked, as we hadn’t seen each other in a while. For some reason, her question caught me off-guard. How was I?
Running through a mental checklist, several possibilities came to mind. At that precise moment I was happy (the sun was shining, I was going out for a glass of wine), sad (a recent bereavement), anxious (too much life admin), stressed (too much work), excited (a new article published), inspired (a new project) and optimistic (my default setting).
Obviously, I didn’t say any of that. “I’m fine,” I replied. “And you?”
Later, when I was slumped on the sofa watching a cookery programme followed by a nail-biting crime movie, something occurred to me. As human beings, we are the only species (or, at least, the only one we currently know about), that has at its disposal this vast ocean of emotional responses. Yet we spend far more time vicariously consuming other people’s emotions (via TV, novels, iTunes, even karaoke), than communicating our own.
How to Boost Your Emotional Intelligence
Psychotherapist Maxine Harley explains that there is a perfect reason for this; we fear losing control.
“Powerful emotions can often make us feel like we’ve gone into a trance-like state where we don’t feel like our usual selves. When we get lost in such emotions, we can fear losing control,” she explains. “It’s as if our capacity for judgement, reasoning, planning and reflection are all being challenged. We often feel changed by such feelings.
It’s like a different part of us shows up; maybe one resurrected from the past, particularly in the case of unpleasant feelings.”
“There are emotions that we all probably don’t want to express, and others that we’re a bit confused about. Maybe we don’t know what we’re supposed to do with them.”
Good Feelings vs Bad
Even good feelings such as love, joy, bliss, excitement and awe can make us feel a bit uncomfortable because of that swept away, out of control sensation.
So that being the case, how can we deal with such feelings when they show up? And, let’s face it, they do have a habit of showing up, uninvited, at the most inconvenient moments. Tiffany Watt-Smith is a researcher at the Centre for History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University, London. “It can help to think about different words for emotions,” she says.
“When we give something a name, we bring it into our focus. Most of us need to expand our vocabulary into much broader terms than the six raw emotions which experts usually cite; happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust. There are many more subtle, strange emotions. You can feel a bit miffed, feel dismayed, or homefulness, the emotion that describes the feeling of relief when you arrive at the end of your street.
Or maybe basorexia (the sudden desire to kiss someone). Then there are culturally specific emotions like schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortune of others).
Watt-Smith has written a book The Book of Human Emotion: An Encyclopedia from Anger to Wanderlust, which identifies 150 different emotions. “It’s unusual to only experience one emotion at a time,” she explains. “You don’t just feel jealous, you feel jealous and guilty. You don’t just feel cross, you feel cross and resentful and possibly a little sad.
Emotions don’t come in single file; they’re much more like clouds, they blur together and morph apart, always shifting, depending on the context and the meaning that you give them. It’s actually tough to capture them into narrow categories.”
“Emotional intelligence refers to our ability to recognise, make sense of and regulate our thoughts, perceptions and feelings while remaining sensitive to others’ perspectives as well as contextual clues,” says Heather Stevenson, Psy.D., a New York City-based licensed clinical psychologist. This gives rise to four skills that impact our personal and professional lives; self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. “Each of these builds on the other,” Stevenson says.
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If you can accurately identify your feelings and tune in to what you need and want, you’ve got self-awareness down. Self-management entails regulating these thoughts and feelings. If you’ve ever taken a deep breath, counted to 10 or gone for a walk to clear your head, you’ve done this. Mustering motivation to see through a task or weathering a trying period in an otherwise healthy relationship are other examples of self-management.
Strategies to Improve Emotional Intelligence
“Developing your EQ can also help reduce anxiety and stress, so you’re better able to cope with life’s challenges.”
Social awareness is what we do when we tune in to others’ thoughts and feelings. This can mean reading someone’s body language and facial expressions or genuinely listening to both the content (actual words) and meaning (tone or subtext) of what they’re saying, Stevenson says. It also means taking context into account; the social norms of a board meeting are vastly different from those governing your weekly happy hour with friends, for instance.
Relationship management is where you put all the above together, says Julie Williamson, a therapist and the founder of Abundant Life Counseling in St. Louis. It involves clear and honest communication with others, appropriately handling conflict (think; not blowing your top during a difference of opinion), fostering valuable and meaningful connections, and supporting those you care about.
The Many Benefits It Brings
Just as having a higher IQ can help you ace a test or solve a complex equation, emotional intelligence can set you up for success in many areas of life. Research shows that people who score higher in levels of emotional intelligence are more likely to perform better at work, be in better physical health and have better quality romantic relationships. A 2014 study in the Journal of Organisational Behaviour found emotional intelligence may even predict how much you earn. German researchers found higher emotional recognition was linked to a higher salary, even after controlling for other factors like age, education, experience and work hours.
What’s behind the many positive attributes of having a high EQ? “You’re more likely to feel happier and make healthier decisions if you’re not always flying off the handle or letting your emotions control you,” says Stevenson. “And when you make an effort to stop overreacting and be present with the people you’re with, everyone’s likely to feel more satisfied.”
The Mindful Connection
Mindfulness lies at the core of emotional intelligence, says Williamson. By making a non-judgmental observation of your internal and external reality (think: how you’re feeling about an upcoming deadline, meeting or test) and then accepting that reality, you’re less likely to overreact, which could take the form of impulsive behaviour that distracts from mental or physical anguish or an anxiety spiral that precludes a good night’s sleep. The more we tune into our own and others’ emotions along with what’s going on around us, the more mindful we are being.
Mindfulness also helps free us from mental traps that can mar our emotional health and interfere with our relationships, adds positive psychology coach Marc Corden. “A perfect example is pausing to assess whether our assumptions about what another person is thinking or feeling is entirely accurate”, he notes. Did the other person actually say or do something that indicated that they felt a certain way? Or is our instinct to shut down a result of our projecting our insecurities onto the situation?
(“Everyone thinks I’m stupid,” for example, or “no one cares what I have to say.”)
“Remaining open to the possibility that we don’t know all the answers allows us to be more attentive to the present situation or person in front of us,” says Cordon. End result: all parties involved are more likely to feel engaged, heard and understood.
Incorporate EQ in Your Life Today
Most of us aren’t born with a high emotional quotient, so increasing it takes practice. Here are five simple strategies for getting in touch with your feelings.
- Tune in: Pay attention to the physical and emotional sensations you have throughout the day, including pleasant and unpleasant feeling and whether particular areas of your body are tense.
- Take a Pause: Practice deep breathing, countdown from 10, or go for a brisk walk before saying or doing something in the heat of high emotions.
- Listen up: Next time you chat to a friend, attend to both the words and the underlying emotions they’re conveying; bonus points if you can paraphrase what they tell you.
- Hit the books: Reading fiction can improve our ability to take the perspective of others; a fundamental component of empathy and emotional intelligence.
- Follow the leader: Know someone who seems to have a high EQ? Try modelling their behaviour; whether that’s spending more time listening to others, adopting a more open body language or not putting someone off in the middle of a conversation.
Decoding Your Emotions
What if we thought of emotionality as a sign of health, or even better, a source of power? Could identifying, embracing and being open about the emotions we feel be the key to better relationships and working lives? Here’s the deal:
- Learn to clearly label and describe the emotions you are feeling as you go through your day. Pay close attention to the linguistic shortcuts that you most overuse; for example, “I’ve had a bad day” or “I’m stressed.”
- Ask yourself, what do you honestly mean by such phrases? Unpack the hidden emotions. Are you angry, bored, sad, guilty, anxious, fearful or disgusted? Or were you embarrassed, but block that out with a more familiar emotion, such as frustration?
- Think about those emotions that you have now named. Which ones would you say were most dominant, and which the more subtle? Which one do you experience most often? And which are the most uncomfortable emotions for you to own up to? Why is that, do you think?
- Now, look at your list of emotions. For each one, ask yourself, what is that emotion actually pushing me to do? Do you, perhaps, lose your temper, write a letter, take a stand, pour a drink, try to ignore it or phone your mother? Take note.
- What are some concrete next steps that you might take in your daily life now that you are armed with this emotional intelligence?
What happens when, contrary to boiling over with emotion, we simply feel nothing? Showing up in a variety of ways, emotional numbness, such as feeling demotivated, bored or even physically cold, is a vital sign, says Dr Peter R. Breggin.
The truth about numbed feelings: We’ve all experienced those bad days at work; we get home and become distant and unaffectionate towards our loved ones in the evening. “It’s difficult to suppress one strong emotion without suppressing them all,” explains Dr Peter Breggin, author of Guilt, Shame and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions. When, for example, we try to quash the anger and anxiety that we feel at being stressed, we also banish the love, happiness and other positive emotions we have along with it.
“We feel out of touch with ourselves, and lack motivation. We may say that we feel bored, but human beings are far too full of vitality to feel bored. Instead, self-defeating emotions are suppressing us and sapping our vitality,” Breggin points out. By numbing our negative feelings, it can be difficult to experience any emotion at all.
Why we can feel emotionally numb: Remoteness from our emotions can arise from several situations, but the underlying factor is a fear of experiencing our feelings. Breggin cites one example as stress which can lead to irrational anger and numbing. “Fear of our own anger can make us feel out of touch or numb,” he explains. Dealing with other people’s anger can have the same effect, leading us to feel threatened and emotionally to pull back.
“We want to shut down our feelings to reduce the suffering,” adds Breggin.
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Why it’s useful: Numbing our feelings doesn’t mean we are devoid of emotion. “Remember, you wouldn’t feel numb if you hadn’t any suppressed feelings crying for release,” explains Breggin. The amount of anger we are suppressing equals the potential we have inside for positive feelings. It’s good news, Breggin says: “Think of it this way, the degree of your numbness reflects the degree of your suppressed passions.
You have so much emotional potential that it has caused a reactive shutdown.” We believe that we feel nothing when, in fact, it’s precisely the opposite.
How to unleash your emotions: The first step, Breggin advises, is to recognise that we are feeling numb, withdrawn or out of touch with ourselves. We must then reverse the numbing withdrawal process by finding trusted people who we can connect with. “Getting in touch with our feelings is likely to require learning to trust people again,” says Breggin.
The importance of feeling your feelings: Feeling emotionally numb is detrimental to the people around us. “When we grow out of touch with our own feelings, we also lose touch with the feelings of the people around us,” Breggin notes. We can be unaware of how we are harming other people. “Even when a friend is being especially considerate or caring, you do not know how to respond,” he continues.
Feeling our own feelings allows us to have empathy for other people, and keep emotional connections with others, too.
I hope you enjoyed my article on how to boost emotional intelligence. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please leave them below, and I will get back to you as soon as possible.