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Emotional Intelligence: Do you have it?

Posted By Carol L. Hunter PhD, PMHCNS, CNP, Monday, November 7, 2016
Coping with emotions is a must for a healthy lifestyle, combined with all the rest: healthy diet, physical activity, adequate sleep, fellowship and socialization and mental stimulation. Unfortunately, far too many attempt to dismiss and ignore the emotions of others along with their own. The sad result is multifold, from perfunctory existence to downright impairment; from the walking wounded to the psychiatrically hospitalized; from the irritable and lonely to the depressed catatonic.

I take issue with the idea that EI is actually a construct of intelligence; I don’t think it is, nor should it be. Unfortunately the term emotional “intelligence” has muddied the waters of our thinking but I do understand the parallel to cognitive intelligence. What Dr. Daniel Goleman seemed to be saying in his book, Emotional Intelligence, is that there are levels and layers of emotional achievement just as there are with IQs. But emotions are quite different from intellect and arise from different areas of the brain, so let’s separate them for the sake of the discussion.

My definition is short and perhaps too brief but I believe it is the source and therefore holds the most importance. Emotional intelligence is the courage to pursue self inquiry. From that critical examination of self, you can extrapolate to the outer world in growing concentric circles and include family and social relationships, work and school environments and basically anywhere one person interacts with another. The heart and soul of emotional intelligence is personal communion with self and interaction with others and how that proceeds. Such discussions inevitably get into the nurture vs nature argument or in this case, trait vs ability. Perhaps those who do the best job of exhibiting this quality are those with both, a genetic endowment, if you will, which then may facilitate the development of the ability. I believe it is part gift and part achievement, but I do believe anyone can learn how to accomplish it if they set their mind to it and are willing to take that hard look.

Empathy is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. My personal experience supports the “trait” theory because as a young child, I was acutely aware of other people’s feelings and had no such role modeling in my own family. If there was a negative in my early experience, it was that I focused too much on the feeling of others to the exclusion of my own. As an only child, I did have the alone time in my tree house to make up for it and spent a lot of time in introspection. It probably didn’t help to constantly have my grandmother remind me that “children are to be seen but not heard!” That message assigned me to be the proverbial “fly on the wall,” observing the world as it went by without giving back much input. I struggled with insecurity as a teenager and never felt my own voice was wanted or needed in the crowd, even though I enjoyed formulating my own opinions. I lacked the confidence to speak up around others and maybe by default became a really good listener.

It wasn’t until I went to nursing school that the empathic me blossomed into the person who not only felt the struggles of others but also was able to actively care for them. As you can well imagine, this filled me with immense satisfaction and I began to use my voice to influence and guide the emotionally challenged. I can easily see how the topic of leadership enters this sphere of discussion. It is just common sense that those who can fully engage with the emotions of other people will ultimately make the best leaders. First comes the awareness which requires a close scrutiny, utilizing those techniques we learn in school like keying into facial expressions, body language and tone of voice as well as signs of anxiety and discomfort. Next comes the interpretation and formulation of the problem, followed by the execution of the plan to assist.

But before you can help others, you must help yourself. It may sound like an easy task but it’s not and for many, it is simply too scary to peer into their own souls. Everyone has one degree or another of emotional pain and all we have to do is look around to see how people fail to cope, drowning their perceptions in alcohol and drugs or violent outbursts towards others like road rage. On the flip side are those who choose to ignore emotions altogether and they manifest it by affective flatness and avoidance of closeness with others. On either side of this spectrum, the person becomes absorbed with self and that preoccupation with self to the exclusion of others is the death knell for emotional intelligence. Is this a terminal condition? I don’t believe it is but those with narcissistic traits and other personality dysfunctions will have to work much harder than those who are naturally empathic to improve their ability to relate to others. Professional assistance is highly recommended.

This is a fascinating topic to be sure and a critical one in relationships that require maintenance and repair just like your vehicle. I have often read that couples that can argue ultimately do much better than those who are avoidant but cordial. The word “argue” conjures up visions of loss of control and throwing lamps across the room but it doesn’t have to be that way at all. A couple can have a civil argument to discuss differences or problems without doing something they regret. We all say things we regret; it’s just part of the human experience and hence, the importance of the phrase “I’m sorry.” In my experience, the single greatest factor preventing such open discussion is the fear of loss of control. One simple remedy for this fear is acceptance of one’s frailties as a human, giving yourself permission to feel and experience the full range of emotions, including anger. As my therapist states so beautifully in my paraphrase, one must be willing to welcome, examine, undress, lay bare, and do battle with our emotions, both positive and negative. Without doing so, we will never experience the richness and the joy that life has to offer. Nor will we be able to get truly close to another human being.

Now, go look in the mirror and continue your journey of becoming an emotionally intelligent person. You will reap great rewards for yourself and those that you love.

Tags:  Carol Hunter  Emotional intelligence  integrative medicine 

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