“Your ability to hold space, practice compassion, empathy, vulnerability, and self-awareness creates exponentially more value than your ability to solve problems, crunch numbers, or strategize. In everything. Leadership, entrepreneurship, and relationships. Heart over head. Capacity is the new commodity. EQ is the new IQ. No one cares what you know. It’s now all about how you are.”
The above quote was from John Kim, a licensed therapist and life coach that I follow on Facebook for his blog “The Angry Therapist.” His words ring true for me, as I wholeheartedly believe that emotional intelligence is leaps and bounds more important than what one knows factually. I say this because the way that one functions in his or her interpersonal relationships says a lot about the type of person one is, what one values, and how successful one can become.
Emotional Intelligence is loosely defined as the ability to recognize one’s own emotions and the emotions of others, be able to discern between differing emotions, and to be able to utilize those emotions to one’s advantage in interpersonal situations to guide behavior and adapt as appropriate. Take, for example, the overstressed executive yelling at the office intern for getting his Starbucks order wrong. Or the disgruntled co-worker, jealous that you got the promotion she wanted, being passive-aggressive towards you at the company Christmas party. Or the betrayed ex-wife using hers and her ex-husband’s kids as leverage in a divorce settlement. (Okay—the last example was a bit more extreme than the first two; however, it happens, and we all know it to be true.) The common thread with these examples is that the individuals involved are either not very emotionally intelligent, or they are not using what emotional intelligence they do have in order to approach their subjective situations more objectively and with regard to the feelings of the other person (or people) involved.
If we all lived in a perfect, harmonious world where everything was sunshine and rainbows and everyone got along with each other and valued each other’s feelings, thoughts, and subjective experiences, I (and many people like me) would not be employed. However, that is not to say that we as therapists do not enjoy helping you all (and even ourselves!) become better. (It is, after all, why we entered this field!) If one of the above examples rings true for you, or even sounds like you in the slightest, fear not: there are some practical means of helping yourself raise your emotional intelligence quotient, and to live your best, most empathetic life.
There are six recognized pillars of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, empathy, self-regulation, motivation, social skills, and happiness. There are relatively simple ways to improve these areas of one’s life. No one person is perfect in every single pillar every second of every day. However, when taken together, if many of these areas are working in harmony and the individual is able to use these to his or her advantage, he or she will most likely see an improvement in interpersonal relationships. And given that humans are social beings, I would say that is an important takeaway.
Let us start with self-awareness. How does one become more self-aware? The words mean exactly what they say: to be conscious of our thoughts and feelings. This is not an easy task for many, as it is the year 2017, and many do whatever they can to distract themselves at any turn with the invention of new technology each and every week. But let’s not digress. While it is easy and tempting to distract with a cell phone, or iPad, or TV, try to allow yourself to ask the question, “What is it that I am truly thinking and or feeling at this moment?” Often, our “automatic thoughts” come and go without us paying much mind. But what would happen if we actually took a second and did, say, a mental scan of our bodies in that moment, to pause and think about what our bodies tell us about our feelings? Often, cognitive-behavioral therapists talk about the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If we stop and think for even a few seconds, our bodies are typically great at giving us clues to our true feelings. (For example, is your face feeling hot and are your muscles tensing? You are probably angry. Are you sick to your stomach, have a slight headache, or having palpitations? You may be anxious.) There are too many examples to list in one blog post, but the point still stands that by taking a mental body scan and tuning into what your viscera tell you regarding your feelings, you will more easily be able to know what you are feeling (and therefore, choose a more suitable course of action than screaming or otherwise making a fool of yourself.)
Empathy is number two. What is empathy, you ask? Many people would spit back the old, “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” answer. Well, in a way, this is correct. Just do not confuse empathy with sympathy (as they are not the same!) Empathy means, in its simplest sense, to be able to connect with the emotions of another person. Being human actually connects us in ways that we do not often think of. Emotions are felt by everyone on this planet. Yes, even someone like the President has felt sad, hurt, and frustrated. Children feel disappointment, anger, sadness, excitement, and everything in between. People that you have never met, that are fighting their own battles that you know nothing of, have felt these things, too. Emotions connect us; they should not divide us. Ask yourself what the other person in a situation may be feeling once in a while: it may help you to “put yourself in their shoes.”
Self-regulation is probably the pillar that I personally struggle with the most. I have written before about my anger, and how I have let it hold me back and keep me stuck. There are still times where it is hard to bite my tongue when I am hurt, or disappointed, or upset. The ability to regulate one’s self in high stress situations is not an easy task, and not one that you will be perfect with every time. However, one thing that has helped me in with this idea is to truly allow myself the space and time to feel whatever it is I need to. Once the feelings have space, they are easier to accept and therefore handle in an appropriate way. Everyone has either been that person (or seen that person) react in a very inappropriate way to a given situation. That 2-year-old having a temper tantrum in the Shop Rite because mommy didn’t buy her a candy bar? She does not yet have self-regulation skills. Do not be that 2-year-old. You don’t have the excuse of being a child who has not yet learned impulse control. You have a right to your feelings. But handle them safely and appropriately. Use coping skills if need be (i.e. finding what works for you to help you handle your “strong feelings,” e.g. exercise, deep breathing, using a stress ball, writing, reading, talking to a friend, etc. I literally could go on forever listing these, so I will stop now.) The point is that coping skills are very individualized; find the ones that work for you, and use them. (And don’t ever stop looking for new ones once you start—not all coping skills will help with every situation, and it is important to diversify your own “emotional tool box” of sorts.)
Motivation is literally defined as “the desire to do things.” Why is this important in regards to our relationships with others, you ask? Well, if we are not our best selves for ourselves, we cannot be our best selves for anyone else. This pillar, for me personally, is tied heavily with self-esteem. People who struggle with their mental and emotional health often cannot be the best for others in their interpersonal relationships when they struggle to stay motivated to achieve things, as the issues at play have a way of beating down self-esteem until even simple things feel unachievable. Motivation often feels impossible when the tasks are very large (e.g., an individual struggling with clinical depression may think, “I must go out and get a job right now, or else my bills will not get paid and I will not have rent money and I will get evicted.”) That is an extremely stressful chain of thoughts. To break that task down, maybe all the individual has to do today is get out of the house to get a newspaper (in order to look at job postings.) Many times, tasks are easier to accomplish (and therefore to stay motivated for) if they are doable. Do not make goals too lofty if they feel insurmountable. Ultimately, you want yourself to succeed. If staying motivated is hard for you, try setting smaller, achievable goals to increase your success. Vision boards are also very helpful for increasing motivation. Goal-setting can be tricky if you are putting too much pressure on yourself. I urge you not to be your own worst enemy.
“Social skills” probably needs to be its own blog post, as there is probably too much here to cover successfully in one paragraph. Humans are social beings, who thrive on interpersonal connection. In order to possess good social skills, once must use things like assertive communication, empathy, and self-regulation (see how they all tie into each other?) To be “good” at social relationships takes time and is not ever perfect. But by using self-regulation and self-awareness skills (like deep breathing, body scanning, notating “automatic thoughts,” etc.), your social presence will be much more enjoyed by others (and you will have an easier time getting what you want out of an interaction without rupturing relationships).
And finally, we have reached happiness. The last pillar, and probably one that is difficult for many. How many people can actually say that they are truly happy? Happiness can be defined so many ways and is very subjective in nature. But the point stands that by constantly distracting ourselves with social media, happiness is becoming more evasive in our culture by the day. We constantly judge ourselves next to the accomplishments of others, or scroll Facebook mindlessly to only end up upset that yet ANOTHER person got engaged, or married, or bought a house. You end up beating yourself up, and feeling “less than” these people. Take time each day to unplug. Seriously. It does wonders for your happiness, because you will not be tempted to judge yourself so harshly against others. Accomplishments are all relative; what one person considers success is not what the next person considers success. We often forget this idea, and allow it to affect how we see ourselves. Along with what was said earlier, set goals that are realistically attainable. Practice gratitude. Say personal affirmations. Hug your parents. Buy yourself that ice cream cone. Go for a walk in the park. Do something each day that makes you feel good, that makes you want to live to the fullest. And don’t kid yourself thinking that it is unimportant if you forget to Snapchat it. In fact, leave the phone at home when you do said things.
This idea of emotional intelligence is so important to myself and many therapists, because it is a concept that is so overlooked in our culture today. Do not let messages of “power over kindness” fool you: emotional intelligence is not only important, it is vital. Your overall happiness, ability to self-regulate, and practice compassion for yourself and others is worth more than any other perk this world could offer. Because at the end of the day, if you are not happy interpersonally, you probably are not very happy at all. Emotional intelligence offers a person the best crack at that stable relationship, that promotion, or any other goal one is working towards. It starts with you, and how you present yourself to the world at large. Do not leave the other person with a bad taste; do not become the 2-year-old throwing herself on the floor for a Kit-Kat. You are smarter than that.