Five lessons for improving emotional intelligence

The standoff between emotions and logic is as old as humankind, and it doesn’t bode well for logic that simply being aware that your emotions cause you to act irrationally already puts you leagues ahead of most other members of our species. 

Ten years ago, I made a Facebook post in which I said, “When it comes to analysis, I have good instincts. When it comes to emotion, not so much. Now, if I could felicitously apply my analytical instincts to my emotions we’d be in business. Unfortunately, analyzing your emotions is like a dog trying to chase its tail: it rarely catches it, and when it does, it’s usually covered in fleas.”

In western society, we learn to value the intellect and rational analysis, leading to many of us living our lives “in our heads.” This is true of me. I was always good at school, but being born blind in one eye made me much less confident in my body, and a family history of abuse, addiction, and divorce left me alienated from my own emotions.

My saving grace was probably yoga, which I started practicing 15 years ago. If I’d never been exposed to eastern methods of self-analysis, I’d probably still be chasing my tail. A memorable sign that my practice was starting to bear fruit came five years ago when my therapist at the time said to me, “You know, for such a strongly left-brained person, you’re surprisingly open-minded.”

So what have I learned? What tools of analysis have I found most helpful in trying to make up for my poor emotional instincts? Here are a few concepts that have served me:

  1. Mind, body, heart – my human experience is limited to what I can be aware of. In my mind, I can be aware of thoughts and images. In my body, I can be aware of physical sensations. In my heart, I can be aware of emotions. If my range of emotional awareness is narrow, I can expand it by paying extra close attention to activity occurring in my mind and body, since the mind, body, and heart are all connected, and activity in one area inevitably will have ripple effects on the other areas.
  2. “Feel your feelings, but don’t believe them.” This piece of advice came from my old relationship coach, Erwan Davon, whose methodology draws on tools and strategies from western psychology and eastern contemplative practices. As a trained linguist, I can’t help but make an edit to increase the warning’s understandability. Feelings cannot be believed or not believed because they don’t say anything about the world. Feelings just are. But thoughts do say something about the world, and can be believed or disbelieved. Oftentimes, our difficult emotions come bundled with difficult thoughts. Mindfulness practice teaches us the value of feeling our emotions rather than trying to resist or avoid them, while also not getting caught up in the narratives that we have learned to associate with those emotions. “Feel your sadness, but don’t believe your sad story.”
  3. Emotions serve a purpose. They give us important information about whether our needs are being met, and they motivate us to take self-preserving actions. As someone with training and experience with non-violent communication, I plan to write a future blog post about this topic, but in the meantime, check out this introductory resource.
  4. Our emotional difficulties are often learned. Sometimes knowing why something hurts can take a bit of the sting out of it. When I look objectively at what I know about my parents’ life histories, it becomes much easier to understand how I could have grown up without a fully stocked emotional toolkit. My parents couldn’t teach me what they didn’t know, and my schools didn’t even try.
  5. It’s never too late to learn. Human beings are remarkably adaptable. Whether you want to learn a new skill, change an old habit, or completely rewire your nervous system in order to experience the world in a new way, it can be done. People do it every day, including you. All that’s missing is some direction and strategy in order to bring about a desired change.

Not long after I made that Facebook post, I bought a wall hanging with a quote from the Dalai Lama that I think excellently sums up the importance of developing our emotional analysis skills, and the relevance such work has for our hopes of changing the world.

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Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT#123099, licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Reynolds) in California. To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy@gmail.com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

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