Nick Keith discusses the key to understanding feelings, plus strategies for seeing them more clearly and dealing with them through emotional intelligence (EQ)
The good thing about emotional intelligence (EQ) is that we can acquire it with practice. Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and editor who was educated and taught at Harvard, declared that IQ (intelligence quotient) was not enough to achieve success, in his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ(Bloomsbury, 1996).
For Dr Goleman, 80 per cent of a person’s success is down to EQ and 20% per cent to IQ. While IQ elicits a score for your intellectual ability, EQ provides a masterplan for success in life by helping to recognise and channel those troublesome emotions, intelligently.
And what of IQ? That first surfaced just over 100 years ago when William Stern, a German psychologist, coined the term in a book. It has been used as a way to measure intelligence through specific tests, many of them now online at websites such as mensa.org. They are used to judge peoples’ capabilities for jobs, and in education and in measuring disability.
However, intelligence on its own seems a narrow way to “measure people’s capabilities”.
“IQ and emotional intelligence are not opposing competencies, but rather separate ones”, he writes. “We all mix intellect and emotional acuity … Indeed, there is a slight correlation between IQ and some aspects of emotional intelligence – though small enough to make clear these are largely independent entities … of the two, emotional intelligence has far more of the qualities that makes us more fully human.”
First let’s deal with some blocks to emotional intelligence, which are linked, and which may cramp your development of other life skills.
Note that many of the signals are about avoiding an issue. Goleman’s answers to changing these habits and achieving EQ competency are five-fold:
Awareness: This is the essential trait to meet all emotional challenges. It means staying in the present and being watchful when emotions are triggered (usually by the memory of some incident in childhood, which may have been small, and is probably forgotten).
Self-regulation and self-control: This ability helps to channel your nervous energy into a positive force.
Social skills in relationships: The main skills in relationship are communication. That in turn allows you to maintain a clear and honest dialogue where you listen to the other person or persons in your life, with care, as much as you talk.
Empathy: Take account of other people’s feelings. (Sympathy is completely different. That is when you are sorry for someone and take pity on them.)
Motivation: The desire to succeed for the sake of it.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines emotion as “any agitation or disturbance of the mind; a vehement or excited mental state”. Goleman adds: “There are hundreds of emotions along with blends, mutations and nuances … Researchers continue to argue over which emotions can be considered primary.”
Competencies help people come to terms with what Goleman describes as the primary emotions: anger, sadness, fear, enjoyment, love, surprise, disgust and shame. In this list ‘surprise’ seems to be the surprise, but it is simply a big unexpected event or challenge. Also missing is jealousy, which Goleman describes as a “variant of anger that also melds sadness and fear”.
For Goleman, the dangers for people who lack emotional intelligence include: becoming aggressive and bullying, feeling lonely and depressed, dependency on drink and drugs, and eating disorders. Since his book was published, other experts have shed more light on our emotions and how we can recognise them and channel them.
Awareness and self-control are two of the hardest emotional skills to acquire. But they go together. Dr Joan Rosenberg, an American psychologist gave a TED talk about dealing with unpleasant feelings and getting on top of your emotions. “If you can experience and move through eight unpleasant feelings you will achieve emotional mastery.”
Dr Rosenberg identifies her eight unpleasant feelings as sadness, anger, shame, helplessness, vulnerability, embarrassment, disappointment and frustration. She describes how neuroscientists have established that emotions are a biochemical release which floods through the body like a wave, bringing feelings which are unpleasant or uncomfortable.
For example, a feeling of grief involves wave on wave, multiple waves, but they will always subside. One spontaneous memory of grief will launch the same wave of emotion again and again.
“What we feel emotionally is first felt in the body as physical sensation,” she says. “The wave is triggered by a memory which dates back to childhood, an incident, possibly quite small, which your childish perception has labelled as ‘bad’ and retained. That’s what we want to flee from or be distracted from,” she adds. “We are afraid that they will be too intense, and we will lose control.”
As with Goleman, her remedy is awareness. “Make the choice to stay present, fully present. It’s about awareness not avoidance.” The feelings last about 90 seconds, so “ride the wave” she adds. “Feelings are temporary. The waves come up spontaneously and they will always subside.”
Another TED talk by British neuroscientist Dr Alan Watkins in 2015 outlined his version of “Why you feel what you feel”. Infant children usually become aware of their bodies by the age of one, he says, and emotionally aware within another year. Between the ages of three and six they develop a conscious sense of ID, an awareness of the ‘conceptual self’. From six to nine they learn that there are rules – a ‘concrete consciousness’.
Dr Watkins declares that most of us get stuck at the age of nine in terms of emotional development. And, like Goleman, he insists that there are thousands of emotions – in his case, 34,000.
He says that in teenage years, people challenge the rules. But, when they become adults, they learn to follow rules (sometimes unknown or unwritten) to become good citizens, socially and at work. In mid-life they start to question the rules again, often called a mid-life crisis. And the coping strategy of many mid-lifers will either be anaesthetic (alcohol or drugs) or distraction (work, exercise, sex or material things like shopping).
He differentiates between emotions and feelings. Emotions are the energy which activates our feelings (indeed the original meaning of emotion was “moving away”. Compare this with Dr Rosenberg’s view where waves of feelings move through us as part of a biochemical reaction to a memory).
The way to come to terms with emotions in Dr Watkins’ view is similar to other experts cited – straight-thinking, awareness and control. The pressure and challenges of life create chaos and stop awareness and the ability to think straight. “We are designed that way,” Dr Watkins says. “It’s about survival. Your brain has to become unsophisticated and binary – fight or flight (or play dead). We have some old software and we haven’t upgraded.
“How well you think at any one time will depend on your biology. You have to change the context and the emotional state from which your thoughts emerge. Then you can change the quality of the thought and the thought itself. Until you take control of this physiology, anyone or anything can make you look like an idiot.”
He suggests the trick is to retain and regain conscious control of your breathing through special deep and rhythmic exercise. Focus on the heart, which he says is the seat of emotions, and “learn to regulate your emotions”. He adds: “The prime predictors of success are passion (which comes from the heart, as we know), determination and focus.”
Value of vulnerability
The result of EQ and being aware may mean that initially we feel more open and vulnerable. Here we find solace in the wise writings and TED talks of Brené Brown, a self-styled storyteller and social researcher. Her witty and wonderful TED talk about the power of vulnerability has been watched my more that 35 million people.
In a massive piece of research on connection she found that people she interviewed all too often felt a deep sense of disconnection, heartbreak and sense of worthlessness. This resulted from “shame, underpinned by vulnerability”.
However, she concluded that people with a strong sense of belonging:
Were wholehearted and open
Had the courage to be imperfect
Could let go of what they should be to achieve connection
In her book Daring Greatly (Penguin Random House, 2015), Brené Brown writes:
“To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.
“The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage. In me, it’s weakness.”
So, now we know the source of, and have seen some solutions to, our emotional upheavals, we have to remove the blocks and achieve EQ by practising awareness, empathy, openness and vulnerability. They say practise makes perfect, but it may be preferable to remember BrenéBrown’s maxim: “Have the courage to be imperfect”.