Updated: Sep 12, 2020
Most of us growing up weren’t explicitly taught how to manage our emotions. In school, we learned the functional skills, but the social-emotional skills had to be learned through our own experience.
A lot of the lessons were laid out for us by teachers, and all we had to do was follow instructions, memorize things, and regurgitate it out to prove aptitude. But rarely were we taught to think for ourselves, to think creatively, to be expressive in our own ideas and opinions.
Unfortunately, when these crucial life skills are left for the individuals to learn on their own, there’s potential for more harm to be done. It’s like going to the gym to bench 250 lbs without a spotter; dangerous.
That missing ingredient here is what many schools are now implementing, Social-Emotional Learning, the ability to manage conflict, practice empathy, regulate emotions, and express authenticity.
Without knowing how to regulate our emotions and to stretch our discomfort, we’re limited in our personal and professional growth, relationships, and fulfillment in our lives. And when humans feel contained, we’ll also feel stuck, hopeless, complacent, lonely, even bitter, which plays a large part in many of our social issues today.
What’s Wrong With Our Education System?
Of all the species living on this tiny rock in a seemingly never-ending universe, we are gifted (or cursed depending how you want to look at it) with consciousness of our emotions and behaviors. It gives us the unique ability to control our environment to a certain extent.
And yet, there are still so many of us who have lost that sense of control. Many of us either don’t know who we are, or can’t accept who we are, and it ends up stripping away so much good from this world because we haven’t learned to find the good in ourselves.
We graduate from schools with schools of thought guided by those before us. Rather than being encouraged to think for ourselves or create our own definition of success, it’s measured by how much you can memorize and regurgitate. And many of us will go into our careers still completely lost.
Wait, no one is giving me things to do anymore. What do I do? Where do I go? Who am I? Gahhh!
As children, we all had a natural sense of wonder, curiosity, and excitement, but as we age, those feelings are ignored. In school, we were forced to sit still and listen, or raise your hand to speak or ask a question. Of course, if there was no order and discipline, the classrooms would be chaos. But the point is, we were subconsciously taught to hold back our thoughts, emotions, and feelings, only to express them when others deem appropriate. It’s why there’s still a large stigma on mental and emotional health.
Could that be why some of us feel too rude to ask for what we want out of life? To dream big? To share our truths?
We need those emotions back. We need to be able to feel again. We need the ability to ask big questions, dive into how we really feel rather than suppress them, and learn to celebrate any and all the emotions that come up. We need better emotional intelligence.
What Are Emotions Really Though?
Let’s first define what emotions are. You might initially think of the 5 basic emotions – anger, disgust, fear, sadness, and joy. Cool, that covers the whole spectrum, right?
Nah playa. You got a lot more emotions in that brain of yours. Check them out here.
Now what if I told you that our emotions and how we feel them are a social construct (and I ain’t even smoking anything)?
Whaaaaat? Emotions are not natural human traits? What do you mean? We all have them! It’s in my head and body. How can someone socially construct how I feel?
Because according to professor and psychologist, Lisa Feldman Barrett, our emotions are just a way for your brain to explain what’s going on around you. Humans are capable of experiencing all of these emotions, but they aren’t built in at birth. They have been developed since the first of man by observation and interpretation of each other’s behaviors.
Every life experience will spark different emotions for each individual. When you watch a movie, you might feel so much joy because it reminded you of a positive time in your life, while someone else might be feeling sadness instead because it reminded them of a previous heartbreak or trauma.
Well, that’s just it. Emotions are only how we perceive them to be and are going to be felt and expressed differently in every individual. It is an old, traditional view that emotions are innate within us.
In fact, psychologists and sociologists have learned that emotions are built automatically and unconsciously by our environment and culture. They are as much a muscle that needs to be exercised as our intellect and can be developed with more experiences and self-reflection.
Our emotions are just predictions made up by our minds based on past experiences or familiar contexts. These predictions are what help us make sense of the world. Sometimes, they’re spot on, but more times than we’d care to admit they’re wrong. Because our emotions are not universal. We will never truly know how someone else feels inside other than how they are expressing it with their facial expressions, body language, or words, and all of that has great potential to be misinterpreted.
Cool Cool Cool, But Is Emotional Intelligence Even A Thing?
I get it, the rational mind would never associate emotions with intelligence. Intellect is something you can measure, explain, prove. Emotions are too subjective, impossible to quantify, and have so many variables based on environment, culture, upbringing, and biology.
But a common definition of intelligence is the ability to gather knowledge and implement them in order to turn them into skills. Human emotions are not exclusive to that. You can learn about all of the emotions and how each of them affects your body to give you insight on what matters to you. When you can identify those feelings, you can then practice managing them in a way that will be useful for you and the navigation of your social environments.
Imagine if you are able to identify your emotions and why you’re feeling them, and then be able to maximize the positive ones, while minimizing the impact of the negative ones. Wouldn’t that be a good skill to have?
Notice I said, minimize the impact of the negative ones, meaning we’re not going to completely get rid of them. We’re human, we’re going to feel all types of emotions throughout our lives. You can’t ignore them (unless you’re the great Barney Stinson). Having good emotional intelligence means understanding how to acknowledge and regulate them as they come up rather than shoving them aside.
Negative self-talk, on the other hand, is something we are allowed to completely destroy. It is unproductive and detrimental to our mental health. There are no benefits that come from talking negatively and pessimistically to yourself. In Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANT) Therapy, patients are trained to squash the ANTs that crawl around in their minds. So go ahead, you have permission to kill those ANTs.
Look, I understand. Being responsible for your own emotions can be intimidating because there’s nothing else you can blame other than yourself if you’ve behaved poorly, and that’s a hard pill to swallow. But that is also where you can start building your strength to take control. That is how you enable yourself to be the chef who creates their own dish, rather than the cook who follows a recipe.
“Once you understand that you’re accountable and it’s your fault for everything, you become empowered because nobody’s stopping you.” -Gary Vaynerchuck
So yes, EQ is definitely a thing, if not one of the most important things to living a meaningful life. It teaches us to break past the surface level and become self-aware of who you are and what your deep desires are. It is about being able to recognize your strengths and weaknesses, to lean in towards what you’re already good at, while being comfortable with admitting to that which you’re not.
OK, But Why Should I Care About Improving It?
Increasing your EQ is not just about being emotional or being nice. It is about better managing your mind, body, and spirit so you can live as your unapologetic self rather than bending over backwards for everyone. It is about developing profound relationships with the people who do support you. It is about having a bias towards action in spite of what you’re feeling so that the negative emotions doesn’t turn into unwanted behavior. It is about discovering what truly matters to you and your well-being.
“What people really want is a particular set of emotions. What you want, or be, or have is all because of the emotion you believe to be associated to that desire.”
I’m sure we’ve all experienced being told that we have to be a certain someone or have control over certain things in order to be a happy, successful human (damn you, marketing companies!). But anytime anyone chases those external sources of happiness, or follow someone else’s ‘shoulds,’ they almost always end up disappointed. They go into a crisis. They then question everything.
I spent all this time going after this thing I thought I wanted and I’m here, so why do I still feel like something is missing?
There may be multiple reasons, but one of them is most likely because they wanted an external material to satisfy their internal feelings. What people really want is a particular set of emotions. What you want, or be, or have is all because of the emotion you believe to be associated to that desire. It might help the surface level to get that more tangible thing for that quick “high,” but it’s way more effective to feed the roots of the tree rather than just its leaves.
It’s Going To Take A Lot Of Work
I care so much about emotional intelligence because it is the beginning of understanding ourselves and our place in this world. If you care about any type of personal growth, this is a good place to start.
We are human (or are we dancers? I’m on my knees looking for the answers too, Brandon!), and we are emotional beings. Everything we see, do, and touch is an experience of emotions constructed by our observations.
Being able to manage them will result in better, more meaningful connections with that friend you wish you were closer with or that boyfriend or girlfriend that got away or is slipping through your fingers. Or that coworker that produces good work, but always gets under your skin. Or those potential partners or customers that you could work with to expand your business. Having a strong EQ will help with all of that.
Enjoy the journey!
Want Some Exercises To Get Started?
I’ve collected 11 emotional intelligence exercises to help you get started on your own.