I’m sure that I first heard the phrase “emotional intelligence” in the Psychology 101 class I took at university. While I have a vague recollection of thinking it was a cool idea it didn’t really click for me. But now, 10 years later, it is making a daily difference in my life.
Emotional intelligence has a few different definitions. Here’s Wikipedia’s brief definition:
“Emotional intelligence can be defined as the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.”
I find that succinct but not very inspiring. This is most likely the sort of definition I was introduced to in school. It makes sense, but has little influence when you don’t understand the depth that this seemingly clear and understandable string of words is really describing.
A little more of the subtlety about what emotional intelligence has grown to mean to me comes through in these quotes:
“Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – this is not easy.” Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
“As Aristotle saw, the problem is not with emotionality, but with the appropriateness of emotion and its expression. The question is, how can we bring intelligence to our emotions – and civility to our streets and caring to our communal life?” Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman
“But it is the mark of someone wise to be aware of which ends are present in himself. Sometimes it does seem as though his ends are selfish when in fact they are not, for the human being is such that in everything he considers how it affects himself. This he does regularly and habitually. But if anyone wishes to know the ends he himself has in view he has merely to take note of his feeling of delight – whether it is on account of his receiving praise and glory, or whether it is on account of his performing some unselfish service. If it is the latter delight which he feels, genuine affection is present in him. He ought also to take note of the varying states he passes through, for those states cause his feelings to vary considerably. A person is able to find these things out in himself, but not in others, for the ends in view to anyone’s affection are known to the Lord alone.” (Arcana Coelestia 3796:3)
I highly recommend Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional Intelligence (also called EQ), and also want to share another time about the ways that religion and the Writings have come alive for me when looking through the EQ lens. For today though, I want to share an example of what this looks like in my life.
For years (probably since before we were even married, really) my husband and I have been struggling with a certain dynamic. Something happens and stresses or upsets me and I have a big reaction. I’m much bigger in my reactions than my husband across the board, but, in keeping with the stereotype and the things we know from the Writings, especially bigger emotional reactions.
After said reaction usually one of two things happened:
1. my husband decides to not do that thing that set me off in the first place (sometimes as small as a particular word, sometimes a larger approach to a way of handling something) which means he is altering his behavior based solely on my reaction, and that leads to him feeling stressed about being very careful in his behaviour which can easily lead to resentment;
2. we talk for hours about why this thing is a problem, what childhood experience my reaction is connected to, where my stress levels are at and if he would only… long convoluted conversations where I analyse the specifics of my reaction and how we can avoid that reaction again.
This process is exhausting. And most of the time, fruitless.
This pattern never led us to a place of true understanding and fixing problems, but usually of labelling a word or an action or a behaviour a no-fly zone, spiralling my husband into stress and feelings of failure if he forgets and messes up and me into a place of being ready to lash out and be offended.
This dynamic has been subtly shifting as we’ve recognised parts that didn’t work, but a few weeks ago I had a HUGE Aha moment. We were treating the symptom, not the cause. From an emotional intelligence perspective my reaction was fine. I’m allowed to have big reactions. We know from the Writings that we are not responsible for the things that come through our heads (see Arcana Coelestia 8910:2, Heaven and Hell 302, or watch this video). Whatever my response — it’s ok. And it’s ok for me to express it. But then I need to own my reaction and take the time to figure out what the actual source of the reaction is. Not the word that triggered it, not the action that brought the lashing out, but the underlying reason for the lashing out. And it gets so complicated here I don’t have a succinct way to describe it all, except to say that I have found such strange and seemingly unconnected things lying deep beneath my emotional reaction. For example, an argument about the number of hours spent at work instead of at home (which spiralled massively into the above described pattern) wasn’t at all about the hours by themselves: it was that I was sad that I felt like I was losing my best friend because we didn’t have enough time to keep up the relationship. Let me explain.
I resented my husband not being home more, and griped about how much time he spent at work. He heard my complaint and defended himself and it turned into an argument about what I think is and isn’t a valuable way for him to spend his time. We were both hurt and what we were arguing over is whether his job has value. Of course he reacted defensively and wanted to spend less time talking with me if this is all we were ever going to talk about. My stress built up, my connection and warmth faded, and I felt the need to express my problems about how many hours he was working more and more. And while I was not the only one at fault in this situation, imagine the difference if I had first taken the time to explore my emotions and come up with the right words. Imagine if I had been able to communicate about the cause not just the symptoms. I could have been upset “for the right purpose, and in the right way.” Instead of inadvertently offending my husband (in a prolonged months long argument) I could have come to him and said “I feel like I’m losing my best friend. I’m stressed and having a hard time taking care of 3 kids at home all day. When you come home things are crazy and by the time the kids are asleep we are both so exhausted that we can’t really connect then, and I feel like I don’t get enough time with you to keep up our relationship. Please could you come home an hour earlier once a week so that we can find a way of reconnecting?”
This is where I find that Aristotle quote so powerful. It is not an easy thing, but it makes all the difference. Take out “anger” and substitute any emotion and the same is true. And it’s not easy, but for me it has literally saved my marriage and changed my life. And there are so many areas of my life with similar examples. Another article for another time is how it has affected my parenting. Any examples of this in your life? Want book or video suggestions? Just let me know – I never get tired of talking about what an amazing shift this has been.