Emotional Intelligence

🎯 What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence means understanding how your emotions work and how to work with them in a healthy and effective way.

👀 Examples of Emotional Intelligence

Here are a few examples of specific bits of knowledge that comprise emotional intelligence. Obviously there are many, many more pieces of knowledge that go into emotional intelligence; this list is mean to be illustrative, not comprehensive:

  • Thoughts, not things, cause emotions. Technically, this is known as cognitive mediation, which means that the effect of events on our emotional reactions are always mediated by our thoughts.
  • Emotions are not good or bad. Emotions are not moral phenomena because we don’t have direct control over them. Just like it doesn’t make sense to claim that rain or sunshine is good or bad (because we don’t control the weather), it doesn’t make sense—and is almost always unhelpful—to judge your emotions as morally good or bad. This is why I argue that there’s no such thing as a negative emotion.
  • Anxiety is different than worry. Anxiety is an emotion. Worry is a thought and mental behavior. You shouldn’t waste your energy trying to control your anxiety because it’s not something you have direct control over; instead, focus on changing your habit of worrying which you do have control over, and which will indirectly have an effect on your anxiety.
  • Assessing the emotional state of others. For example: correctly inferring that someone is irritated based on their facial expressions, word choice, body language, etc.

😬 Problems Associated with Low Emotional Intelligence

  • Emotional overwhelm. Most people experience more frequent and intense emotions than they need to because they are in the habit of avoiding or trying to eliminate their uncomfortable emotions. When you avoid emotions, it teaches your brain to fear them (emotional fear learning). And when your brain fears emotions, you get compound emotions—anxiety about sadness, shame about anger, etc., which leads to more intense and frequent emotional reactions, and eventually, emotional overwhelm.
  • Relationship conflict. Many problems in relationships stem from one or both parties not being able to manage their own difficult emotions well, including their emotional reactions to their partner’s emotional reactions: Coping with insecurity through defensiveness, stonewalling in response to embarrassment, passive-aggressive communication as a way to avoid the discomfort of communicating assertively, etc.
  • Self-sabotage. When you don’t understand how to work well with difficult emotions, you end up trying to avoid or eliminate them. And the more your attention and behavior becomes dominated by the avoidance of emotions, the less able you are to stay focused and follow through on your goals, commitments, and higher aspirations. Over time, a pattern develops where you’re constantly setting goals for yourself but never following through on them—or acting contrary to them despite knowing you shouldn’t—which is the essence of self-sabotage.
  • Chronic stress. The core problem of chronic stress is that people get stuck managing the symptoms (the feeling of stress) and avoid managing the causes (the stressors). This is why you should largely ignore stress management, and instead, focus on stressor management.
  • Professional/employment problems. The workplace—especially in competitive and high-stress jobs or fields—is full of complex social and intellectual challenges that surface all sorts of difficult emotions. And if you don’t understand how emotions work—either your own or other people’s—it’s difficult to navigate these environments successfully long-term.

💡 Key Insights About Emotional Intelligence

  • Emotional intelligence is necessary but not sufficient for emotional health. You can read a book about playing the piano, but you won’t get good at playing piano without a lot of practice. Similarly, you can understand how, say, anxiety works, but you won’t get good at managing anxiety well unless you practice. While emotional intelligence is important—likely necessary to some degree—for emotional health, emotional fitness matters much more.
  • Emotional intelligence does not necessarily correlate with other forms of intelligence. While emotional intelligence frequently correlates with other forms of intelligence like academic or social intelligence, it doesn’t always. Many people find themselves in unhappy situations in life—whether it’s an unhappy marriage, a contentious business partnership, or otherwise—because they assumed someone’s emotional intelligence was commensurate with their other forms of intelligence when actually it was not.
  • The pursuit of emotional intelligence is often a way to avoid the work of emotional fitness. A frequent pattern—especially among “seekers” and other self-improvement enthusiasts—is to unconsciously use the pursuit of emotional intelligence as a form of procrastination on the harder and more uncomfortable work of actually practicing and building skills for emotional health. Much easier—and more fun—to read about, say, self-confidence than it is to practice putting yourself in scary situations and performing anyway. If you’ve been striving toward self-improvement but not seeing significant results, it’s very possible that you’re chasing insights at the expense of “putting in the reps.”

🛠️ Tips and Tools for Improving Emotional Intelligence

  • Talk about your emotions in plain language. Because difficult emotions are, by definition, uncomfortable, most people tend to ignore them. But if you chronically ignore something, how can you understand it and how best to work with it? Be very careful of intellectualizing your emotions, and instead, practice talking about how you feel like a child would, in plain, simple language.
  • Substitute self-criticism for self-curiosity. When they’re not avoiding their emotions, most people are criticizing them—judging themselves as “weak” for feeling sad, “silly” for feeling anxious, “bad” for feeling angry, etc. But emotional criticism is just as unhelpful as emotional avoidance. Instead, try to be curious about your emotions. Instead of thinking of them as good or bad, try to investigate what’s interesting or surprising about them.
  • Spend more time around emotionally intelligent people. Human beings are highly social creatures. Among other things, this means that our behavior is far more influenced by other people than we realize (or want to believe). If you surround yourself with sarcastic people, for example, you’ll end up being more sarcastic. If you surround yourself with ambitious people, for example, you’re likely to be more ambitious. And if you surround yourself with emotionally intelligent people, you’re likely to end up more emotionally intelligent yourself.
  • Read high-quality fiction. As a psychologist, I have to say that authors are often more sensitive to and have a greater understanding of human psychology than most mental health professionals. Consequently, you may learn a lot more about how the mind works by careful reading of good fiction than you will talking to a therapist or reading one of my articles.

🧩 Learn More

Join my Emotional Resilience Masterclass

Once a year, I lead a small group of students through my live Mood Mastery program. Over the course of 5 weeks, I’ll teach you the core skills you need to build mental strength and emotional resilience for life.

Learn more about Mood Mastery →