Figuring out our feelings
Deena Kara Shaffer
Stress and strife can arise in response to another’s curtness or cluelessness. Intentional hurtfulness or unconscious button-pushing can fuel our emotional flames. Read on to learn more about emotional intelligence, what underlies challenging feelings, and tips on how to cope.
Ever felt deflated by a co-worker’s oblivious or harmful remarks? Mystified by a family member’s passive aggressiveness? Fumed over a friend’s flair for creating chaos? A lack of emotional intelligence could be the reason. Emotional intelligence is the ability to notice, express, and discern what we’re feeling. It helps us understand and respond to emotions, our own and others’. For insight, I interviewed Daryl Vineberg, a registered psychotherapist in Toronto who uses a body-based approach in his client work with individuals, couples, and groups. And from Ryerson University in Toronto, I interviewed Dr. Diana Brecher, clinical psychologist, Positive Psychology Scholar-in-Residence, and creator of the growing ThriveRU resilience initiative.
Brecher explains there are five key aspects to being emotionally intelligent: “self-awareness, social skills, empathy, motivation to achieve one’s goals, and the ability to manage one’s own emotions.” These building blocks help us think, make decisions, and navigate relationships.
Before we can make sense of the emotions of others, it’s important to first attend to our own. Vineberg encourages readers to “make space to fully feel what’s present, and trust that those feelings are never out of place.” Through this, Vineberg suggests that “we can come to know how we actually feel about something or someone.”
Emotional intelligence isn’t a fixed trait; it can be learned and practised. “Mindfulness meditation,” explains Brecher, “can have a strong impact on emotional regulation. It helps us learn to observe our reactions, rather than act on them immediately.”
IQ (intelligence quotient) is the measure of one’s intellectual capacity to understand and learn; in contrast, EQ (emotional quotient) assesses skills such as being a team player, having the capacity to “read a room,” and managing impulses to meet a deadline. Brecher says, “EQ skills tend to determine success in relationships, both at home and at work, far more than intellectual capacity on its own.”
How can emotional intelligence help us in the face of others’ negativity? Brecher explains, “Navigating toxic relationships is almost completely dependent on our social skills, empathy, self-awareness, and self-confidence. Establishing clear boundaries about how much chaos and negativity we will tolerate—like setting limits on, for example, manipulation or inconsistency—can help us find our path through such interactions.”
Meanwhile, Vineberg highlights the importance of getting to know ourselves better. “We can come to see how we are affected by specific people along with what is actually happening inside ourselves. This can create more internal spaciousness as we get clearer on what’s ‘ours’ and what’s ‘theirs,’ so to speak.”
Much is revealed in our own responses to irksome interactions with others, says Vineberg. “Both the nature and the intensity of our reactions can shed light on the places in us that need our attention, and that ultimately want to be healed.”
Brecher notes that early rearing can be the culprit in emotional unintelligence or stuntedness. “Emotional intelligence is cultivated in our earliest contexts—home, school, playground—and when children, for a variety of unfortunate reasons, have to move into survival mode, development and trust in their emotional reactions can shut down.”
“So many of us have learned that emotions, especially big ones, are something to be avoided or restrained,” says Vineberg. “I believe we all need safe places to bring and feel our full emotional selves, so we can have access to all of ourselves.”
Our contexts shape our emotional expression. As Brecher explains, “Emotional intelligence is completely culturally driven. Some societies value the expression of emotions, or their absence. Cross-cultural interactions often lead to judgments and criticism—for example, if you have a manager who values stoic non-expression of frustration supervising employees who naturally articulate stress as part of their process to move on and let it go, you have a perfect storm with each side misunderstanding the other.”
“We’re such experts in containing and controlling our emotions, modulating how much of ourselves to bring [in] to achieve a desired result or impact,” says Vineberg. “But I think we’re starving, in a way, for the genuine expression of emotion, ours and that of others. It can be such a relief to know someone’s truth, where they stand, what they’re feeling. We may not like it— but at least it’s true, and we can respond to it.”
“It is crucial,” says Vineberg, “to accept that emotions are meant to be felt and, when appropriate, expressed. One huge upside to learning the language of emotions is that they are full of information about ourselves, which can help us to become ever clearer about what we want and what we don’t want in our lives.”
Dr. Diana Brecher offers these tips when dealing with toxic people.