Throughout history, human beings have harnessed the forces of nature such as wind and water to our benefit. We took something dangerous like fire and learned how to control it. It ended up serving us to cook meals and keep warm. Once wind would smash our boats into rocks, we learned to use it to impulse us in the right direction. Emotions are a similar story; they can be dangerous and make us crash, yet if we know how to control them they can serve us and take us in the right direction.
Emotional intelligence is making emotions work for you, instead of against you. The first step to accomplishing this is self awareness. Let us define what this means. Self-awareness is the skill of being aware of our:
- Thoughts & Emotions
- Strengths & Weaknesses
After reading that definition, you might think I know all those things. Interestingly enough, self awareness is like multi tasking in the sense most people think they have this skill. However, Even though most people believe they are self-aware, only 10-15% of the people fit the criteria, according to the Harvard Business Review.
Being able to identify and name our emotions helps us in a significant number of ways. For starters, when regarding emotions we usually limit our vocabularies to okay, angry, sad and stressed. This is very limited when the reality is there are at least 27 distinct emotions—and they are intimately connected, shows a study from Greater Good Science Center.
By being specific and accurate about naming our emotions we are better able to understand what we need. Emotions are our mind’s way to give us information about our inner state. We often tend to ignore and distract ourselves. We live in a culture where we glorify “powering through” when this often leads to burnout and poor mental health.
If we wake up and think, “Oh, I feel bad”. This doesn’t give us much information. If I were to narrow it down to something more specific I will be better equipped to improve my state. For example:
- I feel overwhelmed. I can take a look at my to-do list and prioritize important tasks. Create a plan. If possible, delegate or postpone other less urgent tasks.
- I feel unfocused. I can take some time to take care of myself, which could look like better sleep, healthy meals, a workout, a massage, or a walk in nature.
- I feel indifferent. I can think about what activities I love that bring me joy and make time to do them, whether it’s shopping, playing a musical instrument, or having dinner with friends.
Among other benefits of naming our emotions, we can point out that by accurately recognizing how we feel we can put some distance between ourselves and the emotion. Creating this separation can bring some clarity as we realize we are not our emotions, and allow us to act more thoughtfully.
To illustrate this principle, I would like you to try a short exercise.
- Place your right hand in front of your face, almost touching your nose. And now ask yourself:
- What can you see?
- Is your hand getting in the way?
In this exercise, our hands represent our feelings and thoughts. When they are in such proximity, it’s hard to know where they end and you begin. Not only this, but also we are unable to see the situation around us clearly because we are so immersed in our thoughts and feelings that we fail to notice everything else.
- Now, place your hand at a distance from your face. And now ask yourself:
- What can you see?
- Is your hand getting in the way?
The thoughts and feelings are still there but they don’t consume you and you can see the situation more clearly. It is important to highlight that to manage emotions is not to avoid or dismiss them. Rather it is to allow ourselves to feel them and at the same time not let them dictate our actions.
We become thoughtful rather than reactive by paying attention to our inner states and then identifying them to create distance. Our inability to notice our own emotions and thoughts often leaves us at its mercy. Much like our example of fire, if we are unaware it can burn us.
People who can recognize their thoughts and emotions are better drivers of their life. For example, if I have a presentation today and I realize I am feeling some anxiety around it. By paying attention to my inner state I can observe my options to improve the situation by asking myself where is the anxiety coming from:
- Lack of preparation. I can review my presentation to increase my confidence
- Overthinking. I can occupy myself with other tasks.
- Wrongly perceived emotion. Excitement and anxiety feel similar in the body.
Recognizing a feeling as it happens and not as an afterthought is the keystone of emotional intelligence. There is a clear connection between our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The better we get to know our thoughts and emotions, the better we can make our emotions work for us and behave in a way that is aligned with our values.
For more idea on how our strengths, weaknesses, and values are important elements in self-awareness, please read my previous blog “The Importance of Knowing Our Strengths“.
Psychologist and Emotional Intelligence Coach
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 Keltner, Dacher. “How Many Different Human Emotions Are There?” Greater Good Science Center, 8 September 2017, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_many_different_human_emotions_are_there.