'Sorry, sorry' you often hear a woman say when she has burst into tears. 'Man up,' or 'pull yourself together', a male might hear if he shows any kind of vulnerability and we all know that anger, jealousy and self-pity are ugly! The more I have explored the topic of emotional intelligence, the more I have come to understand that something that should be really simple, is actually loaded with complexity at a societal, identity and individual level.
If you are truly emotionally intelligent, when an emotion is triggered, you:
- recognise the trigger that caused the emotion,
- you can name or describe the emotion,
- you understand the emotion is transient (and don't panic because of the emotion itself),
- you understand that every emotion is simply part of being human and should be addressed (if needed) rather than suppressed,
- you feel able to express the emotion in an effective way if you need to and
- if it causes too much discomfort, you have healthy coping strategies for dealing with it.
And yet, as simple as this sounds, there are significant forces working to make this process far more complicated. Here are just a few of the inhibitors to good emotional intelligence:
- A logical world. The working world (and by that I probably mean anything beyond friends and family) is logic driven. We assume that when we are in the 'real world' we have no right to bring our full emotional being into it and it's embarrassing if we do. The unwritten rule is that a huge chunk of what makes us a human, is left at the door. (This suppression can make for some pretty strange behaviours driven by the strong undercurrents of hidden emotion in my experience!) I think this is incredibly unhelpful. When emotions are not addressed a person can become extremely ineffective at work or generally.
- Childhood conditioning. As mentioned in my previous post 'Validating Emotions' we received lots of messages about which emotions were palatable and which were not from the key adults in our lives. So in simple terms, it was acceptable when we expressed some emotions but not when we expressed others. This means that instead of emotions being a simple come-and-go affair, there's more going on - sometimes including a feeling that our whole self-worth is at stake if we dare to express one of the emotions that did not receive approval.
- Lack of a drive for self awareness. Self-awareness classes don't happen despite it being a key to more effective living! Our childhood loads us with buttons! So, for example, if as a child we were not listened to, when we feel someone in our adult life is not listening to us, we will have a strong, automatic, emotional reaction if we are not aware of this trigger. The wonderful thing about emotional literacy is that once you tune into your emotions, you are more likely to become aware of your automatic triggers. Nearly every strong reaction holds a clue to your childhood 'programming,' especially if it's something that doesn't appear to be bothering others.
- Gender conditioning. I explored male conditioning in the post, 'Talk to your boys about feelings'. But young females receive clear messages too. Many girls are taught indirectly to 'contain' themselves and be 'nice and compliant'. The result is expressing anger and frustration is a no-go but crying (vulnerability) is acceptable. This conditioning often means that when a female feels angry, frustrated or humiliated, instead of being able to express her feelings assertively, she cries instead. And crying can lead to being patronised which in turn can create more frustration.
- Regularly not linking cause to effect. Because many of us do not generally focus on emotions, when an uncomfortable emotion has been triggered, instead of addressing the emotion, we often simply 'take it out on others'. We can end up quite confused when we blame others for something that was initiated in us and miss a huge opportunity to learn something and get better at dealing with emotions.
- Lack of focus on emotions in any kind of educational setting. (e.g. home, school). We are simply not taught enough about emotions - formally or by example. Linked to the first point about the world being very logic focused, emotional intelligence, as enabling as it can be, is not given the focus I think it needs. Emotionally literate people are more flexible and confident, are in greater control of themselves and more likely to make good decisions even in tense moments. Emotionally literate people tend to get more out of life.
So while this is not a post including an idea you can take directly to your child, it is a post that aims to make you think about your relationship with emotions, as after all, as your child's role-model, you are their biggest teacher, both consciously and unconsciously.