Emotional intelligence is not something you’re either born with or not—it’s a skill you can improve over time.
But when it comes to improving your emotional intelligence, how you try to do it matters:
Emotional intelligence is not something you learn in books, it’s something you build with good habits.
As a psychologist, I work with a lot of people who want more emotional intelligence. But despite all the inspiring YouTube videos they watch, they still struggle with it:
- They trap themselves in spirals of worry and anxiety
- They get judgmental with themselves for how they feel
- They fall into self-sabotage as soon as they start moving forward
The problem is simple: Insights alone will note improve your emotional intelligence. Instead, you need to cultivate healthy habits that build your emotional intelligence over time.
Here are four good habits that will improve your emotional intelligence:
1. Let go of unhelpful thoughts
More thinking isn’t always a good thing—and often, it’s the very thing making us miserable.
Most of us grow up being taught to think long and hard:
- From the time we can talk, we’re told to “think before you speak.”
- We get praise and attention for thinking hard and doing well in school.
- And as adults, our success at work largely depends on our ability to think carefully and creatively.
But while our instinct to think more and think harder serves us well most of the time, there are still a lot of situations when more thinking makes things worse:
- When an irrational worry is spinning through your mind, thinking more about that worry rarely fixes anything and usually makes you feel more anxious.
- When you’re lying in bed at 2:00 am not sleeping, thinking more about why you’re not sleeping is only going to keep you awake longer.
- Once you’ve reflected on a mistake and tried to learn from it, ruminating on it over and over again will only make you feel miserable.
Thinking hard is a tool. And like any tool, it can be used well or poorly.
Emotionally intelligent people understand when a situation can benefit from more thinking and when it will only make things worse.
Of course, simply understanding whether more thinking is the right tool for the job isn’t enough… As anyone who struggles with chronic worry, self-doubt, or perfectionism understands, sometimes it’s really hard to stop thinking!
This makes sense: Most of us were trained for years to keep thinking even when it’s hard. But few of us were ever trained on how to stop thinking!
If you want to become more emotionally intelligent, commit yourself to a training regimen to exercise your not thinking muscle:
- Practice letting go of unhelpful thoughts, even if they’re true.
- Exercise your ability to refocus your attention, instead of letting it wander anywhere it pleases.
- Work on being aware of your thoughts without thinking more about them.
Letting go of unhelpful thoughts is hard. And there’s no magic formula to make it easy. Because like any important skill in life, it takes practice and patience.
But in the end, the ability to steer your mind away from unhelpful thinking is one of the most powerful ways to improve your emotional intelligence, health, and happiness.
“To think too much is a disease.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
2. Accept difficult emotions
It’s natural to run away from painful feelings. But that only makes them stronger in the end.
The human brain is a learning machine. And it’s especially sensitive to what you teach it!
Specifically, how you react to things—especially emotionally charged things—teaches your brain what to think about those things in the future.
- Suppose you go hiking on a new trail one afternoon.
- But halfway through the hike, you decide it’s too dangerous of a hike and go back home.
- You’ve taught your brain that that trail is dangerous.
- Which means if you decide to go hiking there again in the future, you’re going to feel some anxiety about it.
Natural enough, right?
Well, the same thing happens with the way we respond to internal things like our emotions:
- If you consistently try to escape your grief by using alcohol or drugs, you’re teaching your brain that grief and sadness are dangerous. Now you’re anxious about grieving.
- If you immediately try to calm yourself down any time you feel anxious, you’re teaching your brain that it’s bad to feel anxious. Now you’re going to become anxious about getting anxious.
When you try to escape painful feelings, you teach your brain that it’s dangerous to feel bad, which only makes you feel worse.
Emotionally intelligent people understand that just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad:
- Just because your muscles are sore after a workout doesn’t mean something’s wrong and you should never work out again.
- Similarly, just because you feel anxious speaking in public doesn’t mean public speaking is dangerous and you should avoid it in the future.
But more than just understanding this difference, emotionally intelligent people train themselves to react to painful emotions with acceptance, not avoidance.
Because here’s the thing: When you accept your emotions with willingness, you teach your brain that they’re safe and normal however uncomfortable they feel.
If you want to feel better in the long term, you must practice being willing to feel bad in the short term.
“Emotional pain cannot kill you, but running from it can.”
― Vironika Tugaleva
3. Handle your mistakes with compassion
Self-criticism is rarely helpful and almost always makes it harder to move on.
From an early age, most people grow up believing that being tough on themselves is the only way to succeed and improve in life:
- We tell ourselves that if we don’t study harder we’ll fail and not get into a good college.
- We tell ourselves that if we don’t “suck it up” and “push through” our coach will think we’re lazy and we won’t get to play.
- We tell ourselves that if we keep acting awkward no one is going to want to hang out with us.
In other words: We get in the habit of self-critical negative self-talk because we think it will motivate us to be better in the future.
But here’s the thing…
Self-criticism gives the illusion of motivation. But in the end, all it does is discourage you.
Being self-critical after a mistake feels productive because you feel like you’re doing something. But that habit of negative self-talk is disastrous in the long run because it keeps you feeling anxious, insecure, and full of self-doubt.
If you want to become more emotionally intelligent, you must avoid the self-criticism trap.
Instead of beating yourself up after a mistake as a fake form of motivation, try this:
- Acknowledge the mistake for what it is.
- Accept that you are helpless to change the past.
- Focus on what you can actually control moving forward.
In other words…
What if you changed your self-criticism habit into a self-compassion habit?
Self-compassion simply means treating yourself after a mistake like you would treat a friend: with kindness and encouragement.
Thankfully, most of us already know how to be compassionate. It’s just a matter of remembering to apply it to yourself.
“You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”
― Louise Hay
4. Choose values over feelings
The heart of emotional intelligence is the ability to subordinate your feelings to your values.
Subordinate my feelings to my values… But aren’t my feelings the most authentic part of who I am?
There’s nothing inherently special or authentic about emotions relative to any other part of your experience.
Think about it:
- Is your feeling of desire for that bag of potato chips more “authentic” than your desire to be healthy and fit?
- Is your feeling of anxiety and self-doubt more “authentic” than the evidence that you’ve given presentations like this dozens of times and they’ve always been well-received?
- Is your feeling of excitement at being flirted at by that attractive coworker more “authentic” than your commitment to your marriage?
Here’s the thing about feelings…
Your feelings will get you into trouble just as often as they will help you.
Now, I’m not saying feelings are bad or that you shouldn’t consider them. I’m a psychologist—of course I think you should care about what you’re feeling!
- When you’re walking down a dark alley at midnight and suddenly feel afraid because you hear rapid footsteps behind you, that fear could be very helpful!
The problem is when you get in the habit of making decisions based exclusively on how you feel:
- If you only take on new projects at work when you feel confident, you’ll never grow and probably miss out on some amazing opportunities.
- If you never bring up difficult issues with your spouse because you’re afraid of how they’ll respond, those problems will only fester and get worse.
- If you only go to the gym when you feel excited and motivated, you’ll never get in shape.
Learn to be skeptical of your feelings when they conflict with your values.
To become more emotionally intelligent people, train yourself to notice conflicts between feelings and values. And then ask yourself a simple question:
What do I REALLY want right now?
If it helps, try to get in the habit of thinking about Little-W wants and Capital-W wants:
- Little-W wants are things like the pleasure of tasting a candy bar or the relief from anxiety when you take those first couple shots of vodka. While not necessarily bad, Little-W wants often distract us from and interfere with our Capital-W wants…
- Capital-W wants are things we want based on our values: I want to be healthy enough to play tag with my grandkids without getting winded or I want to do high-quality work not just rush through it.
If you want to be more emotionally intelligent, practice choosing your values over your feelings.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
— Viktor Frankl
All You Need to Know
Emotional intelligence is the result of good habits, not nice ideas. And if you want to improve your emotional intelligence, commit to these practices:
Let go of unhelpful thoughts
Accept difficult emotions
Handle your mistakes with compassion
Choose values over feelings