Most of us aren’t very good at managing difficult emotions because we don’t know how they work…
- We procrastinate constantly because we don’t realize we’re really avoiding our own anxiety, not their work.
- We argue incessantly with our spouse because we don’t realize being critical is our defense mechanism against insecurity and fear of loneliness.
- We feel constantly stressed and anxious because we rely on superficial coping strategies that temporarily bring relief but actually increase our anxiety in the long-run.
If you want to feel better, you need to understand how your feelings actually work.
Unfortunately, most people assume emotional intelligence is either something you’re born with or something you discover suddenly after reading a great book or listening to some wise advice.
But in reality, it’s neither…
Emotional intelligence comes from experience and habits—what you do or don’t do on a regular basis.
What follows are four habits of emotionally intelligent people. Build them into your own life and watch your emotional intelligence rise.
1. Talk about your emotions plainly
When was the last time you heard an adult say: I’m really angry right now or, I feel sad?
Even when I worked as a therapist, I was surprised how infrequently people used plain emotion words to describe how they felt.
On the other hand, if you spend any time at all around little kids, you’ll hear plenty of emotion words… I’m mad because Sophie hit me! or, I’m sad. We didn’t get recess today because it was raining.
See, as adults, most of us get in the habit of intellectualizing our difficult emotions—we substitute more conceptual or metaphorical language when describing how we feel…
- Instead of I’m mad we say, I’m just stressed.
- Instead of I feel sad we say, I just feel kind of down.
- Instead of I’m disappointed we say, I’m really hurt.
But stressed isn’t an emotion. Stress is a physiological reaction in your body. Similarly, down isn’t an emotion, it’s a metaphor. Hurt is an idea that encompasses a wide variety of emotions and thoughts.
And while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with using these words to describe yourself, it’s very easy to get in the habit of using them as a way to avoid being honest about how you really feel…
- Saying you’re stressed is less uncomfortable and more socially acceptable than admitting that you’re mad.
- Describing yourself as down is more vague and less painful than admitting that you feel sad.
Difficult emotions like sadness and anger hurt. But they hurt a little less when we avoid talking about them directly. So many of us get addicted to using vague, intellectual language when describing how we feel—both to others, but even worse, to ourselves!
The reason this is a problem is because like most forms of avoidance (and addiction) what feels good now ends up making you feel much worse later.
See, when you avoid difficult emotions you teach your brain that they’re bad or dangerous. So even though you get some temporary relief in the moment, the next time that emotion arises, you’re going to feel fear or shame on top of the initial emotion.
Emotionally intelligent people talk about how they feel in simple, honest language. If they’re sad, they say I’m sad. If they’re angry, they say I feel angry.
Because in addition to not making these emotions bigger and more painful through avoidance, talking about your emotions in plain language helps you understand them better and become more self-aware.
If you want to improve your emotional intelligence, start by training yourself to talk about your emotions like a six-year-old and use simple, straightforward words for how you feel.
Learn More: The Dangers of Intellectualized Emotions
2. Schedule some alone time with your mind
Here’s a subtle but important distinction when it comes to emotional intelligence:
Emotional intelligence is less about the facts you know about how the brain works, and more about your relationship with your own mind and the understanding that results.
- You can have a PhD in neuroscience, but if you never take time to think about and consider why you get so irritated with your spouse on vacations, you’re unlikely to make much progress.
- You can be a practicing therapist and psychologist, but if you don’t make a serious effort to sit with your own feelings of jealousy for your higher-earning friends, you’re likely to continue feeling resentful and maybe even end up ruining those relationships.
Think about the best relationships in your life—could be a spouse, a sibling, or a best friend… How did you come to really understand this person?
It’s probably not because you made them take a personality test when you first met and then studied the results!
Instead, you got to know them on a deep level because you spent time with them…
- You hung out after school and talked about all sorts of things waiting for the bus.
- You went through some real challenges together like the death of a family member or the rigors of getting through grad school.
- You maintain an intimate understanding with your spouse because you make time for each other by going on date nights, making time to talk in the evenings rather than just watch TV, etc.
The point is this:
You only get to know another person deeply by making time to be together with them. And the same thing goes for getting to know yourself!
If you want to improve your emotional intelligence you need to make time to be alone with your own mind—to sit with your thoughts and beliefs, to contemplate your moods and emotions, to ponder your hopes, dreams, and expectations.
There are all sorts of ways to do this…
- Or just going for long walks without your phone
Commit to spending a little quality time with your own mind and you’ll be amazed at what you learn.
Learn More: 6 Ways to Improve Your Emotional Intuition
3. Be curious about bad moods, not judgmental
Have you ever realized you were grumpy and then immediately started criticizing yourself for feeling grumpy?
Or found yourself irritated with someone only to immediately start judging yourself for being irritated?
It’s a tragic quirk of human nature that our immediate reaction to feeling bad is to beat ourselves up for feeling bad.
The tendency to be judgmental of our bad moods has at least two negative consequences:
- Criticizing yourself for feeling bad makes you feel worse. When you tell yourself you’re weak for feeling anxious, now you feel shame on top of your anxiety. When you tell yourself you’re a terrible person for being critical of someone else, now you’re feeling angry about being angry, which of course, only makes you more angry! And it’s not just a short-term problem… The more you criticize and judge your bad moods, the more emotionally fragile and reactive you become in the long-run because you’re training your brain to see its own emotions as bad!
- Judgment prevents new learning. All the time and energy you spend judging and criticizing an emotion or mood is all time and energy that could have been spent learning about those feelings and understanding why you feel the way you do and how best to deal with those feelings. For example, all the time and energy you spend criticizing yourself for feeling sad and lacking motivation is time and energy that could have been spent asking yourself what your sadness might have been trying to communicate—perhaps that you’re not getting enough of something important in your life like quality social interactions or meaningful work.
Emotionally intelligent people are curious about bad moods and difficult emotions, not judgmental.
The next time you find yourself in a bad mood, try hitting the pause button on your habit of judgment and criticism, and instead, ask yourself a few simple questions:
- What are the facts? What actually happened leading up to this bad mood? Who? What? When? Where? How?
- What are my emotions trying to tell me? Instead of seeing painful emotions as viruses to be eliminated, try seeing them as messengers to be listened to.
- What’s my story? Thoughts generate emotions. Which means if you’re expiring a lot of difficult moods and emotions, the origin lies in your patterns of thinking—that is, the stories you tell yourself. Pay extra special attention to any expectations you might have had.
- What do I really want? In the face of strong emotion, it’s easy to behave reactively—we just do something that hopefully makes us feel better. But long-term, you’ll end up feeling much better if you align your actions with your values—the things you really want, not just what will make you feel good temporarily.
If you want to become more emotionally intelligent, break the habit of judging your moods and emotions and build a new habit of being curious about them.
4. Spend less time around emotionally immature people
- If you want to become a better musician, should you spend more time around musicians or non-musicians?
- If you want to eat more healthily, should you spend time around people who have a good diet or people who eat junk food all the time?
- If you want to become a reader, should you spend time around people who love books or people who don’t like to read?
The point is other people affect us a lot. And they especially affect us in terms of our goals and our motivation to follow-through on them.
So, if you want to understand your emotions better and become more skilled at managing them well, it makes sense that we ought to think carefully about the people we spend our time around.
If you spend a lot of time around emotionally immature people, it’s going to be difficult to improve your own emotional intelligence and skill.
On the other hand, if you make it a point to spend more time around people who have a healthy relationship with their emotions and value things like self-awareness and emotional intelligence your chances of growing in those areas increase substantially.
If you pay attention to people who have a high degree of emotional intelligence and maturity, one pattern you’ll notice is that they are intentional about minimizing the time they spend around emotionally immature people because they know that type of thing rubs off.
Of course, this doesn’t mean they’re judgmental of those people or simply cut them out of their lives entirely (although in some cases this may be necessary)—instead, it means they’re willing and able to set healthy boundaries.
- They’re willing to say no when people like that ask to hang out or spend time together.
- They have the courage to speak up when someone is being disrespectful or making off-color jokes.
- And sometimes they’re willing to make big changes in their lives—like ending a long-term relationship or changing jobs—so that they can surround themselves with people who are supportive of and contribute to their aspirations rather than detract from them.
They say you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time around. So ask yourself this:
Of the adults I interact with most often throughout the day, how emotionally mature are they?
The answer may scare you a bit if you’re honest with yourself. But that’s good. Discomfort is often the fuel we need to make big changes for the better.
If you want to be more emotionally intelligent, spend less time with the people who pull you away from that goal and more time with people who inspire you toward it.
Learn More: 5 Rules for Setting Healthy Boundaries
All You Need to Know
Emotional intelligence comes from what you do, not what you know. If you want to increase your emotional intelligence, commit to healthy habits that reinforce it:
- Talk about your emotions plainly
- Schedule some alone time with your mind
- Be curious about bad moods, not judgmental
- Spend less time around emotionally immature people
Want to Work with Me?
A couple times a year, I guide a small group of motivated individuals through a six-week program to build emotional strength and resilience. It’s called Mood Mastery and you can learn more about it here →