Here’s a radical idea that shouldn’t be:
We don’t struggle with emotions because something’s wrong with us; we struggle with them because we don’t understand how they work.
Think about it: If you were never taught how numbers work, would you be surprised that you struggled to do math?
Of course not.
And yet, even though very few of us are ever taught how emotions work, we assume something’s wrong or defective in us when we struggle to manage them!
On the other hand, when people are able to work with their painful emotions in a healthy way it’s usually a sign that they understand how emotions actually work.
The hallmark of emotional intelligence is that you work with painful emotions instead of fighting against them or running away.
If you want to improve your own emotional intelligence, try to emulate these 8 traits of emotionally intelligent people.
1. They see emotions as messengers, not viruses
How would you describe the following collection of emotions:
If you’re like most people, you might say “Oh, those are negative emotions.” But this is actually not a very accurate description. Because here’s the thing:
Just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
Emotions are not bad or negative in a moral sense because you can’t control them directly. No one gets put in prison for feeling angry because you can’t control your anger, only your actions.
Similarly, emotions are not bad or negative in a safety sense because they’re not actually dangerous. No matter how sad you get, your sadness is not going to hurt you.
In other words, emotionally intelligent people don’t treat painful emotions as threats or signs of bad character. Instead, they view their emotions—especially the painful ones—as messengers trying to communicate information.
And no matter how much they dislike the message, they never shoot the messenger.
2. They listen to their emotions without trusting them
Not all information is true—and that includes emotional information.
Very often our emotions are communicating something true or helpful to us:
- When you feel angry after someone steals your wallet, that’s your mind’s way of reminding you that an injustice has occurred (and perhaps motivating you to rectify the situation).
- When you feel guilty after lying to your boss, that’s in part a correct assessment of having done something wrong.
But here’s the thing…
Just because an emotion is telling you something doesn’t mean it’s correct or helpful.
Emotions can be incorrect and unhelpful just as often as they’re accurate and helpful:
- My emotions tell me to take it easy and watch Netflix instead of going for a run. Should I listen?
- My emotions tell me to punch that guy who cut in front of me at the supermarket. Should I listen?
It’s usually a good idea to listen to your emotions, but it’s unwise to simply trust them.
3. They talk about their emotions in plain language
If you listen carefully, most adults talk about difficult emotions in vague and overly abstract or metaphorical terms: ”I’m just a little stressed” or “I’m really pissed off right now.”
In other words, they intellectualize their emotions. And the reason… Because on a very fundamental level, they’re afraid of their painful emotions. And those emotions feel a little less bad when we distance ourselves from them with overly intellectual and abstract language. Saying “I’m stressed” makes us feel less vulnerable than saying “I’m afraid.”
The trouble is, intellectualized emotions are a form of avoidance. And the more you avoid your painful emotions, the more afraid of them you become. This leads to a vicious cycle of compounding painful emotions: Feeling afraid of feeling angry; feeling ashamed of feeling sad. Etc.
On the other hand…
Emotionally intelligent people are willing to describe how they feel in plain, ordinary language.
If you want to improve your emotional intelligence and start confronting your painful emotions instead of escaping them, try this:
The next time someone asks you how you feel, describe it like a 6-year-old would: “I feel sad.” “I’m mad.” “I’m feeling really afraid.”
4. They distinguish emotions from the thoughts that trigger them
Often it can feel like painful emotions just hit you out of the blue:
- I just got so anxious
- She made that comment and I was instantly angry
- I feel so guilty and I don’t know why
But that’s not how emotions work.
You can’t have an emotion without some kind of thought first. And even though the thoughts that generate our emotions can be subtle and fast, that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
Emotionally intelligent people are expert at understanding the mental habits and thought patterns that generate their emotional responses:
- They recognize that their anxiety is the result of their habit of worrying.
- They understand that ruminating on their mistakes is the cause of their sadness.
Emotions are different than the thoughts that generate them.
One of the most important skills you can cultivate to become more emotionally intelligent is learning to identify the subtle mental habits that precede difficult emotions.
Because while you can’t control how you feel directly, you can control how you choose to think—and then indirectly, change the way you feel.
5. They feel their emotions physically
A simple sign of emotional intelligence is whether someone is in touch with the physical feelings that go along with their emotions.
In other words, can they describe how their body feels when they’re angry, for example. Or what it feels like physically to be anxious.
The willingness to really feel your emotions is a hallmark of emotional intelligence.
People with low emotional intelligence tend to avoid difficult emotions, which means that they lose touch with how those emotions feel in their body. But when you understand that emotions are not bad or dangerous no matter how painful they feel, you tend to accept them and learn to live with them.
6. They validate their emotions without judgment
When you experience a painful feeling like grief or anxiety, it’s natural to want to escape that feeling or make it go away. But as we discussed in #1, just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
Here’s the thing: when you run away from or try to eliminate painful emotions, you’re teaching your brain that those emotions are dangerous. This means that the next time you experience them, you’re going to feel fear or shame on top of those already painful emotions.
On the other hand, people with high emotional intelligence validate their emotions. They identify and acknowledge their feelings. And then remind themselves that it’s okay to feel any kind of feeling—that it doesn’t make them bad or unsafe.
Your emotions are always valid even if they’re painful or unhelpful.
It’s a lot easier to accept your painful emotions when you are in the habit of validating them first.
7. They accept their emotions and control their behavior
Speaking of accepting your emotions…
One of the biggest confusions most people have around their emotions is the problem of control. People think they should be able to control their emotions—be less angry, feel less sad, not be so anxious, etc.
But that’s not how emotions work: There’s no sadness dial you can simply adjust down, just like there’s no happiness button you simply press to feel better.
So people end up trying in vain to control their feelings, but all the while, the thing they can control—their behavior—gets left on autopilot. And as a result, their behavior gets controlled by initial impulses and superficial desires.
If you spend all your energy trying to control your feelings, you’ll have little left over to control your behavior.
On the other hand, emotionally intelligent people understand that the best way to start making better decisions and taking control of their behavior is to stop wasting time and energy trying to control how they feel.
Practice accepting your emotions so you take control over your behavior.
8. They’re compassionate with other people’s emotions
One of the most telling clues about a person’s emotional intelligence is how they handle other people’s emotions—especially other people’s difficult emotions.
Because most people believe that painful emotions are bad or dangerous, they tend to either run away from them or try to eliminate them. Of course, they do this in themselves. But they also tend to do it in other people:
- They get uncomfortable when someone’s sad, so they say “cheer up” and change the topic.
- Or they get nervous when someone’s anxious, so they start giving lots of advice, hoping the other person will stop feeling so anxious (which means they can stop feeling so uncomfortable!)
But here’s the thing:
Trying to “fix” other people’s painful emotions is invalidating.
Emotionally intelligent people are willing to accept other people’s bad moods and difficult emotions just as they do their own. They acknowledge and validate other people’s feelings without trying to make them go away or distract from them.
And while counterintuitive, this approach of being accepting of other people’s difficult feelings tends to lead to much healthier and happier relationships in the long run.
All You Need to Know
Emotional intelligence means understanding how your emotions really work so that you can work with them in a healthy way.
These eight principles are a good place to start:
- See your emotions as messengers, not viruses
- Listen to your emotions but don’t trust them
- Talk about your emotions in plain language
- Distinguish emotions from the thoughts that trigger them
- Pay attention to how your emotions feel physically
- Validate your emotions without judgment
- Accept your emotions, control your behavior
- Be compassionate with other people’s emotion