Emotional intelligence means the capacity to reflect on and understand your emotional life. Because the clearer you can be about your emotions—what they are and how they work—the better you’ll be able to manage the most difficult and painful ones.
Thankfully, we can all improve our emotional intelligence with a little learning and some practice.
What follows are four simple questions you can ask yourself anytime you’re upset. Not only will they help you make sense of things and feel better in the moment, they’re also good practice for increasing your emotional intelligence in the long-term.
1. What are the facts?
When a client comes into my office upset and confused, there’s one technique I use that never fails to help: I ask them to describe their situation and environment before they became upset, slowly and in detail.
When emotions run high, we tend to gloss over important factual details of our situation and environment because we’re so consumed with how we feel. As a result, we tend to miss some fairly obvious causes of our distress.
For example, I often hear clients recounting an upsetting argument they had with their spouse in bed. Because they’re so focused on the content of the argument and how they felt, they miss a crucial factual detail: It was 11:00 PM! (it’s shocking to me that anyone is ever able to have a productive conversation with their spouse after being awake and working hard for 16+ hours!)
Don’t ignore your situation just because your mind is screaming at you.
In other words, a major reason people tend to get into fights and get upset in the evenings is because they’re exhausted. Recognizing the important role that time-of-day, for example, plays in our mood helps us be more empathetic and compassionate with ourselves when we’re upset.
If you want to get better at understanding your difficult emotions and bad mood—and improve your emotional intelligence along the way—start by slowing yourself down and observing “just the facts” of the situation.
If you’re not sure where to start, try answering these 4 questions: When? Where? Who? What?
- When did I first start feeling upset?
- Where was I when I noticed my mood changing?
- Who was I interacting with right before and during my mood shift?
- What was going on that lead up to the way I felt?
In the words of the great psychologist, Sherlock Holmes…
It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.
2. What’s my emotional dashboard telling me?
Many people don’t understand their emotions very well because their model for emotions—their beliefs about what emotions are and how they work—is faulty.
In particular, there’s one big mistake most of us make when it comes to our moods and emotions: We treat painful emotions like diseases, things to be fixed or eradicated. But just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
Luckily, there’s a simple visual image that can help undo this mistaken view of emotion: learn to see your emotions like lights on your car’s dashboard.
If you want to feel better, change your relationship with your emotions
We all know that feeling of anxiety when the low fuel light comes on while we’re driving. Of course, that sudden burst of fear doesn’t feel good, but it is useful.
Consider what would happen if, the next time your low-fuel light went off and made you feel uncomfortable, you stuck a piece of tape over it?
Well, you’d never feel that uncomfortable running-low-on-fuel anxiety again. Which is nice, until it occurs to you that you are now far more likely to actually run out of gas and be stranded on the side of the highway for an hour waiting for your mom to come pick you up.
See the problem?
When it comes to both your emotions and your car dashboard, the feeling isn’t the problem; in fact, it’s just trying to help. And simply avoiding it (or “fixing” it) just sets you up for more trouble down the road.
When you constantly pick fights with your emotions, they tend to fight back.
Most bad moods and persistently painful emotion come from getting in fights with our feelings:
- We feel sad, insist that we shouldn’t, then start beating ourselves up for all the ways we should be improving, all the reasons we should feel happy and content, all the mistakes we should have avoided, etc.
- We feel anxious, interpret that to mean something awful is going to happen, and then spend the next 3 hours in a frenzy of worry and panic.
- We feel bad for someone, assume that we should have done something to prevent their misery, then spin ourselves up into a vortex of guilt, self-anger, and depression.
The common denominator in all these examples is a combative and aggressive relationship with our own feelings. And turns out, when you constantly pick fights with your emotions, they tend to fight back:
- Problem-solving your anxiety leads to panic.
- Ruminating on your anger leads to rage.
- Criticizing your sadness leads to depression.
If you consistently struggle with painful emotions and difficult moods, there’s a good chance it’s your relationship with your emotions that’s the problem, not the emotions themselves. Because treating an emotion like a problem teaches your brain to see it as a problem.
All of which means, you need to foster a better relationship with your emotions, especially the painful ones:
- Validate your emotions instead of trying to fix them.
- Welcome your emotions instead of running away from them.
- Be curious about your emotions instead of interrogating them.
The next time you’re feeling anxious or sad or guilty or any other painful feeling, try to see these emotions as lights on your dashboard.
This small shift in thinking sets you up for a much healthier, more productive, and less painful relationship with your own emotions.
Your emotions make you human. Even the unpleasant ones have a purpose. Don’t lock them away. If you ignore them, they just get louder and angrier. — Sabaa Tahir
3. What’s my story?
Once you’ve paused to collect the facts about your situation, acknowledged your emotions with curiosity and kindness, you’re ready for the third question for better emotional intelligence: What’s my story?
Anytime something bad or scary or generally upsetting happens, we create a story in our heads about that event.
Often, this storytelling takes the form of negative self-talk, the voice inside your head that says things like:
- Ugh… I’m such a screw-up. I knew should have just kept your mouth shut!
- Why does she always have to be so sarcastic? It’s like she doesn’t even love me anymore. Getting married was probably a mistake. We’ll never be happy…
Understanding our habitual and sometimes automatic self-talk is the key to understanding why we feel the way we do and how to feel better.
Each of us is the protagonist in the story of our life. But we’re also the narrator. And the author.
See, emotions are not discreet things that simply pop into our brains. They are experiences that we actively construct. We take incoming sensory information about what happened (the facts) then interpret those facts via thinking processes like self-talk (the story), and the result is an emotional experience that we’ve created.
Of course, we can’t always control what happened to us (events), and we can’t always control what thoughts pop into mind (automatic thoughts), but we can control continued habits of thought like worry, rumination, self-judgment, and the like. And if we can learn to control this storytelling, we can exert a powerful level of control over how we end up feeling emotionally.
So the next time something upsetting happens and you feel a surge of strong emotion like fear or sadness, ask yourself:
- What’s my story?
- What are the thoughts running through my mind?
- How well does my story fit the facts? Is my theory based on genuine evidence?
- Is there another story or theory that fits the facts better?
This approach to changing how you feel emotionally by changing the way you think about what happens is the backbone of cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the most effective approaches for treating and working through clinical struggles like anxiety, depression, anger issues, etc. But it’s not really new…
Long before cognitive behavioral therapy, mental health, or psychiatric diagnoses were ever a thing, ancient philosophers and thinkers understood this basic concept: How we habitually think determines how we habitually feel.
The concept was perhaps best articulated by the Roman stoic Epictetus:
What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.
4. What do I really want?
So far, we’ve used three simple questions to uncover the fundamental emotional formula of our lives:
Event + Story = Emotion
When we train ourselves to ask What are the facts? What’s my emotional dashboard telling me? and What’s my story? we can start to see the emotional machinery influencing our moods and how we feel.
Like Dorothy and Toto pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, we can begin to see that the most frightening of monsters often turns out to be nothing more than a funny little man pulling some levers.
But there’s one final step—one last question—that we need to be truly emotionally intelligent…
What do I really want?
If we’re honest, nobody’s vision for the good life is simply the absence of pain. We all know, deep down, that happiness doesn’t come from the mere absence of suffering.
The good life is about growth and learning and exploration. It’s about figuring out the most important things and going after them with everything we’ve got. In a word, it’s about values.
Emotions determine the quality of a moment, but values determine the quality of our lives.
In my clinical practice, a tragic phenomenon I see over and over again is that people do all sorts of hard work to become more emotionally intelligent and get a handle on unhelpful habits and thought patterns, all in an attempt to feel better. And many times they succeed, for a bit.
But so often, the struggle returns after 6 months, a year, even several years. Without a broader sense of purpose and values, the tips and tricks of emotional wellbeing don’t matter.
As I tell my anxiety clients all the time:
It’s a lot easier to let go of worry when you have something else to focus on that you’re genuinely excited and passionate about.
In the long-run, emotional intelligence acknowledges that life is about much, much more than how we happen to feel in a given moment. All the complexity and nuance of our mental habits and emotional range are meant to live in service to our values, our aspirations, the things we really want.
So take a moment to ask yourself: What do I really want?
- What excites me and lights my fire?
- What are my guiding principles, my North Star?
- What are my dreams? Not the cliche once you talk about at cocktail parties, but the scary ones, the ones that matter so much you won’t even admit them to yourself most of the time?
Ultimately, mental health is about more than relief of pain and suffering, as important as those are. It’s about flourishing, living out your potential.
As William James, the Godfather of modern psychology once said:
There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man’s lack of faith in his true Self. — William James
All you need to know
Building emotional intelligence means learning to see and understand your emotional life as it really is, with clarity and confidence.
The next time you’re upset, take a breath, hit the pause button, and ask yourself four questions:
What are the facts?
What’s my emotional dashboard telling me?
What’s my story?
What do I really want?