Most people think about emotional intelligence as a skill, something you can build and train with practice.
And while this is partly true, there’s a deeper truth about emotional intelligence that most of us miss:
Improving your emotional intelligence is often about what you do less of, not more of.
As a psychologist, I work with many people who look and act as though they don’t have much emotional intelligence:
- They blame other people for all their problems
- They keep themselves trapped in cycles of stress and anxiety
- They self-sabotage as soon as they start to make progress
But it’s my experience that most people don’t actually lack the capacity for emotional intelligence and self-awareness. In fact, I think most people already have a high degree of emotional intelligence.
But they’re held back from using their innate emotional intelligence by a collection of bad habits that get in the way.
If you’d like to become more emotionally intelligent, learn to identify these habits in your own life, and work to eliminate them. I think you’ll find that your natural emotional intelligence is not far behind.
1. Criticizing Others
Criticizing others is often an unconscious defense mechanism to alleviate our own insecurities.
We’re all critical sometimes. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing—to think carefully and critically about the world around us is a vital skill. It helps us navigate the world and our relationships in an objective way.
But too much criticism—especially the habit of being critical of others—can lead to the opposite of objectivity: it can make us narrow-minded and blind, especially to ourselves.
One of the reasons it’s so easy to slip into habitually criticizing others is that it makes us feel good:
- When you point out to yourself that someone else is dumb, you’re also implying that you’re smart. And that feels good.
- When you criticize someone else for being naive, what you’re really doing it telling yourself that you’re sophisticated. And that feels good.
- When you silently chuckle to yourself about how terrible someone’s fashion sense is, you’re telling yourself how refined your own taste is. And that feels good.
Helpful criticism is about making the world better. Unhelpful criticism is about making yourself feel better.
While being critical might temporarily make you feel good about yourself, it doesn’t work in the long-term—and it usually leads to making you feel worse about yourself.
On the other hand, emotionally intelligent and self-aware people understand that criticizing others is just a primitive defense mechanism. And that there are far better, more productive ways of dealing with our anxieties and insecurities.
Without knowing it, people who are constantly critical of others are really just trying to alleviate their own insecurities.
Understand that criticism of others is a waste of time and energy because it’s all time and energy that’s not getting invested in improving yourself and the world around you.
Criticism of others is a form of self-commendation. We think we make the picture hang straight on our wall by telling our neighbors that all his pictures are crooked.
― Fulton J. Sheen
2. Worrying About the Future
Worrying about the future means living in denial about the fundamentally uncertain nature of life.
As human beings, we crave order and certainty. And for good reason: Our ancestors who were better at making their lives a little less uncertain probably survived longer than those who didn’t. We’re biologically motivated to reduce uncertainty.
But there’s a big difference between taking reasonable steps to reduce uncertainty and being so terrified by it that we imagine we can eliminate it altogether.
And that’s what chronic worriers do. They’re so afraid of uncertainty and so unwilling to live with it, that they trick themselves into thinking they can make the future less uncertain—by thinking about it constantly!
Chronic worriers live under the illusion that thinking is always problem-solving and that planning always leads to greater levels of preparedness.
But neither of those are true.
Just because you’re thinking about a problem doesn’t mean you’re thinking about it productively.
And just because you’re planning—running through countless hypothetical future scenarios—doesn’t mean you’re any better equipped to handle them. Often, you’re just making yourself feel more prepared.
Worry gives you the illusion of certainty. But in the end, all it does is fragilize you.
Emotionally intelligent people understand that life is inherently uncertain. And they understand that it’s better to face up to this reality clear-eyed than to live in denial about it.
Because when you stop beating yourself down with all the stress and anxiety that comes with chronic worry, you’d be surprised how much energy and enthusiasm returns to your life.
When you stop insisting that the world act the way you want it to in the future, it becomes far easier to work with the world you’ve got in the present.
Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.
― Corrie Ten Boom
3. Ruminating on the Past
Ruminating on past mistakes is a misguided attempt at control.
Just like we humans crave order and certainty, we also crave control. We’re obsessed with the idea that, with enough effort and perseverance, we can do or achieve anything.
Of course, most people who get stuck ruminating endlessly on past mistakes and failures don’t actually believe that they can change the past. Instead, ruminating about the past gives them the illusion of control, however fleeting and temporary.
When you’ve done something bad or made a mistake in the past, you naturally feel guilt and regret. Chronic ruminators develop the unconscious habit of constantly replaying past mistakes because it ever-so-briefly gives them a feeling of power and control. And feeling in control helps distract from feeling helpless—which is what we really are when it comes to past mistakes.
In reality, no amount of rumination or analysis of your mast mistakes will change what happened. Which means helplessness and powerlessness are inevitable.
This is a hard fact of life that emotionally intelligent people not only understand, but accept.
If you want to move on with your life instead of staying stuck in the past, you must accept the past for what it is.
You must give up the choice to endlessly revisit it, no matter how much it distracts you from your real pain—the pain of helplessness.
We’re all helpless to some degree—often much more than we realize. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s just reality.
When in doubt, take action in the present instead of dwelling on the past. Do something useful, right now, no matter how small—and resist the temptation to replay yet another scene from your past.
Don’t give up control over your future by pretending you can control the past.
To think too much is a disease.
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
4. Maintaining Unrealistic Expectations
Unrealistic expectations are a misguided attempt to control other people.
Just like ruminating is an attempt to change the past and how we feel about it, maintaining unrealistic expectations is usually a subtle attempt to control other people.
Of course, most people with unrealistic expectations don’t see it that way. You probably see your expectations of others as a good thing: Having high expectations for people encourages them to grow and mature and become their best self!
Maybe, but this is still a subtle form of control. You have an idea for what another person in your life should be or do or accomplish and your expectation is your way of trying to make it happen.
But what does it mean, exactly, to maintain an unrealistic expectation?
Simply put, it means you spend time crafting stories in your head about what other people should do. And when they inevitably fail to live up to those standards, you reflexively compare reality to those expectations and feel frustrated and disappointed.
And how do you respond to this frustration and disappointment? By creating even stronger and more elaborate expectations, because it makes you feel good and in control.
Look, you care about the people in your life and want the best for them. And it pains you to see them hurting or struggling or suffering. Then, when you create a story in your mind about them succeeding and doing better (I.e. an expectation) you feel a little better.
The problem is, you can’t actually control other people, even for the better. Not nearly as much as you would like, anyway. Which means you create a constant vicious cycle of sky-high hopes and grave disappointments and frustrations.
What’s more, eventually your attempts at control begin to be felt by the people in your life and they become resentful. And if it goes on long enough, they may even act contrary to your expectations simply out of spite.
The solution is to let go of your expectations. Emotionally intelligent people don’t create stories about what they want for other people. And instead, they just try to be present for the person they are:
- Validate their current struggles instead of daydreaming about their future successes.
- Set real boundaries on their behavior instead of wishing for perfection.
- Meet them where they are instead of where you want them to be.
Hang on to your hopes but let go of your expectations.
He was swimming in a sea of other people’s expectations. Men had drowned in seas like that.
― Robert Jordan
All You Need to Know
If you want to increase your emotional intelligence, try approaching the problem backward: Instead of trying to improve your emotional intelligence skills, strive to identify and eliminate the habits that are interfering with your natural emotional intelligence in the first place. Emotionally intelligent people avoid these 4 habits at all costs:
Stop criticizing others.
Stop worrying about the future.
Stop ruminating on the past.
Stop expecting too much of others.