Why Emotional Intelligence Is Overrated

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard Feynman

“You make the road by walking.” — Antonio Machado

From preschool teachers and celebrities to football coaches and CEOs, it’s hard to find anyone these days who isn’t excited to talk about the importance of emotional intelligence.

But I’d like to throw a little cold water on the emotional intelligence hype.

Maybe that sounds strange coming from a psychologist, especially one who frequently writes about the importance of thinking clearly about our emotions. But emotional intelligence is only one factor influencing your emotional health. And it’s far too easy to sink all your time, energy, and resources into understanding your emotions, and as a result, have little left over for the other demands of emotional health—many of which are ultimately more important.

But before we dive into my argument, let’s take a quick minute to define our terms…

What Is Emotional Intelligence, Exactly?

While there’s no official definition of emotional intelligence, a pretty workable definition—and one I’ve found most other psychologists and mental health professionals seem to more or less agree with—goes like this:

Emotional intelligence means understanding how emotions work and how to work with them in a healthy way.

For example, someone with high emotional intelligence understands that emotions are not good or bad. Because we don’t have direct control over our emotions, it doesn’t make any sense to describe them as moral phenomena. Like the weather, you may or may not enjoy a particular emotion, but that doesn’t make it morally good or bad. This matters because if you think about emotions morally, you’re likely to start treating them that way—criticizing yourself for feeling sad, for example, or judging someone else for feeling anxious. And you don’t have to be an emotional genius to see how that’s not doing your emotional health any favors 🙂

I should also mention that when we say emotional intelligence involves understanding how emotions work, that implies a reasonable understanding of other related phenomena like thoughts, belief, expectations, body sensations, behaviors, desires, goals, values, etc.

For example: Many people confuse anxiety (an emotion) with worrying (a mental behavior). Specifically, they think of anxiety as something they should be able to stop doing (I need to get a grip and stop feeling so anxious!) and worry as an inevitable force that makes them afraid (But I just get so worried…). But if you spend all your energy trying to control something you can’t control (anxiety), you’re wasting energy that could have been spent controlling something you can (the habit of worrying).

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that emotional intelligence is a form of understanding. But understanding doesn’t equal ability. You can understand, for example, that worry causes anxiety. But the ability to feel less anxious by letting go of worry is a skill. And just because you understand the importance of a skill doesn’t make you good at it.

Just like memorizing recipes doesn’t make you a chef, understanding how emotions work doesn’t make you skilled at working with them.

Obviously, there’s quite a bit to this concept of emotional intelligence. And I don’t at all want to suggest that it’s not important. Because overrated does not mean unimportant.

The question is not, Is emotional intelligence important or not? Of course it is!

The better question is: How important is the pursuit of emotional intelligence relative to other investments I could make into my emotional health?

Because like all investments, investing in your emotional intelligence has opportunity costs: All the time, energy, and resources you spend learning about and understanding your emotions is not being invested into other avenues for emotional health, many of which will give you a better return on that investment.

But what could be more important for my emotional health than emotional intelligence and understanding my emotions better?!

I can think of at least three things…

1. Physical Health

This should go without saying, but…

Your brain is part of your body. And you can’t expect your brain to function well if you don’t take care of your body.

As a psychologist, I saw so many people who wanted to spend weeks, months—sometimes years!—exploring the nuances of, for example, attachment theory and how their parents’ unaffectionate personalities contributed to their present day depression. But for the life of me, I could not get them to seriously consider, much less address, how their diet and food choices might be impact their emotional health.

Or take the folks who were convinced that the only way to address their chronic anxiety was to work through some unresolved trauma… At at the same time, procrastinated for years on getting started with a consistent exercise regimen.

Of course, it’s understandable that people think this way because my profession has spent 100+ years teaching people that simply talking about and understanding their emotions will (somehow) alleviate all their emotional problems.

But people are not disembodied brains. And our emotional health is utterly dependent on our physical health.

You’re putting the cart before the horse if you’re trying to understand your emotions better without working hard to take care of your body.

Of course, it’s true that the relationship between physical and emotional health is a two-way street—it is often harder to improve your physical health if you’re also struggling with your emotional health—but that shouldn’t be an excuse to avoid investing in your physical health at all.

Often it only takes a series of very small but consistently implemented changes to diet, exercise, and sleep, to see immediate benefits to your emotional health and wellbeing.

So if you’re trying to improve your emotional intelligence but not doing at least the minimum to maintain good physical health, why is that?

Is it really because your lack of emotional intelligence is preventing you from eating well or exercising consistently? For most people, I seriously doubt it.

Instead, could it be that—if you’re being brutally honest with yourself—working on emotional intelligence feels more interesting, and frankly, like less work than consistently investing in your physical health?

We all procrastinate and avoid things we find unpleasant. But if you’re using “working on my emotional intelligence” as a way to avoid working on your physical health, it will ultimately be a net-negative for your emotional health.

2. Social Health

Human beings are social animals. And no matter how you’re wired—introvert/extrovert, shy/gregarious, warm/prickly—that doesn’t change the fact that, for better or for worse, the quality of your relationships is an enormous factor in your emotional health and wellbeing.

For example: You can read all the self-help books there are on how to be more confident and less insecure in your relationships. But if you aren’t willing to be honest with your partner about what you really want and need —and set boundaries on the things you don’t want—you’re going to stay insecure. In other words, you must be willing to be assertive if you want healthy, satisfying relationships. And if you struggle with assertiveness, chances are it’s not more insights that you need, it’s just practice. Like any skill in life, it requires a bit of understanding and whole lot of work.

Another example: You can spend years in therapy processing your fears of commitment or abandonment issues. But if you don’t have any models in your life for what a healthy relationship actually looks like it’s unlikely that any insights your therapist can give you will change your tendency to get romantically involved with, say, emotionally immature people. The broader point here is that if your current social environment isn’t working for you, you must be willing to change it—often dramatically. As the saying goes: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”

But it’s not just about remediating the negatives in your social life… So many people suffer emotionally because they simply lack high-quality relationships. And that absolutely does not mean that you need another therapist or coach, a better boyfriend/girlfriend, a more emotionally-available boss or mentor, etc…

The single best thing most people could do to improve their relationship health—and consequently, their emotional health—is to cultivate meaningful friendships.

And yes, I know there are a thousand and one completely understandable reasons why that’s hard for some people to do. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still very much worth the effort if your social health is not strong.

3. Emotional Fitness

Suppose you went to a gym because you wanted to lose some weight and get back in shape. You start talking to the head trainer and she tells you:

We’ve got this revolutionary approach to losing weight and building muscle. And the best part is that all you have to do is come into the gym one hour per week!

Now, if you heard something like that and your snake-oil salesman alarms didn’t start blaring immediately, that’s a problem! Because obviously an hour a week of work in the gym is nothing close to what’s required to make a significant change like losing weight and building muscle.

Here’s another example: Let’s say you wanted to learn to play the piano. You meet with a new instructor who tells you that, as long as you attend lessons with him once a week, you’ll be playing all your favorite jazz standards in no time. Again, you’d think they were quack! Because, obviously, getting good at piano requires a lot of practice on your own in between lessons.

One more example: Suppose you see an ad online for a “transformative” approach to language learning that promises you’ll be fluent in the language of your choice after just a few months of listening to their lessons…. You’d chalk it up to scammy internet marketing because, obviously, learning a new language takes a ton of practice in addition to whatever lessons you take.

From losing weight to learning piano, any significant undertaking in life requires a commitment to consistent practice. And emotional health is no different.

Or, put another way…

Emotional intelligence is necessary but not sufficient for emotional health.

Think about it:

  • If you want to feel more confident, you have to consistently make time to practice doing things that will build your confidence.
  • If you want to feel more calm and less anxious, you have to consistently practice letting go of worries.
  • If you want to wake up feeling rested and energized, you have to consistently implement good sleep habits.
  • If you want healthier self-esteem, you have to practice acknowledging and releasing negative self-talk.
  • If you want to feel less insecure in your relationships, you have practice tolerating difficult emotions instead of reassurance-seeking and people-pleasing.

I could go on, but hopefully I’ve illustrated my point.

It’s not what you know. It’s what you do consistently that matters.

Which is why emotional fitness is at least as important for emotional health as emotional intelligence.

Emotional fitness is a commitment to a set of habits and exercises that support and strengthen your emotional health and resilience.

In the same way that the body relies on good habits and exercise to stay fit and strong, our emotional health depends on healthy habits of mind.

Most people who struggle with their emotional health invest 99% of their energy into emotional intelligence (understanding their emotions) and virtually nothing into emotional fitness (consistent exercises that build emotional strength). Which is like someone who wants to run a marathon spending all their time reading books about marathon running but never actually going for a run!

There’s nothing wrong with insight, but it won’t help much without consistent action.

If you want to improve your emotional health, most of your time and energy should be spent building emotional strength, not chasing insights.

Here are a few examples:

  • Most people who struggle with chronic anxiety will get a lot more benefit from consistently practicing mindfulness training than they will processing the origins of their anxiety in childhood with their counselor.
  • Most people who struggle with feeling insecure in romantic relationships will get a lot more benefit from assertiveness practice than they will reading pop-psych books about attachment theory.
  • Most people who struggle with depression will get a lot more benefit from a behavioral activation routine or a self-compassion visualization practice than they will listening to podcasts and YouTube videos about depression.

To be clear, I’m not saying talking to a counselor about the origins of your anxiety isn’t important. Or that listening to podcasts about depression is bad.

I’m saying that for most people with emotional health struggles, they should spend proportionally more time on emotional fitness than emotional intelligence.

Rethinking Emotional Health

The field of mental health has been chasing insights for 150 years and our track record of using those insights to durably improve people’s emotional health is not great.

While there are obviously many factors at play here, it’s hard not to see our current approach to emotional health—which is dominated by professionally mediated insights and the casual application of superficial coping mechanisms—as a big part of the problem.

I believe we’d all be better off if we started thinking more holistically—and perhaps more traditionally—about what really improves emotional health.

Because while emotional intelligence is certainly a piece of that puzzle, it’s ultimately self-defeating to pursue that relatively small piece to the exclusion of other more significant pieces like physical health, social health, and emotional fitness—all of which is to say nothing of more structural influences on emotional health.

Learn More About Emotional Fitness

If the ideas in this essay resonate with you and you’d like to learn more about emotional fitness, here are a few good places to start:

  • Emotional Fitness Guide. A brief overview of what emotional fitness is, examples, key insights, and recommendations for basic emotional fitness exercises.
  • 3 Habits That Will Make You Emotionally Strong. An article in which I detail 3 core habits that will help you become more resilient by building a better relationship with your emotions.
  • 10 Tiny Habits that Will Improve Your Emotional Health. Brief tips for making small, consistent changes to your behavior that will result in mental strength and emotional resilience.
  • Mood Mastery. Twice a year, I take a small handful of students through a 5-week emotional fitness training program that teaches the core skills of emotional strength and resilience.


Add Yours

Nick, I really appreciate and respect your weekly blogs and often reference your thoughtful and helpful articles in courses I teach. However, I think you made a mistake this time, perhaps trying to gain readership by messing with semantics. If you review the CASEL definition of emotional intelligence, it refers to all of the aspects of understanding and managing emotions while practicing healthy physical and mental life skills and coping strategies you reference here. With all of the backlash from the political right attacking emotional intelligence as indoctrination, articles coming from someone as credible as you adds fuel to the fire. Very sad.

Appreciate the thoughts, Tom. I think it’s useful to differentiate understanding vs ability, hence the distinction between emotional intelligence and emotional fitness.

And semantics are everything… the words we use (or misuse) influence the way we think, feel, and ultimately, behave.

This is the most interesting, most helpful, most valuable, most empowering article that I have read in a long time. Thank you.

Nick, I would disagree with the statement anxiety is an emotion. I think it is a mask or a distraction or a suppression of emotion, whether it be loneliness or fear or sadness. (I am a psychiatrist, by the way). Otherwise, keep up the good work.

This is a must-read article for people who truly want to improve their well-being.
I love to know intellectually about emotions and trauma, etc. but the reality is that I keep feeling stuck!
So I should definitely put these tips into practice.
Thank you!

Nick, I really appreciate your candidness on the track record of the mental health field. Feels like our culture has become so “therapeutic” and honestly lazy in many ways – I include myself in this critique – that we have lost sight of some valuable, tried and true, ways of being in the world. Always enjoy your honest takes. Thanks!

Thanks, Christine. It’s human nature to conserve energy and seek out the comfortable path (which I think is what’s usually going on when we’re being lazy), and unfortunately a lot of well-intentioned advice enables this at the expense of more difficult, but ultimately more worthwhile, pursuits.

I love all of your articles! Very helpful in this overloaded world of coping strategies. I have one question – I’m trained in Transcendental mediation, and I’m wondering if that covers mindfulness training? Is coming back to the word/mantra same effectiveness as breath? Thank you!

Hey Britt, I like to distinguish between form and function re: mindfulness… In my experience, the specific form of mindfulness (e.g. TM vs vipassana) matter far less than the function or aim behind it — any of them can be used as short term coping mechanism and the result will likely be poor. On the other hand, most forms of mindfulness or meditation I’m aware of can be used as a regular exercise to promote a variety of healthy attitudes and skills.

Thanks for this article! I appreciate the holistic approach that acknowledges the importance of emotional intelligence, but places emotional fitness, physical health, and social health right there with it. I feel a bit called out personally…as someone who has experienced a lot of personal growth in therapy and spends a lot of time in self-analysis and reflection as a graduate student in social work, I am still often frustrated that knowing stuff doesn’t make me better at doing stuff. My emotional life is still messy! Thanks again for this article.

Hey Nick, I found your newsletter recently and I’m thoroughly enjoying your thoughts. I’ve been an education for 30 years. I do a lot with Social-Emotional principles and practices and was very interested to see where you were going. Your points were solid! (I had to go back and look at the CASEL model – and you were still right.) Keep it coming and I’ll keep reading and learning! Blessings …

I think it would be super helpful to add some stuff on the nervous system here, all of the Deb Dana info is incredible and then the somatic work we can do to calm our nervous system, along with everything you suggest. Once I understood the nervous system I was truely able to begin my healing

Some relationship are not in our hands due to situations we have to sacrifice but why we feels guilt for that. Whenever I try to forget and let the worry go down my heart never allows to do this. Can’t understand this innocency why lead to make emotionally weak each time and no way to come out of it. My nothing intelligence work here bro what can be done in this case if you help

Your articles, including this one, are always interesting and informative. I do wonder if “Western” thought contributes to an interpretation of all these subjects. The focus on the aspects of human interaction, I believe, can also include a person’s relationship with the World as a whole (with other conditions that affect our view of it). I will give just one example: Western thought focuses on the self (acquiring wealth and power at the expense of everything else). Whereas, understanding our place and importance within our environment (and I’m including all of the things physical that we are a part of) is very important as we try to understand behaviour. One needs to understand the what, why, where and when (these may sound trite, yet it is worth to see the value of each) in order to work through becoming a more cohesive element with our World. I tried to be clear on this concept, even though it can be very complex, and perhaps needs to be broken down to each element to fully understand (as you do in your insightful articles).

Thank you so much for this! I’ve been practicing emotional fitness to some degree but never linked what i did to “emotional fitness”. Definitely a new terminology for me. Thanks for making it so clear and defining the difference between the two. This is really brilliant. I’m enjoying my journey of growing emotionally much more now with all your guidance.

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