• Kayte Thomas

Let's talk about Emotional Intelligence

Today we’re going to talk about a continuation from last week’s topic. Last week we talked about connection and attachment and ways that focusing on these aspects can improve feelings of frustration and parenting strain, but I wanted to take a little time to go a little deeper into the concept of emotional intelligence and why it is so important. Emotional intelligence, sometimes called emotional quotient or EQ, is the ability to recognize and manage not only your own emotions, but to connect and empathize with the feelings that others may be experiencing as well. When we talk about intelligence, people commonly think about intelligence quotient or IQ, which is a measure of reasoning and problem-solving ability and is derived from standardized testing. The two concepts (EQ and IQ) are in many ways synergistic, but emotional intelligence isn’t measured by standardized testing and it also isn’t a static trait. It’s something that can be learned and developed over time! And in many ways, emotional intelligence is quite influential in overall life success.

There are several models to describe the components of emotional intelligence, but basically it is comprised of the ability to identify and self-regulate one’s own emotions, the ability to recognize and empathize with the feelings of others, and the ability to apply this knowledge to interpersonal and social skills in a manner that creates connection instead of disconnection. While there are no standardized tests to measure this, having a high EQ generally indicates the ability to withstand and provide constructive criticism, the capacity to self-assess and reflect on ways to make positive change, the tendency to consider how actions might affect others, to demonstrate self-restraint instead of emotional reactivity, to be responsible for your behaviour and responsive when others say that you’ve upset them. These are the people who act with integrity and are humble about their accomplishments and possess a healthy, well-grounded sense of self-esteem. Emotional intelligence has been correlated with positive outcomes in school performance, employment success, relationships, quality of life/satisfaction with life, and more.

With all of the benefits of developing a strong EQ, it is surprising that this isn’t always a focus in our learning objectives as a society. Think for a moment about your own upbringing – were you raised in a home where people regularly taught you how to identify what you were feeling, manage the emotion, and respond accordingly in a safe and healthy manner? Or, were there a set of rules and expectations which you were expected to follow “just because” and an expectation to behave appropriately all the time without much explanation of how to master these societal expectations? How many emotions did you talk about – a few basic ones such as anger, sadness, fear, and love….or were you given a plethora of emotion words to utilize in your vocabulary? Think as well about the school setting. Did you have a classroom setting where there were opportunities and encouragement to reflect on your feelings and interactions with others in a safe environment where the focus was on learning and growth? Or, were there more uniform expectations of behaviour for everyone and shame-based consequences for having difficulty self-regulating? As a society, we tend to just “expect” children to know how to behave without teaching a lot of fundamental skills behind the actual how to do so, and that is problematic because the opportunity to fully grasp these skills is then lost. It is that teaching of and practice with recognizing emotions that develops emotional intelligence.

The wonderful news about this is that EQ is a skill, and like all skills it can improve with repeated use. Additionally, this can be learned at any age so if you grew up in a more restrictive environment with less focus on understanding and expressing emotion, this is still something you can start learning about today. And, if you already have a fairly well developed EQ, the concepts given today might still be of benefit.

One tool that I LOVE for developing emotional intelligence is called an emotion wheel. This is the particular one that I like and tend to use with others, but there are many versions available online. To use it, start in the center of the wheel and identify the base emotion you’re feeling. Then, identify the emotion in the second ring from the options that emotion branches out to. From there, there will be two choices for the more specific emotion you are feeling in the third ring. Often I find that people are only able to identify feelings that are more base emotions because this is all that has been taught to them! So, let’s take a scenario and start in the center of the wheel and pick the emotion you’re feeling for practice. Let’s imagine that you had a great day at work because you received a promotion. Hooray! You identify that you are feeling happy. Great. But the goal of using an emotion wheel is to identify the emotion you’re feeling in the outer ring of the wheel, not the one in the center. Locate “happy” on the emotion wheel. From there, you’ll see that it branches out into nine different emotions. Since you received a promotion, you identify that you are feeling proud. Good! But we still need to get to that outer ring. From “proud”, you’ll see that there are only two options of emotion choices – confident and successful. You decided that you’re feeling pretty successful today. Congratulations! Think for a moment about the difference in communication when you say you’re feeling “happy” vs. “successful” – there is an entirely different connotation.

By using the emotion wheel, you have access to one hundred and thirty (130!!) different emotions instead of just the seven commonly identified ones in the center. Just being able to recognize and communicate emotions opens up a whole lot of possibilities when having conversations with others, or even just in how you conceptualize things for yourself. Humans feel a wide range of emotions, and just because someone can’t express what feeling they are having doesn’t negate the fact that they are having it. Being able to accurate communicate that feeling really matters, especially in interpersonal relationships because if someone says “I’m sad” (base emotion) but what they really mean is “I’m feeling powerless” (third ring emotion), they are going to feel very frustrated if their friend tries to make them laugh for example instead of helping to problem solve ways to feel empowered. See the difference? Effectively identifying and communicating emotions can save a whole lot of time and can improve feelings of connection. And when you’re listening to others, being able to identify and appropriately respond to the emotion they are expressing matters too.

My one complaint with the wheel above is that is doesn’t have a whole lot of options for expressing the feeling of love. There is a second wheel that I really like which does a great job of that as well. Check out each of these wheels and figure out which one you like best. My recommendation is to print them out and keep them somewhere central in the home, for instance on the fridge or even taped to a mirror, so that you can see it daily and reference is regularly. Give it a try for two weeks and see how you feel when you devote time to consciously assessing and communicating your feelings.

What about younger children though? Well, as you might imagine I have a go-to option for younger ages as well! One such option that I really like is something called a Time-In Toolkit. Full disclosure: I have this in my home because I think it’s just that wonderful. It’s appropriate for toddlers on up and does a great job of teaching emotional intelligence. This kit removes shame from discipline and focuses on emotion identification, self-regulation, and normalizes a wide variety of feelings. It is colour coded and has pictures to help even the youngest of EQ learners. Note: I don’t receive any commission for recommending this product, I just like it a whole lot and have yet to find a comparable tool for young children.

I cannot stress the importance of emotional intelligence strongly enough. It is my belief that many of the problems we see today both in personal lives and on a larger social scale stem from a lack of EQ. Given that we don’t focus on this frequently as a society and that there are sometimes strong messages that talking about emotions is “weak” (ahem: toxic masculinity and stoicism are really not beneficial folks), learning how to express emotions can actually be a really brave way of bringing about wonderful, positive change in your life and those around you. Not expressing emotions is tied to feelings of shame, increased hostility, lower life satisfaction, and even correlates with increased risk of depression, violent crime, and certain health problems such as heart disease. Whoa!

So spend a little time developing your own emotional intelligence and helping your little ones learn about this concept as well. I promise the benefits are worth it! Be sure to let me know if you notice an improvement after trying some of these strategies too.


© 2020 by Kayte Thomas, MSW, LCSW.