How many of you grew up encouraged to freely express your emotions when you were a child? What happened when you got angry? Or sad? Growing up in a family where the whole spectrum of emotions was accepted, encouraged, and explored is rare, yet it’s one way that children develop emotional intelligence. Most of us grew up with a double standard where it wasn’t okay for us to express our challenging emotions, yet our parents sometimes reacted out of tiredness or stress.
Do you remember seeing your mother cry when you were young? I do. I remember asking my mom what was wrong as she sobbed—her reply? “Nothing!” Clearly, that was untrue. It was one of those double messages.
How Parental Responses Impact the Development of Emotional Intelligence
The parental responses that deliver double messages like my mom’s above are uncomfortable for children. This seemingly harmless habit of cloaking our feelings and being dishonest as parents creates a splinter in our children’s emotional well-being because there’s a mismatch between what they sense and what they’re told.
Parental responses are one crucial way we teach children about their emotions. Through our feedback, children can learn to cultivate greater awareness and empathy for others—or not. The key is to help children grow awareness and care without making them responsible for others’ feelings.
If you’re a people-pleaser, one of the things you’re probably good at is taking responsibility for other peoples’ emotional well-being. But what happens with your emotions? Are they postponed? Ignored? Disowned by putting on a happy face regardless of how you’re feeling?
A part of emotional intelligence is knowing what we require to be at our best and then taking responsibility for our needs. However, suppose we did not have caregivers who showed up for us daily, empathized with us, or helped us draw helpful and accurate conclusions about our experiences. In that case, we are often left with an empty toolbox as adults.
Modeling Emotional Intelligence
So, what would it look like if your parent taught and modeled emotional intelligence for you, and why is the difference critical? The distinction may help highlight why navigating emotions are difficult for many adults.
When I was a young mother, I had just arrived home weary from conducting a 10-day executive training that required a long flight. A messy house greeted me, with kids immediately clamoring for my attention. As tears slid down my face, my 12-year-old son asked me what was wrong. Unlike my mother, I responded candidly, “I don’t feel supported.” He very caringly asked, “What does support look like to you, Mom?”
Guess what? I couldn’t answer him.
I knew what I didn’t want (i.e., a messy home), but I could not explain what I needed to feel supported. This inability to understand what I needed was because I spent my entire life supporting and comforting others as an expert people-pleaser.
It took me a couple of weeks before I rallied my family together. Pausing to consider my needs allowed me to design how I wanted to talk to my family. First, I made it clear that it was my job to regulate my emotions and ask for what I needed, not theirs. Then I offered some specific suggestions that would make a difference, such as acknowledging my return with a hug, helping me unpack my car after a long trip, picking flowers to welcome me, and making sure we had a moderately tidy house. These specific actions allowed my family to consciously support me through my love languages.
If you didn’t have emotionally healthy role models growing up; if you are a people-pleaser; if you’re struggling with being too emotional, have anxiety, or are seeking greater emotional resiliency in this crazy time, growing emotional intelligence is imperative.
Do You Use Feeling Stuffers?
Let’s first explore unhealthy and common ways we stuff emotions and then new ways of interacting with them.
Whenever we attempt to shut down our emotions or the emotional expression of another person, we inhibit open and safe communication, and we use a feeling stuffer. When we suppress our emotions, it not only denies us important information about ourselves but also stifles the flow of energy and our ability to show up in relationships authentically.
Here are some feeling stuffers. See if you recognize any of them.
- Comparing ourselves to others
- Solving the problem for someone without being asked
- Avoiding feelings by emotional eating, drinking, or working
One of the contributing factors of the modern-day anxiety epidemic is not feeling. We push feelings away, thinking we should be able to handle life’s challenges without “negative” emotions. So, we use feeling stuffers on ourselves and others, or we try to make each other feel better instead of allowing stronger emotions to be felt and expressed.
For instance, just yesterday, I was working with a married couple, and the husband’s anger bubbled up unexpectedly; his wife immediately put the kibosh on his anger by saying, “I need you to calm down.” He wasn’t directing his anger at her or doing anything inappropriate; she was just uncomfortable with the emotion of anger.
Feeling Stuffers versus Feeling Encouragers
Feelings are meant to be felt; they are simply energy in motion. Emotions are critical intel that guide us to take wise action and move forward in positive and healthy ways. Feelings are meant to teach us. Silvan Tomkins, a research psychologist who developed the affect theory, states that there are nine innate emotions shown in various facial expressions. Everyone is born with these preprogrammed into their facial muscles. This human attribute is true for all nationalities and cultures. Tomkins believes that emotions or feelings are our biological motivators, our most fundamental powers with their purpose to safeguard our basic needs. When a need is threatened, our emotional energy signals us to take action so that we can regain our equilibrium.
Feeling stuffers stop the flow of emotions. A feeling encourager, on the other hand, is any action or response that nurtures emotional development, emotional regulation, and the healthy expression of feelings.
Here are some feeling encouragers.
- Reflective or attentive listening
- Pausing for self-soothing and introspection
- Being curious
- Acceptance without judgment or censure
- Inviting the expression of emotions
- Validating ours or another’s feelings
- Affirming feelings and unique experiences—and the right to have them!
The first way to improve emotional intelligence is to allow yourself to feel. Stop ignoring your biological motivators. When we feel, we integrate our experiences and derive meaning from our lives.
Isn’t it time to give yourself permission to feel?
Are you ready to develop inner peace by listening to your personal GPS?
Emotions help us assimilate and bring meaning to our experiences—why would we want to ignore or stop them? Emotions guide us to the right action. When we rely too much on external information without listening to our feelings or checking our internal gut, we deny ourselves vital information. When we miss out on this crucial information, we can make short-sighted decisions or move to rash judgment.
Trust and connection are built through resonance—when someone feels something and another person is truly present to their emotion without judgment, there is a connection that creates a bond of understanding. When we apply compassion to our own feelings, the intensity dissipates, the static calms, and clarity surfaces. Clarity is a power that protects us from acting against our values and best interest. When strong emotions settle, we are much more likely to be able to be empathetic for others as well.
EQ and Life Hacks: How to Improve Emotional Intelligence
So how do you replace feeling stuffers with feeling encouragers and begin to build emotional fitness? Here are some simple life hacks to help improve your emotional intelligence.
LIFE HACK 1
Raise your self-awareness.
The first step in all personal change and building emotional intelligence is to heighten your awareness of your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and the patterns that no longer serve you. Pay attention. Observe yourself without judgment. Just take note. Through this increased awareness, you’ll make connections that will assist you in taking actions to care for yourself and cultivate inner peace.
LIFE HACK 2
Reserve time to listen to your feelings.
Your emotions contain information that leads you to the right action. By listening to emotions as if they’re vital data, you can then self-correct. For instance, if you’re feeling resentment, that emotion may be signaling that you sacrificed your needs in some way. Perhaps you’re over-giving or are in a one-sided relationship that doesn’t nurture you. Feeling resentful could tell you to advocate for yourself, set a boundary to care for yourself better, and communicate what you need.
LIFE HACK 3
Compassionately accept whatever you feel.
Feelings are there to guide us. Many people judge themselves whenever they feel emotions like guilt, anger, or jealousy. However, every emotion has a purpose, and every emotion is legitimate. There are no bad emotions, only an invitation to heal and better care for ourselves and our relationships. Practice self-compassion if you’re struggling with acceptance. As Jack Kornfield has said, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”
LIFE HACK 4
Ask yourself what you need to feel better.
Once we identify and feel our emotions, it’s time to act. Remember, they are guiding you to your True North, your inner peace. So, ask yourself, “What action do I need to take to feel better?” A simple formula for feeling better.
LIFE HACK 5
Take action to feel better, no matter how small.
When you ask yourself what you need to feel better, perhaps you’ll hear: “Have a conversation with your friend and let her know how she hurt your feelings.” If you don’t feel ready, take a baby step such as journaling what you would say when you have that conversation. If you are anxious about her reaction to you for sharing your feelings, call to mind ways your friend has understood you in the past. Regardless of how small, take action toward inner peace. And then take another.
Small Steps Equal Big Shifts
Small acts of self-care can create big shifts in our well-being. Whatever you discover about yourself, take a step toward a better version of yourself and an enhanced life or relationship. Emotional fitness is making many small decisions to stretch and exercise our better, best self.
If you’d like support from an emotional fitness coach, contact us at 406-577-2100 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.