Emotional intelligence is my specialty, but it wasn’t always. As a young adult, I was angry all the time. Every day I had frequent meltdowns—yes, way too emotional with no ability to regulate my emotions. I felt continually jerked around by life’s challenges and other people’s expectations of me. As a teen, I was severely depressed; even when I was functional, anxiety and a brutal inner critic were my constant companions. Learning emotional intelligence changed everything for me. It gave me the tools and the encouragement that I needed to heal and create inner peace. It’s why I am so passionate about imparting these skills to others.
Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence (or EQ) can be learned.
Think about that for a minute. Within that statement is power, the power to grow and change. Emotional intelligence isn’t dependent on a college degree, financial status, or talent. It doesn’t matter if you are overcoming a dysfunctional childhood, have a difficult temperament, or don’t know how to control your anger. Emotional intelligence skills will help in all areas of your life. When you master your emotions and inner landscape, you transform the quality of your life. And in the process, a bonus is rewiring your brain!
Change Your Brain, Change Your Life!
You may have already heard the expression “whatever fires together, wires together,” which refers to the neural pathways of our brains. The plasticity of the brain is what makes learning emotional intelligence so powerful. If you change one bad habit, the new behavior begins to influence all other pathways of the brain!
Yet, one of the reasons that change can be so challenging is because the brain requires consistent application and repetition of a new behavior before taking your efforts seriously.
The ways we’ve been thinking, feeling, and behaving for decades have formed strong neural connections and built complex highways of habit. Redirecting this momentum to reconstructing new neural pathways demands focus, tenacity, and consistency. Think of it like road construction: renovation done on the well-traveled Interstate 90 entering Seattle is much harder, demands more planning, and takes considerably more time than changing a two-lane highway in Montana. The longer and stronger the habit (or neural network), the greater the challenge to change.
Related reading: “Mini-Habits to Support Your Growth and Success.”
Before we dig into the steps of change, there’s an attitude that needs to be addressed. There are still many people (maybe you’re one of them) who adamantly believe that people simply can’t change. I encounter this belief continually in my work with individuals, couples, and organizations.
Recently, I had a CEO flat out tell me that he didn’t think his General Manager (GM) could change. When I asked why he hired me then, he replied: “I’m hoping you prove me wrong because I get several complaints a day.” A year later, he admitted that it’d been months since the last complaint; in fact, he’d gotten glowing reports of effectiveness and teamwork about his GM. People CAN change, and the brain research supports this conclusion—you just need to know how to reconstruct that Seattle highway in your brain!
Related reading: “How Experience Changes Brain Plasticity.”
5 Keys to Learning Emotional Intelligence
Think of yourself as the engineer redesigning the Seattle interstate. It could be an overwhelming project, right? So, let’s break down the process of change into manageable pieces so it feels achievable. There are specific keys to learning emotional intelligence that help build momentum and accelerate transformation.
The first thing to cultivate is the spirit of possibility. If you don’t believe it’s possible to change, it’s unlikely that you will. Opening your mind to new ways of thinking brings us to the first action to speed up change.
KEY 1: Focus on a Growth Mindset Instead of a Fixed Mindset
If we’re closed-minded, it’s like shutting the door on a new friend. If we’re uncomfortable, it’s primarily because trust hasn’t been established. Yet, that new acquaintance could become a lifelong friend if we keep the door open long enough. And the truth is the most valuable friend of all.
Although it may be understandable to protect ourselves when something contradicts what we believe, it’s also what keeps us stuck. What we think we know is a comfort zone and feels safe to the brain. However, there is no real change without leaving your comfort zone.
So, are you ready to get started? Are you serious about change? Or will you be a fair-weather friend to your own personal transformation?
A common belief of a fixed mindset is that “you either have it, or you don’t.” However, a growth mindset believes that effort and focus are game-changers.
We need an attitude of growth when seeking change. Effective change is a balance between holding ourselves responsible for fulfilling what’s important to us with the support of knowledge, skills, and practice that make permanent change possible.
Quick look: “Summary of Fixed and Growth Mindset.”
Deep dive: “A Fixed Mindset Versus a Growth Mindset.”
KEY 2: Hone Your Observational Skills
An important part of learning and growing is observing our behavior and assessing what we want to do differently. For instance, maybe you snapped at a co-worker yesterday and regret it. Self-awareness is recognizing that we’ve made a misstep, and self-observation is an essential component of personal growth. Observation is about rising above our unconscious behaviors and noticing ourselves with a loving detachment; you’re monitoring yourself without commentary.
KEY 3: Replace Judgment with Self-Compassion
One of the greatest obstacles of transformation is our judgment of ourselves and our past mistakes. Human beings tend to expect themselves to do something without the knowledge or skills to be successful. Do these mind traps sound familiar?
Examples of Judgment and the Inner Critic:
- “I should have thought to…” or “I should have known better!”
- “I should spend more time with my kids,” or “I shouldn’t work so much.”
- “I have to lose this weight,” or “I’m tired of being overweight; why am I so undisciplined?”
- “I can’t believe I acted so poorly in that situation.”
- “Wow, how stupid could I be!”
- “I shouldn’t have trusted them.”
Negative mental thought patterns are exhausting and discouraging. When the above mental chatter occurs, the negativity often creates feelings of sadness, shame, guilt, or disgust. However, this type of self-talk can become so familiar that we hardly notice it. Then, the unconscious patterning keeps us stuck. We can begin to feel like we can’t do anything right, even though it’s only our thoughts making us feel that way. And thoughts aren’t facts. Do we actually think that if we make ourselves feel really, really bad, we’ll act differently? Instead, we train our minds to continually express harsh self-criticism, which generates anxiety. For relief, we divert our attention elsewhere, frequently in unhealthy ways.
What if your self-talk was supportive, encouraging, and compassionate? What a difference that could make! If you think it’s too good to be true or impossible, you’re not alone! This skepticism is what I frequently hear when I first begin coaching a client. They simply don’t believe it’s possible to replace their self-criticism with self-acceptance and compassion—but it is!
Remember how I told you earlier that you’d need to keep an open mind? Now’s one of those times.
Taking the thought patterns listed above, let’s compare them to an internal experience of compassion. How do these examples feel differently to you?
Examples of Self-Compassion:
- “It looks like I decided too quickly. How could I have thought that decision through better?”
- “I’ve been busy and distracted lately. I’m going to rearrange my schedule to spend quality time with my children.”
- “It was a big push to get my work promotion, but now it’s time to start up at the gym again.”
- “This extra weight doesn’t feel good to me. What is one action I can take to feel better? Maybe I could take a salad to work instead of grabbing fast food.”
- “Wow, I must have felt pretty hurt to act as I did. How can I take care of myself better in the future?”
- “My friendship is important to me; I need to make a sincere and empathetic apology."
- “My friend hurt my feelings. I need to let her know how I felt to restore trust.”
Practicing self-compassion not only fosters inner peace, but an environment that is spacious, encouraging, and ideal for change. When we are compassionate with ourselves, our internal response cultivates mindfulness and accountability to be our better selves. Judgment disempowers; compassion compels us to make things right.
Deep dive: “How to Improve Emotional Intelligence in 3 Simple Steps.”
KEY 4: Get Curious About Yourself
Increased self-awareness is essential. However, it’s not enough to simply observe your behavior. Get curious about what was going on with yourself, so you’re better equipped next time. For example, if you snapped at a co-worker, were you worried about finishing a project on time? Or afraid of disapproval from a peer, frustrated by an interruption, or was your reaction totally unrelated to work? Maybe you left a sick child at home with your partner, and you’re feeling a little guilty, so you took it out on your co-worker. Or perhaps you came to work after an argument with your partner, and it’s still stirring anger and resentment inside you.
Explore and discover the real reasons for your behavior so that you can learn from your mistakes. Figure out what unmet need was trying to communicate through your or another’s behavior. Was your behavior driven by a need to be heard, valued, or respected? What did you need that, if fulfilled, would allow you to be a better version of yourself?
KEY 5: Take Practical Actions to Change
As awareness increases, we can make more conscious choices about how we want to act in the future. New actions equal new interactions with life that ultimately result in enhanced relationships and living.
When we embark on a new path and attempt to change, we don’t have all the answers, and we’re going to make mistakes. Even after we set our goals and integrate changes for the better, we can default to the old ways occasionally, so we need to be compassionate with ourselves. Recognizing that sporadic backward steps are a natural part of growth helps to keep us on track.
Persevere—your commitment to change will reward you!
If you’d like support and customized keys to your personal transformation or would like to learn more about emotional intelligence, contact us at email@example.com.
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