Deepening Our Emotional Intelligence
Just simply living evokes emotions, and we experience one emotion or another every single moment of the day. We register delight in watching a sunrise, frustration at getting stalled in gridlock traffic, resentment when a coworker takes credit for an idea we came up with first, terror for the future when a spouse or a child gets a life-threatening diagnosis. Whether we like having these emotions or not, whether we trust them or know what to do with them or not, our feelings constantly filter our perceptions and guide (or sometimes misguide) our responses o all of our experiences. Thus they play an integral role in how well or poorly we bounce back from any adversity. Learning to manage our feelings, rather than letting them hijack us or shut us down, is the deepening of emotional intelligence that leads to resilience
It’s very normal to be upset with yourself for even having emotions or not knowing how to manage them very well. Today, however, we can integrate data from 25 years of neuroscience research and 25 years of and behavioral science research to revolutionize our thinking about what feelings are and how we can work with them. Here are some of the latest discoveries most relevant to strengthening our resilience.
1. Emotions are signals to act.
Emotions are sensations flowing up from the body to alert the brain to notice and pay attention to something. Whether it’s the first shy glimmer of falling in love or the deep heartache of losing someone you love, the emotion itself is a signal saying “Pay attention! Something important is happening here!”
Every emotion, even the ones we deem negative, disturbing, or destructive, is also a signal to move. The very word emotion is from the Latin emovere, meaning to move or to act. We’re learning that all emotions have adaptive action tendencies. Anger may signal you to protest an injustice, a betrayal, or the sting of a humiliation; it is often the first catalyst that lifts a person out of shame or depression. Sadness signals you to reach out to others for comfort and support, or to comfort and support others. Fear signals you to move away from danger or toxicity. Guilt, when it leads to healthy remorse, may lead you to make repairs and amends. Joy can spark the urge to play, to push the limits and be creative. Interest can spark the urge to explore, take in new information and experiences, and expand the sense of self in the process. Laughter breathes some space into grief. Contentment creates the urge to savor your current life circumstances, even when less than ideal. Your emotions are the catalysts of every move you make and thus are intricately woven into the fabric of your resilience.
2. Managing your emotions
Through guidance from the prefrontal cortex, your CEO of resilience, you skillfully read and manage the signals of your emotions and decide what action to take. Managing the entire range of your emotional landscape, from slight whiffs of feelings to a full-on emotional cascade, is one of the most important functions of your prefrontal cortex, a task very similar to regulating your nervous system. When the self-regulating capacity of your brain is functioning well, you can inhabit or quickly recover a felt sense of centeredness, ease, and well-being. From there you can perceive clearly what’s triggering your emotions and discern what a wise response to those triggers would be, thus accessing a wellspring of resilience.
We know it’s not resilient to be hijacked by floods of emotions: you can’t think straight, and your responses may be useless or harmful. And it’s not resilient to try to repress or split off your emotions either. For one thing, it takes an enormous amount of physical and psychological energy to do that, energy you would be better off using to respond to the situation or to other people wisely. Secondly, when you try to repress or split off any specific emotion (anger, grief, and shame are common targets) you can wind up damping down all of your emotions, even the helpful ones. You can go flat in your being and lose the motivation to do anything at all. So the task is to manage your emotions rather than be hijacked or shut down by them.
3. Emotional memories.
It’s often difficult to tell whether our emotional responses are based on present or past events. Emotional memories, especially those formed in early childhood, can be deeply buried in implicit (unconscious) memory. When these implicit emotional memories come up into conscious awareness “out of the blue” they carry no time stamp. There’s no sense that they are a memory from these emotions are from the past. These emotions feel completely real, and often you react as though you have to deal with them right now.
You may give up at the first sign of failure, sometimes rationalizing that you didn’t really want that job or friendship anyway. You may find yourself getting tense and irritated, then blowing your top at the slightest additional provocation, even when you really do know better. You may hang back, hesitant to embark on the new adventure you want for yourself, not because you’re shy but because deep down you believe you’re unworthy and don’t want anyone else to find out.
You may not even consciously know why you’re behaving the way you’re behaving. You just are, even if consciously you know that you want to – and know how to – act differently. There can be layers and layers of implicit memories stored in our brains, making us react in the present to some hurt or wrong from the past.
4. Negativity bias
In order to survive, as individuals and as a species, our human brain has a built-in negativity bias, evolved over millions of years, that leads us to pay more attention to negative and dangerous experiences than to positive and safe ones. You are more likely to pay attention to and store memories of negative experiences and negative emotions – irritation, loneliness, embarrassment – than positive ones – awe, satisfaction, tranquility. As my friend and colleague Rick Hanson puts it, “We have Velcro for the negative, Teflon for the positive.”
This tendency to pay more attention to the negative than the positive, originally hard-wired into your brain to protect you from physical danger, now serves to protect you from social and emotional danger: the threat of being disconnected from those you depend on for survival and well-being. This is why you are likely to pay more attention to the one negative comment made by your boss in a meeting or your lover at the dinner table than you will to the nineteen positive comments made to you that same day. The brain is a social brain, and you a are social being. This negativity bias is a permanent feature of your brain.
What you can do is learn to work with or work around this bias by managing surges of negative emotions (finding the up side of their dark side) and by intentionally cultivating positive emotions. We practice kindness, gratitude, generosity, delight, and awe not just to feel better but to do better. Positive emotions shift the brain out of the contraction and reactivity of the negativity bias into the receptivity and openness that increase your response flexibility. The direct measurable outcome of these practices is resilience.
5. Emotional contagion
Through emotional contagion, we pick up the emotional signals of other people (and even pets) very easily when we’re not defensively guarding against them. This is the neurological basis of empathy. Some evolutionary psychologists believe it was the need to empathize and communicate accurately with fellow members of our tribe tens of thousands of years ago that drove the development of language and thus the evolution of the higher (conscious) cortex of the human brain we have today. We can learn to develop a strong theory of mind to help us relate to our fellow human beings, intimately or socially, with healthy boundaries.
This month’s Resources for Recovering Resilience posts will offer many validated and practical tools to strengthen – and celebrate – your emotional intelligence.