Can You Increase Your Emotional Intelligence?
“Have you tried paying attention to yourself?” my therapist questioned, interrupting me mid-conversation. I hadn’t given it much thought beforehand, so I didn’t have an answer when she asked. Sounding so simple, her question unlocked several bottled-up experiences I never had the space to share. I sat and pondered, realizing she was on to something.
In early 2018, life had become too much for me to handle. Working two part-time jobs while living in a new city as a full-time student had me feeling overwhelmed. My friends noticed I wasn’t around as much, and I was more agitated than usual. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I knew something was different.
I decided to begin therapy, uncertain of what would come of it but hopeful that someone could help me process what I was experiencing. Many sessions were spent discussing how I had possibly centered my life around caring for others while ignoring my needs. It was difficult to accept, but I had been neglecting myself.
Though unintentional, I had become so absorbed with life and all its stressors that I hadn’t paid much attention to my own body. I was aimlessly following routines just to make it through my days. Was I the main character in the story that was my life? Or was I living for everyone else without any care for my own well-being?
My therapist helped me realize I had been doing this for years—not paying attention to my emotional needs. Instead of speaking up for myself, I remained quiet when anything bothered me. I couldn’t put words to my feelings and lacked something essential for navigating my life and relationships.
I lacked what I now know is emotional intelligence (EI).
What is Emotional Intelligence?
When you think of emotional intelligence, you probably think of the ability to identify your emotions. While partly true, emotional intelligence is the practice of being aware, understanding, and in control of our feelings while also seeking to be empathetic toward the emotions of others.
According to a layered model created by psychologist Howard Gardner in 1983, emotional intelligence can be broken down into five smaller components:
Self Awareness: The ability to identify and put words to your emotions/feelings
Self Regulation: Being able to manage and maintain your emotions in social environments
Motivation: The ability to have discipline
Empathy: Being able to relate to the feelings/emotions of others
Social Skills: How we interact with others
As humans, we’re innately emotional people. From birth, babies cry to express their needs or discomfort to their guardians. These needs change as we grow and mature; we learn to express ourselves adequately and take social cues from our various environments.
Then, as we become older, specific components of our emotional intelligence become intuitive because we have healthy models. Other times, if we grow up in environments that don’t foster our emotions properly or we don’t see emotional intelligence being mirrored, this growth can become stagnant.
Ultimately though, it’s in our nature to express what we’re feeling and hold space for other people’s emotions. Psychologist Daniel Goleman describes humans as having two minds; the emotional and the rational. Goleman writes that while our two minds are in harmony most times, “when passions surge the balance tips: it is the emotional mind that captures the upper hand.”
Simply put: Nurturing emotional intelligence means creating space for clearer vision. While we were once in the dark about who we are, as we become more knowledgeable our life becomes easier to understand and manage. When we grow in emotional intelligence, we welcome more spaces and environments that cater to our needs and desires. This also means we can reject anything or anyone that doesn’t align with what we want for ourselves.
Understanding our emotions creates the foundation for building healthy platonic and romantic relationships, as it helps set boundaries for how we are treated and even how we extend ourselves to others.
That said, growing in emotional intelligence can be challenging. If you have difficulty in one or more components of emotional intelligence, it can impact your confidence and your authenticity in social settings.
But don’t worry; regulating our own emotions and being mindful of others is a continuous process that can be practiced. Here are a few practical ways emotional intelligence can be increased:
How Can We Become More Emotionally Intelligent?
Self-awareness means paying attention to yourself and your needs in all circumstances. Mindfulness invites us to pay attention to the present moment and our surroundings, including how we feel, act, or what we say.
While practicing mindfulness can involve sitting in a yoga-style position, mindfulness habits can be incorporated into our lifestyle—and there’s no single way to practice. Mindfulness activities can include self-reflective journaling, identifying emotions through positive self-talk, and quoting affirmations. Here are a few additional mindfulness ideas to incorporate throughout your day.
As an advocate of therapy, I’ve seen firsthand how trained professionals can help others navigate difficult emotions. One of the lessons I learned from my therapist was that stressors and emotional triggers are inevitable—we cannot avoid someone cutting us off when we’re driving or someone being unkind. What we can do is control the way we respond in those situations.
Therapy gives a trained professional insight into your life and allows them to provide strategies to help you regulate your emotions when stressors occur. Think of it like this: Talk therapy grants you the space and opportunity to feel your emotions. But it also offers multiple ways to help you manage them so that they don’t overwhelm you.
3. Quality Time
Yes, it’s a love language. But did you know you can practice a love language on yourself? Like mindfulness, spending quality time in solitude allows you to learn yourself more deeply. Creating healthy social skills and becoming more emotionally intelligent starts with the individual. When we know and care for ourselves, we can create healthy relationships with others.
Try simple solo activities—like art, hiking, writing, or cooking—to help you understand your needs, desires, and passions better.
Those closest to us are some of our best reflectors for how we manage our emotions. Our friends witness many of our reactions to everyday stressors, as do our partners, kids, and coworkers.
The best way to know our range of emotional intelligence is to ask those around us. Asking questions like, “How did I respond to that situation?” or “How can I be a better friend?” is the beginning of becoming a better communicator. While it may be hard to hear the answers, it’s an invaluable opportunity to improve and invites others to consider their responses and emotions.
Cultivating emotional intelligence isn’t easy but, through various skills, we can better understand ourselves and develop more meaningful relationships with others. Remember, you never fully arrive at emotional intelligence. It’s an everyday practice that involves your participation. Take it from me, though: it’s well worth the work required.
Brianna Robles is a Brooklyn, NY-based lifestyle freelance writer. Her creative writing platform, Writing My Wrongs, encourages people to share their full story. When she’s not writing, you can find her performing at open mics and trying new restaurants.