7 Things Emotionally Intelligent People Do Better than Everyone Else
We stopped before the sea. It was a nice spot to just hear the waves die in the shore. The Moon was there, silently witnessing our conversation.
I met emotional intelligence two years ago, around mid-2018.
I was spending a summer night at the beach with my friend Diana. We were talking about her time in Norway. She had been gone for a year or so and had just come back a few days before.
She was looking at the waves while my fingers played with the sand. It was one of those moments that stop time. She had a new aura of positive energy that I hadn’t feel before. A very good vibe that made me enjoy her company even more.
I changed my posture to face her: “You are shining today, Di. And yesterday. I’ve been feeling it since you came back.” She was looking at the reflection of the moon in the sea. She didn’t answer for a good minute.
She then said: “I’m grateful for this moment.” I surely made a funny face because she added: “I’ve been away for a year, you know. Now I’m here. It feels like it was yesterday when I left. But it’s been a year. It’s a lot of time…” She looked at me and added. “I’m happy to be here now.”
“I’m happy, too! I’ve missed you.” I hugged her. But she wasn’t smiling when I released the hug. I frowned: “Di, were you happy there?” She answered slowly. “I was… And I wasn’t. I spent a lot of time alone, you know? I had my colleagues at work but it was not the same.” She seemed lost somewhere far away.
She continued. “I was at home most of the time. At first, I tried to spend time doing things. I was singing or working out. I also read books... But it didn’t feel good. I missed this too much. My friends, my family… my home.” She was looking at the moon again. She stopped for another minute. I thought she wouldn’t say anything else, but then she continued:
“One day I was feeling especially bad. I wanted it to stop but couldn’t. Then it came to me something my mother had told me before leaving: ‘You are never alone. You always have you.’ To be honest I didn’t know what that meant but I decided to talk my feelings to the air and the walls of the house. I still remember the conversation I had. Me, myself and I. That day I cried a lot. It all came out as a storm of emotions.”
“… I know that feeling…”
“Yes. And what surprised me most was that the next day I felt way better. I didn’t understand why but I felt better.” She was smiling now. “I kept doing it often and every time I felt better. It was as if my bad emotions were getting what they wanted and simply left my body.” I felt her good vibe again. “Soon after, I found about emotional intelligence. It was there, what I had been doing. It gave me the explanations I was looking for.”
“Emotional intelligence…” I mumbled.
“Yes… I only understood what it was because I had been doing it. I don’t know why don’t they teach this in school… We all suffer so much unnecessarily.” She looked at me with the biggest smile ever: “Now I wouldn’t change it for anything else in the world.”
“I want it!”
She looked me in the eye: “Check it out… Or check it inside. It will change your life.”
I’ve learned a lot about emotional intelligence these years but it’s taken me a lot to go from just understanding it to emotionally internalize what it truly is. Nowadays the quality of my relationships has notably improved and I’m sure I can thank emotional intelligence for it.
I’ll share with you what I’ve learned. Here are what I consider to be the 7 key features of emotionally intelligent people:
1. They know how to validate other’s feelings
“Just like children, emotions heal when they are heard and validated.”
― Jill Bolte Taylor
It got me thinking because for some time then I had been looking for the answer to why my relationships had improved from previous times. I had been going to therapy for close to a year already and this article pointed me directly to the answer: validation.
Before, I had never been very skilled when it came to relationships. I had social anxiety since very young so social abilities were not my strength.
But I’ve improved a lot and those months of therapy helped me learn what validation meant. Not simply by definition, but by experiencing it. By living it.
Now, I try to not say things like:
- Don’t worry about the exam, you will surely pass
- Please don’t cry or you’ll make me cry too
- You shouldn’t be angry at Mike, it’s silly
By saying this we don’t comfort the other person, we are not validating how they feel. What we are doing instead is overriding their feelings. As if saying: “what you are feeling now is not valid”.
Instead, I tend to say things like:
- Yeah, this exam is going to be difficult, I feel it too
- Cry freely. When I cry I feel emotionally lighter afterward
- I would also be angry at Mike, even if it’s not very important
In this second case, I’m telling the other person that whatever he/she is feeling at any given moment is completely fine to feel it. The other person feels understood and supported.
When a person expresses a feeling to us, whatever it is, the best approach is to make the other person know it’s perfectly fine to feel that way. And also make them know that you also feel that way sometimes. Make them feel human.
2. They know how to recognize emotions and their causes fast and precisely
“One ought to hold on to one’s heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
Have you ever had that sensation that you are unwell somehow but you are unable to tell why?
This happens to all of us. And when it does we tend to blame how we feel on what surrounds us, projecting our emotions to the external world.
However, what emotionally intelligent people do is this:
- Realize they are feeling bad
- Look for the somatic source to recognize the emotion
- Understand that different causes may contribute to the appearance of the emotion
- Find the most important cause by reflecting on previous times it has happened
- Link it to the emotion and let the present world keep running
This process is incredibly useful. If you do this, no one will notice anything and you won’t project your emotional state because you will have cleared the emotional fog.
And you will also feel better. Often what we don’t like is both the uncertainty of not knowing what we are feeling (the emotion) and the uncertainty of not knowing why we are feeling this way (the cause). With this approach, you solve both things.
I learned to do those 5 steps is by following the schema below:
- Build the habit of monitoring your emotional state. The next time you feel bad, pause. Stop and ask yourself how you could name the sensation.
- Learn the names and somatic locations of your emotions. We all know to name the basic ones: joy, sadness, fear, anxiety, disgust, etc. but it’s more important to recognize them by the somatic sensation they produce. Emotions are felt in the body; learn to connect the name to the sensation.
- Get used to the notion that what we feel is complex and it often is a compound of whatever is going on in our lives. Don’t try to align one emotion to one cause. Once you find a possible cause, keep searching to find other possible causes.
- However, almost all the time there are one or two causes that carry the most weight. Evaluate all the possible causes to select the most important ones. The more you practice, the faster you will find the key cause.
- Link the key cause to the emotion in your memory. The next time you do this you will find that the same emotion is often generated by similar causes.
Our emotional self is as important as our rational one. The key difference is that we are not taught to recognize and use the former. Follow a method and build a habit to take care of your relationship with your emotions. Include them in your life as much as your thoughts and you will increase your wellbeing.
3. They know that the nice and not-so-nice emotions are all trying to do us good
“Your emotions make you human. Even the unpleasant ones have a purpose. Don’t lock them away. If you ignore them, they just get louder and angrier.”
― Sabaa Tahir
We often classify emotions by calling them “positive” and “negative”. Why we do this? It seems to me that the only criterion for this division is the way they make us feel.
For instance, I’m quite sure that most of you will agree with me if I say that joy, awe, hope, and gratitude are “positive” whereas fear, sadness, anger, and disgust are “negative”.
However, the emotionally healthy approach is to declassify them. Instead of calling them positive or negative, I try to simply acknowledge how they make me feel: the positive ones make me feel good and the negative ones not so good.
You may think there is no difference by doing this, but that’s far from the truth. Calling anything positive or negative puts that label to everything that relates to the thing. It makes the thing inherently positive or negative.
By saying: “Anxiety is a negative emotion” you imply that any aspect of the emotion is negative. Therefore you fix your behavior: avoid anxiety at all costs.
However, by saying: “Anxiety makes me feel bad”, you are simply pointing to the sensation the emotion makes you feel. This way you make room for anxiety to explain itself: “I’m Anxiety, and I’m here to help you even if I’m clumsy and make you feel bad… :(”
Feeling bad (because of anxiety or whatever other emotion you may experience) may not be the best thing in the world, but it’s by no means inherently negative (More of this in point #4).
We should treat all emotions as emotions, without adjective labeling. We should welcome all into our inner home. The ones that feel good and the ones that feel bad.
Why? Because regardless of how we feel, all of them are trying to do us good. An emotion only exists to tell us something. Some of them are harsher than others, but we should always listen (although not always obey, which I’ll talk about in point #6).
Emotions can make us feel good, not-so-good, or plainly awful. In any case, they appear to express something about the world to us, so we should listen to them. We may not like the messenger that tells us that our enemies are attacking but we should listen to him to avoid bigger problems. Emotions are messengers.
4. They don’t try to change their emotional state. They let it express itself
“But feelings can’t be ignored, no matter how unjust or ungrateful they seem.”
― Anne Frank
From the idea that no emotion is inherently bad arises a question: “What should we do with those emotions that make us feel bad if avoiding them is not the answer?”
That is a great question. And the answer is quite simple (but not easy): Let them express themselves.
I said above that emotions always arise to tell us something. Well, why not just listen to them and then let them go? Of course, sometimes they have to tell us a lot of things, so they will stay with us for quite a long time (hi, breakup emotions). It will be painful, but we can’t die from listening to our emotions.
Our emotional states are constantly changing. If one day you feel bad, be sure that it won’t last forever. Most times a painful emotional state will last just a few days.
If you try to change your emotional state what you will do is hiding it or burying it. It won’t disappear, it will simply keep being painful and grow until it finds a way to escape. The difference is that when it appears again you won’t understand at all why that emotion is arising at that moment.
Always listen to the emotions that are present. If you don’t, you will simply hide them. If they are painful, they will still be when they reappear downstream in your life. Emotions live to be expressed; don’t force them to go out of their way to fulfill their mission.
5. They avoid hurting others to protect their self-esteem
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
— Brené Brown
If I ask you whether you would want to hurt a loved one you will certainly answer: “Why would I do that? You ask stupid questions.”
Well… yeah. You would be somehow right. However not all the time we can avoid hurting other people, including those we love.
People high in emotional intelligence are in close contact with their emotional self and the emotional selves of others. They recognize promptly when something they say or do may be potentially hurtful.
They understand how the emotions of other people would react almost as well as they know how their own would. This allows them to shut their mouths in the appropriate moments.
But some moments are especially difficult. Those are the moments in which our self-esteem is attacked.
Our emotions react fiercely to damage to our self-esteem. And more often than not what they tell us is: “Hurt back as hard as you can!!” Well, that wouldn’t be a very emotionally intelligent thing to do.
What emotionally intelligent people can do is understand that nothing is personal. That means that even if they have suffered damage to their self-esteem, they don’t go out looking for the culprit. Instead, they acknowledge that whoever did the damage didn’t do it to them because they are them.
This notion is extremely powerful as it removes any power others may have over us when they hurt our self-esteem.
Instead, an emotionally intelligent person would say something like: “Hey, you did this and it hurt me. Please don’t do it anymore, I don’t like it.”
Vulnerability is a powerful emotional tool, as it helps you unlink your emotional reactions from damage to your self-esteem (or other parts of your identity), removing any power from the attacker.
Nothing is personal. People hurt us from time to time and we also hurt other people. But there is never a good reason to hurt back in reaction. Instead, remove the power the attacker has over you by being vulnerable and acknowledging the damage they have done to you.
6. They know how to master their emotions
“When a man is prey to his emotions, he is not his own master.”
— Baruch Spinoza
I’ve said that we should listen to our emotions. That is completely true. But by no means should we blindly obey them.
Emotions are like kids. They have to learn everything. They appear here and there but they have not been taught to appear exactly when they should and for the reasons they should.
Why speaking in public gives us anxiety? Why do we fear that a relationship may end? Why we burst into anger when someone attacks us? Are emotions in these scenarios acting in the healthiest way? The truth is no, they are not. They should learn to do so. And we are their teachers.
In any interaction, our emotions are taking what the world is throwing at us and then decide to complain or not.
For instance, in the first public talk I did I experienced high levels of anxiety. Is in situations like this that we should take advantage of the opportunity to teach the emotion: “Hey, anxiety, it’s not that big of a deal!”
We are healing the emotion in the interaction. Emotionally intelligent people understand this and use every opportunity they can to teach emotions their place.
Emotions are not perfect. They can show a sub-optimal performance (most of the time they do). We are in charge of teaching them to do their job correctly, even if that requires listening to the nonsense they sometimes tell us.
Emotions are incredibly good sources of information. But they say nonsense from time to time. We are in charge to teach them to show us information only when it’s adequate. And we do this by healing in the interactions.
When we heal an emotion we are teaching it to appear only when and how it should.
7. They practice self-love
“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”
How often do you criticize yourself whenever you do something not the best way? Probably many times. We all do this. Many of us have been taught to harshly criticize our errors. It’s very ingrained in our society, we don’t know how to show compassion for ourselves the same way we would do for others.
What I think we should do instead is embrace our mistakes, give them space inside us but never let them define us. We are not our mistakes. Why do we judge ourselves as masters of life when this is the first time we are living?
I try to think about my mistakes as things to apologize for and to reflect upon but never as things to regret or things that prove my unworthiness.
We all make mistakes. Do you feel that when someone you love makes a mistake it takes some value from them? Probably not. Treat yourself as you would treat a loved one.
As an example, if I do something that hurts a person I love and I realize it, instead of attacking myself for being an idiot I would ask myself: “How can I express that it was not what I intended?”
I would try to acknowledge my mistake to the other person, that is, by being vulnerable about it (respecting my feelings in the present) and I would also try to not do it again (taking responsibility that my future self, knowing that what I did hurt someone, won’t repeat it). Try to do it the time you hurt someone you love, it feels incredible.
I still have a long way to go (as do we all!) but the important point is to always keep trying to be a better version of ourselves.
I always say: “don’t judge yourself for what you did wrong today. Instead, judge yourself in whether you are taking responsibility to not do it again tomorrow.”
- Learn to validate other’s feelings
- Learn to recognize your emotions and their causes
- Understand that all our emotions are trying to do us good
- Don’t try to change your emotional state. Let it express itself
- Don’t hurt others even if they hurt your self-esteem
- Learn to master your emotions
- Practice self-love