Is it emotional intelligence or emotional avoidance?
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When I was in college, I did an independent study about emotional intelligence. Not only was I an academic overachiever who prided intellect, knowledge, and curiosity, I was also very interested in the ways we know our emotions. Looking back, I can see how much of this was influenced by being a parentified child, a counselor to my friends, and someone who loved to dole out advice. In many ways, none of this has changed, yet so much has changed.
After college, I learned about the terms empath and empathy, and it all made so much sense. I saw myself as someone who was able to be present for all the people in my life because I had these empathic skills, or at least I thought I did. What I hadn’t realized is that these “skills” allowed me to take a lotta shit from people, most notably my mom and the person I would marry. This all led me to two recent realizations.
Empathy with boundaries also shows empathy toward ourselves.
Empathy that leads to emotional avoidance is not emotional intelligence.
“The ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle emotions. People with high emotional intelligence can recognize their own emotions and those of others, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, and adjust emotions to adapt to environments.”
As I’ve been exploring what it feels like to feel my feelings in the past couple of years, while often emphasizing the importance of doing so to my clients, friends, and anyone who will listen, I’ve wondered if and where “feeling your feelings” belongs in emotional intelligence. According to the definition above, I would say that it qualifies under “perceive”, “understand”, and “handle” emotions as well as “use emotional information”. However, in our Western world, this is often in the context of knowing rather than embodying.
Recently, a friend told me how their partner expressed increased anxiety in the workplace to their boss, only to be met with a response that they should “have more emotional intelligence” and suck it up. Both of them were men. To me, this is emotional avoidance (plus just being a shitty boss), not emotional intelligence. And emotional avoidance is a hallmark of patriarchy and colonial ways of being. Is it a surprise that there are stereotypes about British people being emotionally repressed?
All of this made me wonder how “understanding” emotions from an intellectual perspective and “handling” emotions from an avoidant level is not actually that intelligent. The intelligence of emotions live, first, in the body. I love using tools like the Feelings Wheel to help folks identify their feelings. And with this tool, I ask them to move toward how the feelings they identify feel in their body - because until we truly feel our feelings, what exactly are we handling? And what do we make it mean? We might name that we are anxious, disappointed, or numb - but does that mean we are broken? That people won’t want us around? Or that we are human beings living in oppressive structures that activate emotions that are asking us to listen? If we stick with strict intellectual information, we can often get stuck in ways this information is heavily influenced by a capitalistic, colonial, patriarchal, and white supremacist world.
This is not to say that people do not incorporate physically feeling their feelings with emotional intelligence, but I haven’t really seen that as part of the conversation. When I worked as a librarian, everything was about external knowledge, and while this has its place, traditional knowledge ignores what the body knows. I bring this up to consider the ways we might connect, or maybe disconnect, emotions and knowledge in the form of “emotional intelligence”, essentially avoiding how the physical sensations in our bodies are a sort of library in and of themselves, asking us to check them out 😉
This has all made me wonder how my project on emotional intelligence and my relationship choices—romantic, family, and friendships—buttressed my emotional avoidance. Growing up as the mediator in my family, I held a lot of other people’s emotions in my body like I was velcro. And in order to hold them, I responded by being rational and stoic because it felt like everyone needed me to be manager. In my first job out of college I was even complimented on how I could handle a boss’ emotional tantrums. I was told that it made me great for the job! If I took the time to create emotional boundaries based on knowing that my feelings also needed space to be felt and expressed, I wonder how that would have shifted my role in my family and other relationships.
While I’ve always tried to be empathic, I’ve had to reframe what this means for my own emotional health. Am I absorbing or am I observing? Am I velcro or am I a window? It can be very challenging to show up for others while showing up for myself, and vice versa. So I’ve intentionally created a practice to dig deeper into my feelings.
For me, this practice includes the following:
1. Sitting with my feelings
Placing my hand on my heart and feeling the physical sensations of my feelings without judgment
Asking my feelings what they want me to know and what they’re protecting me from
Discerning the stories I associate with certain feelings
Imagining the physical features, sounds, and movements of my feelings through visualization or drawing
Journaling about my feelings
Being honest with others about how I feel - sometimes I do this when I feel completely safe with others and sometimes I take a risk and do it anyway
Punching or screaming into a pillow
Being with “conflicting” feelings
Putting on a song that makes me cry
2. Asking for help
Expressing my emotions to someone who is safe (and asking for consent first)
Finding a supportive therapist and/or coach
Getting reiki, massage, or another modality that moves around emotional energy
3. Creating boundaries
Saying “no” or “can we talk about this later?” when someone reaches out for emotional support and I’m not available
Examining and reconsidering relationships where I don’t feel reciprocity
Finding ways to communicate that allow myself space to process or wait to respond (text, email, etc)
Feel free to add other practices that have supported you in the comments!
I put “conflicting” in quotes above because we often see feelings as binaries: happy and sad, pain and pleasure, etc. The fact is we can feel many feelings at once even if they seem opposing. I believe that part of emotional intelligence is (1) knowing that feelings coalesce and co-exist (2) accepting this coexistence, and (3) sitting with this discomfort. This allows for humility, nuance, and expansion.
By keeping emotions in an intellectual and rational box, we might be avoiding the very messages they want us to know. Messages like “I want to feel safe”, “I don’t think I belong”, “I’m not worthy”. Safety, belonging, and dignity “are inherent needs in human beings” according to Staci K. Haines in The Politics of Trauma (affiliate link). Our body wants us to survive, yet we often avoid the conversation it initiates with us through complete avoidance and/or intellectualization. When a loved one approaches us with an emotional dilemma, is it more supportive to change the subject, rationalize their feelings, or be present for whatever comes up? In my experience, saying “I’m here” ends up being the most beautiful way to relate to them through my presence.
The thing is, we can be present for ourselves, too. Yet we often forget this while we are busy navigating a pandemic and the many other things the world throws at us along with the happenings in our personal and professional lives. So give yourself grace. I didn’t write this for you to judge yourself for not feeling your feelings. In fact, I hope it’s the opposite. Because once we stop judging ourselves and our feelings while we make space to feel them, emotional intelligence can carry new meanings that shift personal and collective relationships in ways we have yet to see.
Thanks for being here.