Being Smart About Our Feelings

Sometimes the best journeys aren’t necessarily from east to west, or from ground to summit, but from heart to head…                                                                                               Jeremy Collins

We are society obsessed with brilliance and intellect.  This is not a new thing, but it has become an increasingly marketable one.  Baby Einstein videos and the like are a hot commodity.  Videos of national spelling bee champions go viral and bumper sticks sing praises of honor students.  Valedictorians and salutatorians get the last word and doctors and scientists are often seen as reaching the pinnacle of success.

Yet somewhere beneath the IQ hype lays a real story that researchers have been telling for years.  It isn’t that being bright can’t be a great asset; it’s just that it leaves out a big part of the story, and forgets to remind parents that there is something even more important, and way more malleable, than IQ.  It is EQ, or a person’s emotional quotient, and it turns out to be one of the best predictors of all sorts of variables (including academic and occupational ones) that we desire for our kids.

Ever since Daniel Goleman published his bestselling book Emotional Intelligence in 1995, the world has been waking up to the fact that emotional intelligence is critically important in all aspects of our lives.  Researchers have found that 3 factors at the preschool age predict almost every important adult outcome; one of them is “self-control”, which directly relates to the ability to regulate and modulate various emotional states in order to provide for sound behavioral decisions.

However, while science leaves no equivocation about the importance of EQ, it does not necessarily appear that the message has generalized into our schools and homes with the same enthusiasm as academic or athletic endeavors, or even technological innovations.  It’s not that most parents don’t know it is intuitively important; it’s that time spent providing for EQ growth often seems squashed in between getting the science project downloaded before baseball practice begins.

Although EQ is complex just as IQ is, it can largely be boiled down to four basic processes.  The first is recognition and understanding of our own emotional state; beyond recognition, the second is regulating and moderating our feelings.  Beyond our own state, the third process is recognizing others’ feelings while the fourth, and often most complicated, is helping others regulate and moderate their own emotional states.  As with the human psyche, each of these processes is interrelated and interdependent.  For example, how regulated I am as a parent is going to directly relate to how well I can help my child understand and regulate his or her emotions.   Furthermore, if my awareness of my own emotional state is compromised, my perspective of others’ feelings is likely to be skewed.

It is easy to see how challenges with emotional intelligence can wreak havoc in a home, or in a classroom.  But if we span more broadly, there is little doubt that it has been a key factor in seismic events that have happened throughout our world.  Battles have been fought because of it.  Institutions and fortunes have been lost because of it.  And millions of people live in misery because of it, having long struggled to harness the message of EQ.

However, the great news about EQ is that unlike IQ, which appears to be highly genetically linked and difficult to change, EQ can be improved, and altered, across the lifespan;  however, there is no doubt there is a “sensitive period” during youth that provides the most opportunity.  When individuals become more perceptive of emotional states, and better able to moderate them, then outcomes generally improve.

Years ago, I published an article entitled ““What Our Emotions Are Trying to Tell Us”.  It was a perspective on just how informative our feelings are designed to be—certainly not something to be discarded or avoided.  I am sure that some may feel this title suggests an overly logical, rational approach to what is anything but (and should not be).  But I assure you, in taking this perspective, I am not trying to reduce the love, or admiration, or passion people feel, but rather emphasize the adaptive nature emotions are designed to have in keeping our species alive, healthy, and engaged.   In a society obsessed not only with brilliance, but also with experiences of “feeling good” or “feeling moved”, we owe it to ourselves to go back to the core components of just how all of what we feel is so connected to what we think and do, and who we are.

For starters, I think it is good for us as parents to consistently assess just how our kids (and we ourselves) are doing with the 4 basic processes.  For example, when my 4-year-old starts to “melt down” because he didn’t get the “right” cup for dinner, it is easy for me to be angered by the seemingly unnecessary tantrum.  But if I am really on my game (and take advantage of the teaching opportunity), the conversation might start with a firm, “Louis, stand up and use your words” [notice that I have to be aware and regulated enough to even start this process].  I am not attempting to console or reinforce him (for a situation or behavior that deserves neither), but rather acknowledge and engage him at his developmental level.  Even though I shouldn’t expect any profound insight into his own emotions, through just a little coaching he can learn to understand how to recognize and moderate his feelings, and be appropriately assertive (e.g., “Will took my cup.  I was mad.  Will, don’t do that”).  Over time, through both vicarious modeling and direct teaching, his vocabulary for emotions will increase, and with that, his tantrums will hopefully become less frequent, less intense, and shorter.

Sometimes this learning occurs through use of strict behavioral means, such as ignoring a meltdown that has gotten past the “rational stage.”  But when parents can catch an emotional reaction early, we can begin the process of improving EQ for the lifespan.  Besides the book mentioned prior, there are a number of good resources to help with this process, including Raising the Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman.  But if we rely solely on parents to take up this cause, then we are missing opportunities to truly help our children develop in a holistic way.  Many schools already have programs that provide some level of emotional education, but what would be really groundbreaking is if K-12 curriculum included a class that focused on social-emotional education, sort of a health class for the mind.  Of course, there are likely a number of barriers to this idea, and it would take dynamic teachers to really bring this subject to life.   But just imagine if this area of study really became a priority, and we all started seeing the topic as relevant as it really is.  For if we really consider the lifelong implications, long after we all have forgotten those pre-algebra lessons and the periodic table, we continue to be pressed with deciphering “emotional equations” for the rest of our lives.  In many ways, I hope that as my IQ declines (as it will given natural biological processes), my EQ only keeps increasing as I get older.

But in the meantime, we owe it to our youth to take this subject much more seriously, and by seriously, I mean in the investment of time, talents, and financial support.  It is a critical part of growing a healthier society and a happier one.  And although you will likely never see a bumper sticker that reads “My child got a perfect score on their EQ exam”, the reality is that the story of his or her life will likely be a litmus test of just how well they master the subject.  And this is one lesson no one wants to miss.

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