In the early 1990s, Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 2005), came onto the scene. While his was not the first research to explore the inner workings of our emotional lives, it was nevertheless considered a game-changer.
From his work, a shared language came together about the importance and wisdom of our feelings. Since then, more and more is being understood about the ways we experience, create, leverage, and regulate emotions, and how this “intelligence” helps us in all areas of our lives.
As a psychological theory, “emotional intelligence” explains our capacity and skill to tune into, discern, name, and regulate our own, and each other’s, emotions.
Understanding emotional intelligence
Our emotional intelligence speaks to our ability to utilize our emotions in a positive and constructive way, both in relationship to ourselves and to others. As Dr. Diana Brecher (she/her), a clinical psychologist and the Scholar-in-Residence of Positive Psychology at Ryerson University points out, our emotional intelligence helps us to
- be flexible in changing situations
- calmly and thoughtfully respond to people or situations we find challenging
- keep an optimistic and positive outlook
- continuously learn how to improve ourselves
- help others to express their needs
Daryl Vineberg (he/him), a body-based psychotherapist who works with individuals, couples, and groups, also includes in EQ, “a person’s experience and understanding of connection with another person.”
IQ versus EQ
IQ has been one way, albeit fraught, to measure forms of intelligence like logic, reasoning, and intellectual ability. The <E>Q, or emotional quotient, however, according to Brecher, is intended to gauge our self-awareness and our interpersonal and coping skills.
Brecher hearkens back to Goleman: emotional intelligence is between two and four times “more important in terms of our performance and achievement than IQ and skill put together.” And, as Brecher notes, our emotional intelligence helps us solve problems using both logic and feelings.
The limits of EQ
“I think emotional intelligence is a bit of a misnomer,” says Seán Carson Kinsella (they/he), director of the Eighth Fire at Centennial College, who identifies as Two Spirit/queer/aayahkwew êkâ ê-akimiht nêhiyaw/otipemisiwak/Nakawé/Irish.
“As within many Indigenous worldviews, we don’t necessarily think of intelligence in such binary ways; in an Anishinaabe worldview, emotion is centred in the past, and feelings are based in spirit, in the present.”
Kinsella suggests that, while Goleman’s conception of EQ as an individual’s capacity for self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills is important, it’s also crucial to recognize interconnectedness.
From an Anishinaabe and nêhiyaw perspective, explains Kinsella, self-regulation is taught to children, for example, through storytelling and humour in a community context, and more broadly still, that it is community support that helps an individual develop.
Numerous scales and metrics have been proposed over the years to measure one’s emotional intelligence.
- Ability-based measures pose problem-solving questions for emotion-based situations, such as how one might feel before a job interview.
- Trait-based measures ask for individuals to gauge their own capacity for self-regulation, for example.
- Mixed measures look into a mixture of skills and capacities.
All emotional intelligence metrics aim to assess our awareness of how we feel, our motivation, how we affect others, our communication with others, how we listen, the mindset we bring to our days, how we deal with stress and conflict, and our nimbleness in the face of challenges and change.
EQ is not fixed—the skills comprising emotional intelligence can be learned. For emotional growth and change to occur, and for those changes to stick, we have to <want> to feel differently, practise new ways of responding, and ask for feedback.
Bolstering our emotional intelligence, explains Brecher, can help us become
- good communicators
- cooperative members of a team
- effective leaders
- caring, concerned members of our communities
- individuals who can set and achieve goals
- able to persist in the face of challenges
Stereotypes about emotional expression continue to persist; but is EQ actually experienced or expressed differently according to gender? “It’s less about gender or biology, and more about how we’ve been socialized and what we’ve learned in our relationships,” says Vineberg.
“The more useful question would be ‘How can we become more emotionally aware, so we can know ourselves better and have more meaningful relationships?’” And the starting place, he says, is to first practise knowing, and then telling the truth of our emotional experience.
“As children,” explains Vineberg, “we learn ‘how to behave’ from our surroundings, be it our family, our society, our community, or our religion. We also learn in subtle and not-so-subtle ways what it means to be a boy or a girl, what to express and what to hold back, and—on a deeper level—what to allow ourselves to feel and know about ourselves and our truth. As adults, many of us need to sort through the inner contradictions about who we are and how we really feel.”
“Everyone has the capacity to be emotionally intelligent,” says Kinsella, but we must undo how settler colonialism, whiteness, and patriarchy continue to dominate what this means. Our society’s systems and institutions often praise and promote those who exploit, objectify, impose, and harm—the same system that touts self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy.
As a result, what persists, Kinsella points out, “is an impossible standard that requires women, and Two Spirit/trans individuals to develop and adopt these skewed forms of emotional intelligence or face the very real risk of violence.”
“As parents,” says Vineberg, “we have to be willing to make space for our young kids’ intense or difficult feelings, without making these kids feel bad or wrong for having them. As adults who weren’t given that space, we need to find ways to do it for ourselves and with each other.
“This bold shift would expand our understanding of emotions, and would reveal the ways in which angry, aggressive, or distancing emotions often protect more vulnerable emotions, and the desire for connection.”
What rules our emotions?
Borrowing from the “RULER” approach to social and emotional learning scale for children developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we can use this helpful acronym to check in with how we’re feeling:
- R: recognize feelings in one’s own self and in others
- U: understand how those feelings came about
- L: label feelings
- E: express feelings
- R: regulate feelings
These RULER skills can help us in our individual emotional growth, in our interactions with others, and in our well-being more broadly.
5 feeling facts
- Through posture, practice, and movement, we can use our bodies to change our feelings.
- As a result of the phenomenon called “limbic resonance,” we’re able to sense the emotions of other people.
- Emotional signals underlie each and every one of our decisions.
- We are never too old to change our emotional ruts and patterns.
- Not only are emotions integral to our health, but they can help us live longer, too!