How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence

Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that counts can be measured and not everything that can be measured counts.” It follows that in education, where testing is a required part of the class structure, students only learn material that can be easily measured and tested. This is a problem because it excludes a ridiculous number of skills and concepts simply because they don’t fit into the traditional educational structure. Principals and presidents never think to offer classes on Emotional Intelligence, How To Be Alone, Intro to Genuine Relationships, or Fundamentals of Being Honest with Yourself.

When was the last time you picked up a useful habit from a class rather than just some explicit, narrowly applicable knowledge? What was the last thing you learned in a classroom that changed your life?

I started Candied Graces out of frustration with this very problem—along with realizing that my education was quickly becoming sterile like a franchise restaurant when I wanted a local diner with familiar faces.

A few years ago I began taking charge of my education. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was beginning to fill in what my formal education was leaving out.

After years of learning and more than a few non-fiction books, Google searches, magazines and seminars, I remain deeply grateful for having discovered lessons all but abandoned by education.

Another reason I started Candied Graces is because every day I wake up hungry to teach, write and mentor, and I grow sick when that passion goes unrealized. Like any respectable and genuine teacher, I’m not here to prove I’m right, nor am I here to make you feel inferior and stupid. On the contrary,

I’m here to enliven your story of the world, help you be a better human being and arm you with the confidence to handle problems yourself.

 If so far anything I’ve said so far resonates with you, then Candied Graces is for you.

Let’s get started. According to psychologist Robert Kegan, “Successfully functioning in a society with diverse values, traditions and lifestyles requires us to develop a relationship to our own reactions rather than be captive of them.” This quote is certainly insightful, but we need to investigate if it’s going to stick.

We all have friends and coworkers take impersonal things personally and don’t realize they are doing it. While driving, these people get frustrated by tailgaters as if their back bumper is wanted for murder. This reactivity achieves very little and only helps to distract our driver. Or when feedback is given to these sensitive people, they rarely learn from it because they took the message too personally, attacked the messenger, or both.

It’s hypocritical to single these reactive people out, because at one time or another we’ve all taken something more personally and emotionally than we should have. This is due largely to the way we’re built.

As Travis Bradbury and Jean Greaves point out in Emotional Intelligence 2.0, emotions have the upper hand in all your thinking due to the brain’s biology. Before any thoughts reach the rational and conscious part of your brain, each travels through the limbic system, which is responsible for regulating emotions and fear responses. This guarantees you’ll experience the world emotionally before your reason can kick in. Whether or not we realize it, we each have a like and dislike reaction to nearly every experience, even if we’re not conscious of the stimulusNext time you or someone you love overreacts, is stressed or dumpy, be mindful that they’re emotional by default.

In fact, only 36% of the 500,000 respondents in Bradbury and Greaves’s experiment were able to identify their emotions as they happened. All of this came as a shock to me because I grew up believing I could dominate and ignore my emotions with rational thought. I was under the illusion that because I couldn’t access my emotions directly they weren’t controllable or understandable, but I was wrong. Developing a relationship to your reactions and breaking free of emotional dictatorship begins with the following:

1) Dig in.

One great thing about emotions is they teach us about ourselves. Whatever gets you up, down, excited or furious reflects your values and attachments. If you value respect, you’ll always be on the lookout for disrespect. If you’re attached to wanting a relationship, you’ll be dissatisfied with every reminder that you’re single. If you value eating healthy, every trip to the grocery store will be a judge-parade. Getting to know yourself better gives you the space to distance yourself from your reactions. Trust me, it makes the days flow more easily.

2) Think of squirrels.

You’re more prone to anxiety than bliss because every creature evolved to be more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive. Say you’re a squirrel during the fall and hawks are patrolling your neighborhood as you’re preparing for winter. If you’re more interested in burying nuts than avoiding the hawk, your whole line of genes will literally be wiped out in one fell swoop. Generations down the line, the most successful squirrels in that neighborhood are those that are more wary of threats than they’re aware of opportunities. It’s the same with humans: Negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones, threats loom larger than gains, sadness freezes more than happiness warms.

3) Stay wide awake.

Can you feel your emotions without thinking about them? Too many of us are distracted from what emotions have to teach us because we’re so busy treating them as good or bad. Next time you see your ex with his new girlfriend on Facebook, suspend judgment and be fully aware of what’s going on inside. Negative emotions demand attention, so sit with the feeling before letting your internal narrative spin out of control. This gives you space from your unhappiness and lessens feelings of captivity created by hurt. Whatever the problem, keep doing this throughout the day and you might end up feeling infinite.

4) Know yourself – deeply.

This takes practice. Knowing your favorite color or actress won’t make feedback any less insulting. However, knowing that “I’m wired to feel,” “I always take feedback personally at first,” and “my behavior is not my identity,” are all good places to start when receiving feedback. I find solace in Eckhart Tolle’s lesson that neither happiness nor unhappiness have anything to do with who you are. “Instead, say to yourself, ‘There is unhappiness within me,’ and investigate.” This reminder provides an enormous amount of space in the moments where I feel like I’m losing control and becoming captive of my reactions.

5)   Check yo’self.

There are a plethora of free online emotional intelligence tests geared to help you with self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. This one by McGraw-Hill is pretty good, although I find creating a list of triggers or pet peeves to be more helpful. Emotional control depends heavily on the specific situation, so don’t expect a test to do the work for you.

6)   Enter The Matrix.

“There is no reality, only perception,” sounds like a quote from The Matrix, but it’s actually by Dr. Phil McGraw. This insight is at the core of almost every self-help book. The better you understand how you perceive and react naturally, the easier it is to choose better ways of being.