Here we go again, down the rabbit hole of research, where we discover that some of our more cherished beliefs about ourselves are either dead wrong, or just partly right. Keep in mind that “we” includes me, thanks to the research I did for Mastering the Art of Quitting. This time, the subject is emotions—and whether we know what we’re feeling and what we do with that knowledge. A friend of mine takes umbrage when I broach the idea with him. “Of course, I know what I’m feeling,” he protests. He points to his chest—in the vague direction of his heart—and then to his throat. “I feel my emotions so, of course, I know what I’m feeling.”
He’s only partly right but the fact that our emotions are embodied makes us more confident about our ability to know what we’re feeling and our emotional intelligence. It’s “the above average” effect —our tendency to over-rate our skill set and abilities—except it’s on steroids, as a study by Marc A. Brackett and others showed. Self-reports of emotional intelligence and tests of it showed little correlation.
Yes, the body speaks what we feel: Being sad can give you a lump in your throat, while shame or embarrassment can make you feel hot. The universality of where we “locate” the source of our emotions was demonstrated by a study by Lauri Nummenaan and others, published last year in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, which was deliberately cross-cultural (using participants from Western Europe and Asia), and had participants “paint” on a schematic of the human body. The parts of the body indicated as the source of the feelings were the same, regardless of the culture. The researchers suggest that the physical sensation of emotions, the most “conscious” aspect of our feelings, may “help the individuals to voluntarily fine-tune their behavior to better match the challenges of the environment.”
Does this necessarily mean that we’re all equally adept at knowing what we’re feeling—given that we’re all equipped to feel fear and other emotions in and through our bodies? The short answer is “no,” and what we’re talking about here is how emotionally intelligent each of us is. Popular notions of “E.Q” tend to see it as separate from the cognitive skills, a misunderstanding based, in part, on conclusions drawn from Daniel Goleman’s blockbuster book Emotional Intelligence. I’m relying on the definition of emotional intelligence proposed and elaborated by John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, which is comprised of mental skills such as identifying emotions, understanding and analyzing emotion, using emotions to inform decisions and problem-solving, and managing emotions. Broadly speaking, emotional intelligence is our ability to think about and articulate what we’re feeling and then to use that information to inform our behavior and thinking.
What’s important to realize about emotional intelligence is that it isn’t a single trait or skill, but a series of graduating skill sets. If you’re wondering how emotionally intelligent you are, ask these questions first.
1. How do I think about feelings?
Here’s the problem in a nutshell, and it’s all about nuance. Some situations in life prompt emotional responses that are relatively straightforward and labeling what we’re feeling isn’t very challenging. Your beloved pet dies and waves of sadness wash over you. No problem there because what you’re feeling is clear. But more complicated events—a fight with your spouse or close friend, or a massive and very public failure in your work life—may evoke a range of different emotions, either sequentially or in simulcast, or a blend of feelings. In these situations, identifying your feelings requires the kind of dexterity that a game of pick-up sticks does; you need to label and identify your different feelings in the moment. Everyone agrees that people who can manage negative emotions are healthier and happier than those who can’t, but it turns out that your ability to differentiate feelings is directly tied to whether you can manage those feelings.
In a study conducted by Lisa Feldman Barrett and her colleagues, they found that people who think about their emotions on a simple continuum with good and pleasant on one end and bad and unpleasant on the other —thus differentiating between and among them in broad strokes without nuance—had much more trouble managing their feelings.
It’s been suggested that motivation may also be tied to poor emotional differentiation. People who are made uncomfortable by their emotions and are motivated to avoid emotional situations tend not to be able to differentiate their feelings very well, as a study by Yasemin Erbas and others showed. On the other hand, people who recognize that they’re not good at labeling and identifying their emotions may actually want to approach emotional situations in the hope of improving their skills. This result led Erbas and her team to conclude that volition and motivation have a lot to do with your ability to differentiate your feelings.
It turns out that labeling your emotions—putting your feelings into words—actually causes physiological changes to a part of the brain, the amygdala, as an MRI study by Matthew D. Lieberman showed, literally tamping down reactivity.
So, ask yourself these key questions: Do you avoid talking about your feelings? Would you rather skip? How good are you at making fine distinctions such as realizing that you’re more ashamed than embarrassed, or frustrated instead of angry? The better you are at these distinctions, the more emotionally intelligent your behavior will be.
2. Do I see the big picture?
It’s not just how skilled you are at differentiating your emotions; what matters too is how much emotional clarity you possess. What is emotional clarity? It’s an enhanced or greater ability to “identify, discriminate between, and understand the type of affect (e.g., anger vs. frustration) and source of affect one typically experiences.” While this sounds like emotional differentiation, it’s actually a bit different since this is a skill associated with reflection, as opposed to labeling and identifying in the moment. One research study by Matthew Tyler Boden and others found that the two skills were not just different but unrelated. While being able to distinguish your feelings with accuracy will guide your behavior (realizing you were frustrated, not angry, will lead you to apologize to the unwitting target of your hissy fit), understanding what kinds of events yield different emotions and outcomes —seeing the big picture—will give you more control over your choices and actions. Emotional clarity is a specific kind of knowledge, which takes in causes and effects, and anticipates emotional responses.
3. Am I a skilled emotional manager?
Do negative emotions slow you down or stop you in your tracks? Do they insinuate themselves into everything you do and think? Do you tend to internalize those feelings? If so, the likelihood is that you’re “state-oriented” and not as good as managing your emotions as you need to be. On the other hand, if negative emotions are something you can cope with—not by brushing them off but dealing with them in the day-to-day—the likelihood is that you’re “action-oriented.” Coping skills are key to both achievement and satisfaction, and understanding how well you cope is critical. An experiment conducted in Amsterdam tested for action and state orientations, and then had half the participants visualize a demanding person in their lives. They were asked to recall both their dealings with that person —whom they identified by initials to make the memory even more vivid—as well as their feelings at the time. The remaining participants were asked to visualize an accepting person. After the visualization, the participants were asked to pick out discrepant schematized faces on a screen —a happy face in a crowd of angry ones, or an angry one in a sea of happy ones—and then to identify or not identify with a list of positive and negative traits.
Action-oriented people picked out the happy faces more quickly and self-identified with positive traits, even after visualizing a demanding person. Not so for the state-oriented who were slower to find the happy face and who identified themselves with all negative words. Stress spills over onto some of us, it turns out.
Pay attention to how negative feelings affect you; ask yourself whether your coping skills are those of action or a state-oriented person. Finally, be honest about how well (or badly) you manage your feelings.
4. Do I have a bead on my moods?
Moods affect each and every one of us; they impact how well we manage our emotions as anyone can attest: Get to the office in a bad mood and just see how a minor irritant can escalate into major drama. Unlike emotions which have an identifiable source or cause —I’m happy because I got a raise or I’m sad because I messed up my presentation—moods are much more diffuse, harder to think about, and to pinpoint. Becoming conscious of your moods and their effect on your actions and reactions is one way of honing your emotional intelligence skills. Engage in quiet self-reflection and focus on what is causing you to feel the way you do.
One thing is clear: The more emotionally intelligent we are, the more able we are to manage life's inevitable stresses and to savor its pleasures.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2014
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Mayer, John D. and Peter Salovey, “What is Emotional Intelligence,” in Emotional Development and Emotional Intelliigence, edited by Peter Salovery and D.J. Slyper (New York: Basic Books, 1997.)
Brackett, Marc A, Susan Rivers, Sam Schiffman, Nicole Lerner, and Peter Salovey,”Relating Emotional Abilities to Social Functioning: A Comparison of Self-Report and Performance Measures of Emotional Intelligence.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,(2006), vol.9, no.4, 780-795.
Nummenmaa, Lauro, Errico Glerean, Riitta Harri, and Jari K, Hietanen, “Bodily Maps of Emotion.” http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/12/26/1321664111
Barrett, Lisa Feldman, James Gross, Tamlin Conner Christensen, and Michael Benvenuto, “Knowing what you’re feeling and knowing what to do about it: Mapping the relation between emotion differentiation and emotion regulation,” Cognition and Emotion, 2001,15 (6) L 713-724.
Yasemin Erbas, Eva Ceulemans, Madeline Lee Pe, Peter Koval & Peter Kuppen, “Negative emotion differentiation: Its personality and well-being correlates anda comparison of different assessment methods,” Cognition and Emotion (2014) DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2013.875890
Lieberman, Matthew D. Naomi Eisenberger, et al. “Putting Feelings into Words: Affect Labeling Disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli,” Psychological Science (2007), vol. 18, no. 5. 421-428.
Koole, Sander and Nils Jostmann, "Getting A Grip on Your Feelings: Effects of Action Orientation on Intuitive Affect Regulation," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, no,6(2004):974-990.