Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Emotional Intelligence

Self-Sabotaging Emotional Intelligence

Hijacking your own emotions

One of the centerpieces in understanding emotional intelligence is recognizing and acknowledging that we can be hijacked by our emotions. This is, in part, a physiological process where an area of the brain called the amygdala, which plays a key role in the processing of emotions, goes into overdrive. These are reactive emotions; we are responding to something in our external environment. What about when our emotional reaction is self-imposed and we are responding to our interior landscape?

Humans are not fundamentally negative but we have something called a negativity bias. We are hardwired to look for the worst possible scenario. It’s a survival mechanism, serving us both in the phenomenal world and in our social interactions. When that tendency becomes married to some aspect of a less than positive self-perception or negative self-talk, it can create a cascade of emotions that drag us down a rabbit hole of our own making.

Working with emotional intelligence means first developing a sense of empathy: understanding and holding space for someone else’s experience. This requires a certain amount of thoughtfulness and circumspection. When we are caught in an emotional cascade, one of the first things that happens is we stop thinking clearly. This state of mind virtually precludes the thoughtfulness and introspection necessary to exercise self-empathy, which would help drag us out of that rabbit hole we’ve cleverly devised.

Before we find ourselves at the sufferance of an emotional cascade—and the ensuing self-sabotage—we first devise the storyline that fuels it. In other words, we think our way in. This storyline derives from our personal narrative; a narrative informed by our worldview. This includes, among other things, our self-perception, sense of place in the world, and the self-talk that goes along with all of that. In a word, it’s our normal—and, that being the case, we are unlikely to examine our self-experience, simply taking for granted the way we feel.

Conversely, when we find ourselves in the grip of an emotional cascade, we tend not to be able to think our way out. This is for two reasons: first, we are playing out our normal—'This is just the way it is and the way I feel'—and, secondly, we are not thinking clearly enough to create the space we need to exercise self-empathy, never mind self-compassion. The stuckness we experience—the patterns that repeatedly play out and keep us where we are—come out of our inability to hold space for ourselves, as we might do for others.

Emotional intelligence is a social dynamic on two levels. First, it’s about how we relate to others. Second, and in some ways, more importantly, it’s how we relate to ourselves—our self-relationship. The path of awareness, empathy, and compassion that are hallmarks of emotional intelligence apply to us in our self-relationship, as much as they apply to others in our other relationships. Understanding this and exercising it gives us a starting point for shifting our narrative and developing self-empathy and self-compassion.

If, in a quieter moment, we take the time to establish an awareness of our patterns, identify them, and give ourselves permission to hold space for them, we are better served in being able to climb out of our rabbit hole should we fall into it. In not doing so, we do ourselves a disservice, leaving us grounded in our stuckness rather than grounded in ourselves. Once we’ve become aware of our patterns and have given ourselves this permission, we are more likely to see that emotional cascade coming and, over time, can learn to sidestep the rabbit hole altogether.

What are your thoughts on self-sabotaging emotional intelligence? I’d be interested to read your comments or contact me to learn more.

© 2017 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

More from Michael J. Formica EdM, NCC, LPC
More from Psychology Today