I Don’t Want to Be Difficult, but I Am. What Am I Missing?

Sometimes very smart people don’t play well with others. Here’s why.

Posted May 13, 2020

Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Emotional intelligence is generally thought of as the ability to recognize, understand, and healthfully express one’s own emotions, coupled with the ability to recognize, interpret, and respond to other people’s emotions. Research tells us that emotionally intelligent individuals tend to do better in relationships, in the workplace, and pretty much everywhere else.

Unfortunately, we are not all emotionally intelligent. What a bummer: Some of us have no idea that we are even having a feeling, let alone what we are feeling, why we are feeling it, and what to do about it. When that happens, we struggle to trust our intuition, dismiss what we feel, and miss out on the kind of relational intimacy that offers self-regulation. Because of this, we may be more reactive, take things more personally, and judge people and situations in ways that make our lives more difficult.

According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, a person’s emotional intelligence is more predictive of both life success and happiness than IQ. Goleman delineates five domains of emotional intelligence.

  1. Self-Awareness. Understanding what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it.
  2. Emotional Self-Management. Self-managing distressing emotions so they don’t cripple us.
  3. Motivation. The ability to find and act on our internal motivation.
  4. Empathy. Understanding of what someone else is feeling and experiencing.
  5. Social Skills. Using self-awareness, emotional self-management, and empathy to skillfully form healthy relationships.

Unfortunately, emotional intelligence is not innate or inherent (as IQ tends to be). We are not born with emotional intelligence. We learn it, usually early in life, from the people around us. If our parents, teachers, and other caregivers have internal balance and a high level of emotional intelligence, they will model that for us and with us, and through this call and response we will become emotionally intelligent. If, however, our caregivers are flawed in ways that leave them emotionally unavailable and unable to model emotional intelligence, we’re likely to struggle in the same ways they do.

The good news is that those of us who do not have high emotional intelligence, or who sometimes fail to exercise the emotional intelligence we possess, can learn to do better. Following are 10 skills any person can use to develop emotional intelligence:

  1. Become Aware of and Reduce Negative Thoughts. Many of us have a negative, worst-case scenario bias in our brains, where we automatically assume the worst of ourselves, others, and situations. We do this even though the vast majority of the time the worst-case scenario never comes to pass. To combat this, we must pay attention to our internal thoughts so we can spot when we are being unduly negative. When we see that happening, we can think about other possible (and usually more likely) realities and outcomes.
  2. Stop Personalizing Everything. We’re human, which means we think about ourselves more than anyone else. This does not, however, mean that every single thing that every single person says or does is about us. When a coworker gets a promotion, that doesn’t mean that we somehow failed. When our neighbor plants flowers, it’s not because he’s trying to make our yard look bad. When our kids don’t call us back within five minutes after we leave a message, it’s not because they don’t love us. Etc.
  3. Become Aware of Stress and Learn to Manage It. Stress is unavoidable. If it’s not big things that have us worried, it’s little things. And sometimes the little things are more stressful than the big things. One easy trick for managing stress is to splash cold water on your face, as cooler temperatures are proven to reduce anxiety. Another trick is to cut down on your caffeine, which tends to elevate anxiety. The best technique for reducing stress, however, is to exercise. Exercise causes our brains to release endorphins, which lower stress. Exercise can also help us ‘zone out’ as if we are meditating. (Meditation is another terrific stress reliever.)
  4. Express Difficult Emotions. When we suppress our emotions, they just hide in a dark place and fester until, eventually, they leak out sideways. And sideways emotions (especially sideways anger) are the opposite of emotional intelligence. When we learn to express difficult emotions as we feel them with the person who is helping to create them, that person may decide to change his or her behavior. If not, we can set boundaries that keep us safe from similar behaviors in the future. One of the easiest and most effective ways to express difficult emotions is to say: I feel X when you do Y, and this causes me to Z. This way, you are not making an accusation, you are simply letting the other person know what you’re feeling and thinking.
  5. Be Proactive, Not Reactive. If a challenging individual is ruining our day, week, or life, we can take proactive steps to remedy the situation. Sometimes we do some deep breathing before we respond to them. Other times, we try to understand their point of view as a way of feeling empathy for them and accepting them as they are. In more difficult scenarios, we may need to set boundaries (if you do X again, I will respond by doing Y so I can feel safe). And sometimes the most emotionally intelligent thing we can do is to step away from a problem relationship (especially an abusive relationship) altogether.
  6. Be Assertive but Respectful. Emotionally intelligent people are able to communicate their thoughts, opinions, and needs while respecting the thoughts, opinions, and needs of the people around them. This allows both individuals to set boundaries, and to respect the other person’s boundaries.
  7. Practice Active Listening. Emotionally intelligent people listen and make sure they understand what the other person is saying. They also pay close attention to body language and other forms of nonverbal communication. This shows respect, prevents misunderstandings, and helps foster compromise when needed. People who are not emotionally intelligent just wait for their turn to speak.
  8. Bounce Back from Adversity. Thomas Edison tried and failed to invent the lightbulb more than 1000 times. Every time, he bounced back. He learned whatever lesson he could learn from the unsuccessful experiment, and then he tried again. So when we try but don’t succeed, that doesn’t mean we’ve failed completely and forever. It just means we need to learn something so we can try again. When we view a lack of success in this way, we are much less likely to be frustrated or angry when things don’t go our way.
  9. Be Vulnerable and Intimate. The goal of emotional intelligence is to connect in healthy ways with other people. To do this, we need to be honest about who we are, warts and all. We need to let others see the real person that we are. When we do this with people we like and care about, they tend to respond in kind, and over time we can build an emotional connection with them. This is intimacy – feeling connected to another human being in ways that are safe and supportive. Intimacy is the best possible expression of emotional intelligence.
  10. Smile. Emotionally intelligent people seem sociable, approachable, and fun. They seem upbeat, and because of this, other people want to be around them.

Admittedly, there are countless ways to understand, develop, and practice emotional intelligence. These 10 suggestions are just a start, but if you can master them and incorporate them into your day-to-day life, you will unquestionably find that your relationships, work life, and overall sense of happiness and well-being will improve.

To learn more, I highly recommend Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence. If you’re really struggling with emotional intelligence, working with an experienced psychotherapist can be helpful.