Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Emotional Intelligence

The Interplay Between High EQ and Anxiety

Emotional intelligence is not the absence of anxiety; it is the embrace of it.

Having a high EQ does not mean a person isn’t occasionally anxious or depressed. Actually, the person may be more vulnerable to bouts of anxiety because he or she is in touch with uncomfortable emotions.

In tune with one's own emotions and attuned to others', a person with a high EQ is self-aware and empathic. Often this is not easy because these capabilities may cause temporary anxiety. In addition, emotional attunement and self-awareness allow a person to attach heartily in an interpersonal relationship but may result in depression when a meaningful attachment is severed.

A person with a high EQ is often secure enough to tolerate the uncomfortable emotions that tax a person’s ego and cause brief but intense anxiety. For example, say Sally is intimidated by a colleague who is highly skilled in an area in which Sally feels deficient. In a meeting the colleague announces she utilized the unique skill set to succeed with a high-profile client. Sally feels a tinge of jealousy and insecurity. Yet, because Sally is aware of her emotions, including the painful ones like jealousy and insecurity, she is able to cope with the emotions productively. She decides to approach the colleague and ask her for resources, tutorials, and personal insights on how to grow the coveted expertise. The colleague is both flattered and helpful. Sally gets to work and is invigorated and motivated. Her awareness of an uncomfortable emotion allows her to do something productive with it.

Alternatively, say Sally has a low EQ. She is detached from the painful emotions that threaten her self-esteem. Using extreme deflection and projection, she unconsciously wards off any emotion that threatens her ego. Instead of having an awareness of her insecure and jealous feelings, Sally acts on them. During the meeting she lashes out and distorts the information, accusing the colleague of lacking team loyalty. Outside the meeting, Sally covertly aligns the team with her and against the innocent colleague. This is not only unfair but destructive to the team and organization. Essentially, everybody loses, including Sally, who does not grow professionally.

Being attuned to other people’s feelings is essential but also may trigger brief anxiety. Take for example, Ron, a person with a high EQ. Ron senses a colleague is angry. Upon sensing the negativity, Ron immediately feels anxious. Ron wonders if he did something to upset his work friend.

A person with a high EQ is often accountable because of a high level of self-awareness, so he or she readily self-reflects. Contemplating possible missteps, mistakes, or miscommunications, Ron thinks about past interactions. This self-analysis is uncomfortable but important. Ron immediately realizes the colleague has been working a good deal of overtime that seems to be overlooked.

Ron himself recently returned from a lengthy vacation. Although Ron realizes he did nothing wrong, he wants his colleague to feel better, so he approaches the colleague and says, “I noticed you are really working hard and going above and beyond for the team. I just want you to know I appreciate and admire your work ethic.” The colleague is surprised but readily accepts the support Ron offers. He confides in Ron and says he is going through a divorce. Because Ron is attuned to his feelings, he senses the colleague’s emotional pain and is empathic. “I am so sorry. That is really tough. You must be in a good deal of pain. Is there anything I can do?” The employee indicates it helped to just tell someone. He thanks Ron.

Ron’s ability to be attuned to another person’s emotional state, along with his capacity to look at himself, helped him figure out how to remedy a tense situation and help a work friend. Both parties move forward feeling more trust and support in one another, which may lead to a more successful and productive work environment.

Self-awareness is also an essential capability of a person with a high EQ. Although the tendency to self-reflect is sometimes uncomfortable and may cause anxiety, the outcome is well worth it. For example, say Lisa contacted an individual from outside her organization and invited the person to work for her. Later that day, Lisa is contacted by the person’s boss, who is extremely upset at Lisa for attempting to poach her employee. She feels disrespected and relays her belief that Lisa acted unprofessionally.

Instead of becoming defensive and deflecting blame or playing the victim to garner sympathy and avoid accountability, Lisa feels terrible. She understands how this person feels. She may have felt similarly if the roles were reversed, so Lisa authentically owns her lapse in judgment and apologizes. She conveys a sincere understanding of how her actions affected the person and takes full responsibility. Lisa is anxious for a few days following the confrontation because her sense of self took a hit. However, Lisa’s strong conscience, intense remorse, and ability to own her mistake allows her the chance to grow, evolve, and avoid a similar mistake in the future. Personal growth is born from both self-awareness and insight.

Many of the attributes of a person with a high EQ are also the qualities that foster deep and meaningful relationships. Closeness is usually achieved by understanding another person’s emotions. Self-awareness allows a person the opportunity to be accountable and authentically own a mistake in the relationship. This means he or she usually does not make the same hurtful mistake twice.

The ability to be attuned to another person’s feeling states allows an individual to be conscientious, considerate, thoughtful, and kind. A deep and close bond is created with loved ones. A person with a high EQ heartily attaches to significant others. Yet, if the attachment is traumatically severed, the person suffers profound and debilitating loss. Like an oak tree whose root has been severed, the loss is gut wrenching.

On the other hand, a person with a low EQ may find it easy to end a relationship abruptly. Because he or she may be less empathic, minimally self-aware, and detached from emotions that threaten his or her self-esteem, he or she may attach less deeply. A shallow attachment style makes it easy for the person to pull the rug or abandon a partner for another partner swiftly and without inner turmoil. Thus, it may be important to be selective and invest in a partner who has a high EQ.

A person with a high EQ is a person who is able to tolerate the uncomfortable emotions that tax a person’s sense of self. This is an essential capacity that allows for positive relationships, personal growth, and hearty and meaningful attachments. Although anxiety often accompanies such capacities, the outcome outweighs the cost.


More from Erin Leonard Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today