On the Wings of Emotional Intelligence

Imagine feeling earthbound by a heavy load on your back only to discover that this burden is a pair of wings with which to soar. Left unprocessed and exposed to life’s hardships, emotions are indeed burdensome! Yet there lies a deep wisdom within emotional experience that, when harnessed, can assist us to navigate life’s peaks and valleys with added clarity, depth, and insight.

Unclear focus: the case of Casey

Casey returns from a date with Dom. She feels confused. “I’m attracted to him, but I sense some sort of distance,” she thinks. “Maybe I’m just a little nervous still.” Casey wonders why she didn’t talk more, and berates herself for appearing boring and aloof. Dom appears to have what Casey seeks – handsome appearance, financial stability, and shared interests. Why is she feeling scared? A little avoidant? She dismisses her discomfort as a normal part of the dating process, deferring instead to her logical thought process. Reluctantly, she responds to Dom’s SMS: “Thanks, Dom. I enjoyed myself too! Yes, I’d love to do coffee on Sunday. See you then.”

An understandable case of nervousness? Or a sign of something amiss in the relationship? How can she tell the difference? Her perception of anxiety is that of a hinderance, illogical, perhaps even a little immature and not to be trusted. Her lens isn’t clear. She carries the burden of emotions on her back. Her wings are not yet spread. 

Adjusting the lens

Are your emotions a burden or a pair of wings? Are they a hinderance or a guide? Take a moment to examine your current perspective by responding to the following questions. Don’t give them too much thought, just notice what answers come to mind.

Which emotions are bad? (Go on… answer the question… quickly!)

Did you by any chance name anger, sadness, fear, or guilt? Perhaps even a little jealousy or shame for good measure? What makes these feelings “bad”? Are they painful? Do they get you into trouble or keep you stuck? Now, try the next question.

Which emotions are good? (Don’t think too hard… just respond!)

Did love, joy, or curiosity come to mind? How ‘bout a touch of compassion? And what exactly makes these emotions “good”? Sure, they feel nice. Are they usually helpful? Can they ever be harmful? Has love ever clouded your better judgement? Has unbridled joy led to impulsive decisions? Did too much curiosity kill the cat? What about the dangers of misplaced compassion?

We require a language that runs deeper than the surface level distinction of whether an emotion feels pleasant or unpleasant. Here’s an alternative terminology: healthy or unhealthy. All emotions, whether pleasant or unpleasant, have the potential to be either health or unhealthy, depending on the specific person, biology, prior experiences, and current circumstances.

Hacking the code

Imagine a car parking detector that uses sonar technology to measure the distance to objects located behind the car. The closer the object, the louder and faster the beep. Now, what if someone had not read the instruction manual and was unaware how to interpret the signal? The escalating noise as the car reverses would likely trigger annoyance and distraction, making the task of parking safely all the more difficult. It is essential to understand how to interpret the signal!

Our feelings are no different. Left unprocessed, our emotions produce bursts of internal “noise” that clouds our better judgement and impacts our behaviour. We don’t require a noise cancellation system to silence our emotions. Rather, we need an instruction manual to interpret their messages.

Our emotions constitute a complex, biologically-based system that integrates the brain and body through an interplay of perceptions, thoughts, bodily sensations, and behavioural tendencies.

Emotions operate using two complementary processes: information and motivation.

  1. Emotions convey important information about ourselves, our relationships, and our environment.
  2. Emotions motivate adaptive behaviours, often experienced as an action urge.

More specifically, each emotion constitutes a kind of “detector system” with its own unique function.  Let’s take an overview of some of the commonly misunderstood emotions there are extremely valuable despite feeling unpleasant.

Function of emotions

EmotionInformationMotivation
FearAlerts us to threats toward physical or psychological well-beingEscape from danger
AngerAlerts us to boundary violations or injusticeFight to protect boundaries and maintain justice
SadnessAlerts us to loss of relationships, unmet goals or expectations, or death of loved onesWithdraw to recuperate, seek comfort from others, or accept and move on from loss or disappointment
GuiltAlerts us to value-inconsistent behaviourApologise for wrongdoing, and make reparations
ShameAlerts us that our behaviour is deviant from cultural or group norms, or that we are overexposedHide from others’ negative evaluations, engage in prosocial behaviour, or prevent overexposure of self

Integrating heart and mind

A word of caution: the intention is not that we become slaves to the whims of our emotions. Impulsive and reactive displays of our feelings are often not in our best interests. Our functioning is most effective when we can integrate the wisdom of emotions with the wisdom of our intellect. How is this achieved?

We accomplish this by reflecting on the accuracy and meaning of our emotions, and deciding not only whether particular action is indicated, but also on the most effective course of action that is in line with our needs, values, and cultural norms. In doing so, we integrate heart and mind to function optimally.

For example, a felt sense of anger can alert us to the violation of a caustic remark by a work colleague. The urge to attack verbally in response may be intense. However, emotional processing allows us to comprehend the message within our anger and to channel its energy into effective responses such as assertive communication or boundary-setting behaviours.

Hey, no-one said this would be easy! Nevertheless, with guidance and practice this capacity to harness the wisdom of our emotions and integrate it with reason can be developed.

From muddy waters to clear insight: Casey revisited

Let’s return to Casey, who now reflects on her sense of nervousness when out with Dom. She notices her aversion toward him and identifies her feeling as that fear. She considers how his conduct may reflect selfish or controlling tendencies; how he selected the movie, restaurant, even the food that was ordered based on his personal interests and desires without inquiring about her wishes, and how he ignored and dismissed her suggestions and preferences for a different movie and cuisine. This relationship could potentially threaten her psychological well-being. Her lack of talkativeness was more likely a product of aversion to his personality than mere nervousness. It is as if her feelings were trying to protect her. She would do well to pay heed to this internal warning.

Is it possible that Casey’s feelings are inaccurate? Yes, this is indeed possible. Emotions provide data for consideration, not firm conclusions. The information from one’s feelings needs to be consciously assessed for its meaning, accuracy, and manner of response. Therefore, Casey might consider a range of options such as declining future invitations, investigating through mutual friends, or watching the ‘space’ closely over future encounters to either confirm or disprove her suspicions.   

Casey’s emotional burden is not only lightening, but transforming. She is beginning to spread her wings, in this case wings of self-protection. Her integration of emotional insight and reason will enable her to better navigate life’s unpredictable terrains.

Hope for a new journey

It is my hope that this article helps to open a new lens through which to view emotions. Certainly, there is more information to convey, and practical skills to acquire. This includes a more detailed understanding of the varied emotions within the human experience, and the important task of working to manage and transform unhealthy emotions. In the meanwhile, I wish you success in your efforts to look within, attend to your feelings, and to be guided by their wisdom.

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About The Author

drgerschman

Dr Elliot Gerschman is a clinical psychologist who consults privately at his Melbourne based practice, Satisfied Mind, focusing on adult clinical psychology, mindfulness, and chronic pain management. He completed a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and his professional interests include emotional intelligence coaching, meaning-centred therapy, and developing smart-phone psychology applications.

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