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Emotional Intelligence in Action

car key

Written by Heather Nielsen

Each day, we wake up with choices. I see practicing the Four Domains of Emotional Intelligence as part of this daily choice. Both internally (the choices I make with my thoughts, feelings and perceptions)  and externally (the way I treat my family, friends, colleagues, community members), emotional intelligence starts with intention, and it can improve or diminish the quality of our experience.

Let’s start with our internal dialogue. We all know how crazy the thoughts inside our head can be. My favorite bumper sticker is “Don’t believe everything you think.” Those voices that show up between our ears, whom no one else can hear, are our responsibility to manage – but often, no one has taught us that we even have control or choice over our thoughts, let alone – how to deal with them all skillfully.

The first two domains of EI -  Self-Awareness and Self-Management – can both be tricky if we have allowed our internal self-critic to bully us. On a daily basis in my work as a counselor, I hear stories from wonderfully accomplished individuals who value kindness, leadership, truth, concern for others – all such prosocial core strengths! – but these lovely people’s loudest inner voice is often horrifically mean. Without realizing it, so many of us allow this voice to skew our self assessment, obliterate our self confidence, and color our emotional awareness. We spend session after session challenging the “thinking errors,” and lifting the veil of the inner bully that clouds true self awareness, true emotional intelligence. We explore where these voices may have originated (generally in our early years, as a form of survival and connection), and just as importantly, we explore how to befriend and turn down the volume on these thoughts. It can be so difficult to move into the second domain, Self-Management, without some solid ground with honest, compassionate Self-Awareness. Daily, I remind others (and myself) that developing these intelligences – like learning our multiplication tables, like learning tennis, or anatomy – takes focused attention, practice, and patience!! Without this, the Inner Critic can drive the show, leading with fear and scarcity, and keep us from our authentic goodness and truth.

Once we have some practice and grounding in Self-Awareness, with some language around our genuine feelings (love the Sanctuary Model training in this! Also see this helpful Feelings Inventory from the Center for Nonviolent Communication to guide your language on what you’re feeling) – then we can have a better handle on our own Self-Management. It’s hard to manage something over which we are not aware!! This is true in small and big ways every day. Just yesterday, I was getting ready to give a talk on Mindfulness and Self Compassion to a large group of diabetes educators in Sacramento. I love this part of my work, but I was still feeling a little bit anxious and uncertain, not knowing who would be there, how receptive they’d be to my “softer science”, and not sure exactly how to get where I was going in my rental car. So when I went to get my car key, and I couldn’t find it, I immediately heard my self-critical voice: “You’re so unorganized. Can’t even find your key. You’re going to be late, when will you ever get it together…” etc etc. Luckily – because of years of practice!! – I was very quickly able to pause, take a deep breath, and recall an incident just two days prior with my sister in law. After lunch, she spent 5 minutes searching through her purse and her bag for her car keys. I was 100% patient, compassionate, and loving towards her – knowing how bad it can feel to temporarily misplace something important, and hating the “time waste” of digging around in my bag for my keys. Been there, done that. Still do it. So – that pause, that naming of my feelings (anxiety, fear, worry, frustration, irritation, shame) and the memory of my unconditional love and patience towards my sister in law FOR THE SAME SITUATION for which I was berating myself – as I was going to talk about Mindfulness and Self Compassion!!! – was immediately so amusing to me, I was able to move quickly into healthy Self Management, checking my impulse to self-berate, acting congruently with my values of kindness to all living beings (including myself), and applying flexibility and self-compassion to my current and temporary stressor. Of course I found my key immediately after that, I was an hour early for my talk, and another neural pathway reinforcing Self Awareness and Self Management was built. Every challenge is an opportunity; every moment holds a choice.

Best wishes to you in today’s opportunities and choices!