“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action” – Daniel Goleman, Author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
How many times have we heard complaints about the unemotionally involved significant others? About the friend whose problems dominated or take precedent over the concerns of others? About the unconcerned or the one who always stated that “it’s somebody else’s problem”? About the individual who rushed off to a party and left you to do the dishes and other chores?
We argue our point to them, we shout at them, and we express our concern behind their backs of their “childishness” and “thoughtlessness”.
Why are you so immature?
Let’s take a look at something that may shed a light on the way “they” are truly immature (i.e., developmentally immature) – the lack of or undeveloped Emotional Intelligence.
Although there has been various definition of Emotional Intelligence (E.I.) and emotional competence, there are common themes and criteria observed. E.I. can be defined based on these four main themes (Denham, 1998; Harris, 2000; Saarni & Harris, 1989; Saarni, 1999):
- Accurate perception and detection of emotions, which may overlap with the next key point of evaluation and interpretation.
- Ability to accurately perceive and detect emotions in others
- Ability to accurately perceive and detect one’s own emotional state
- Example: The bully at school may have a defective perception of other’s emotion. Instead of seeing a myriad of emotion, he/she may interpret other people’s emotion as being hostile (e.g., a smile from another child is a “making fun of me”)
- Accurate evaluation and interpretation of emotions.
- Ability to accurately monitor one’s emotional state and reflect upon one’s emotional state
- Ability to accurately evaluate the emotions of others and reflect upon their emotional state
- Example: You may have a bad day (we all do). For example, being late for work because of traffic, being yelled at, and spilling food on yourself during lunch. It would be misinterpretation of emotion to think your chances in life is slim and grim.
- Accurate control and expression of emotions.
- Ability to control or inhibit emotional expression
- Ability to express emotions in a positive way
- Example: You may feel that old people walk slow but they are not “doing it to you” by “getting in your way”. Expressing anger at an elderly couple walking slower than you is a lack of emotional control.
- General Knowledge of emotions, which can contribute to control, evaluation, and perception of emotions.
- Ability to discriminate between different emotions and label them correctly
- Ability to understand emotions and emotional expressions
- Ability to use socially appropriate (e.g., culturally appropriate) expression of emotions
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” – Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness
Developing Emotional Intelligence in childhood would lead to Emotional Maturity that will help the grown child deal with any social situations (e.g., interviews for a job, networking at a party, etc.), friends (e.g., establishing, maintaining, and enjoying friendship), significant others (e.g., dating, marriage, life-long partners, and family), and their own family. Imagine, if you will, the ability to communicate your thoughts and feelings (e.g., hope, pains, worries, joy, etc.) in full term. Furthermore, this would also mean the ability to receive, process, and relate to the other in both thoughts and feelings (e.g., you understand what it means to lose a loved one and not just stating it but actually feeling it). It is a type of communication on another level and one that may make you more human than what we call intelligence.
As a parent, you will be giving your child two important gifts with emotional maturity: (1) The ability to express themselves fully (who wouldn’t want to be understood?) and (2) the ability to experience an enriched life (including the whole other side of connecting with their fellow human beings). For the latter, can you imagine an individual going through life never having connected with others beyond surface conversation? For example, never having a best friend or someone close enough to the child to express his deepest fears or wishes. To be understood and understand in return. They would be missing a big part of their life and not living it fully. It takes away one important side of being human.
Children are not born with the biological and cognitive means to produce spoken language. Instead, emotional expression is their very first “language” that allow them to communicate their needs and wants to adult caregivers (Denham, 1998).
According to social learning theory, infants first engage in social mirroring (Byrnes, 2005) and neonatal imitation (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977) that foster interaction with parents (where they copy the facial expression of their caregivers). Then, they gradually mature tomutual imitation where they reciprocate things like smiling and vocalization of their caregivers (Field et al., 1985; Barr & Haynes, 2003). Finally, at about 2 years of age, they emulate and copy the actions of adults or older peers (McGuigan & Whiten, 2009). Throughout this learning experience from infancy to childhood, they learn (1) that they are separate individuals from others, (2) other individuals can feel, think, and behavior like they do, and (3) other individuals may not share the same viewpoint or emotions. Can you see how emotional intelligence can also be fostered by this viewpoint taking? The very ability to put yourself in another’s shoes is the beginning of understanding how they feel.
“You never truly know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes” – Unknown.
A Cognitive Viewpoint
Remember the bully example from above? A cognitive theory by Dodge and colleagues (1986) could explain why some people misread social cues and, thus, react in atypical or inappropriate ways (see figure below).
Let’s take the example of a bully named Billy that follows the model above.
- A social stimulus occurs. For example, a classmate of Billy named Eugene, bumps into Billy in the crowded hallway by accident.
- Billy processes the accidental bump as something else! He acknowledges the bump (Encoding) and interprets it to be hostile. He searches for a response and can only come up with aggressive responses to enact. He believes, erroneously, that it is socially appropriate to do so! Then, he carries out his action by pushing Eugene.
- Billy pushes Eugene in the hallway
- Eugene and the other students are surprised by Billy’s actions and quickly gets away from him, while some stay to watch.
- Eugene respond by saying that he didn’t mean to bump into Billy but, in Billy’s mind, it was hostile (#2 happens again)
With cognitive psychology, lack of emotional intelligence is a defect in information processing. Specifically #2, where they see all acts as being hostile (encoding and interpretation), they can only resort to hostile or aggressive actions (response search and evaluation), and they tend to act toward these decisions with violence or hostility (enactment). They may not act with physical violence but they may show this hostility in other ways (verbal, social, and “bottling” for later accusation).
The Biology of Emotional Intelligence: The Limbic System
My expertise is not neuroscience or physiology but it would be a disservice not to mention the human brain! The processing center for emotion is the limbic system (pictured above). This part of the brain resides just below our Cerebral Cortex.
The limbic system contains various parts that enable both emotion, long-term memory, and caring for our young (e.g., emotional attachment) (Marcus, 2009). This part of the brain in evolutionary history was added after the basic spinal cord and brain stem (Marcus, 2009). According to the example by Marcus (2009), you would be at the level of a mouse in cognition with just the brain stem and the limbic system. This also includes the ability to form attachment, care for your young, and bond with other mice.
Amygdala. The part of the limbic system that control the processing of emotions and formation of emotional memory.
Insula. While the amygdala process emotions, there’s another part of the limbic system that is important in processing the intensity of emotions.
Not training your brain to detect, comprehend, and process emotions can be said that you’re not using your brain fully (or at least not feeling what a whole human being should be). Some have claimed that training the use of your limbic system and fostering your emotional intelligence may be more indicative of your success than IQ (e.g., http://www.funderstanding.com/social-emotional-learning/emotional-intelligence/).
Let’s get back to a wider viewpoint with Sociocultural and Humanistic viewpoints
The problem with society’s unfeeling or unemotional male stereotypes (e.g., “don’t cry and go walk it off”) is that it does not foster emotional intelligence in males. This male gender stereotype has been around for a very long time and may have served some purpose in the past but very little in the current web of society.
This is another point for parents. Breaking gender stereotypes (e.g., male stereotypes) is also something to be taught and fostered. It is not easy when media (e.g., movies, ads, music, etc.) purport these stereotypes and show unrealistic consequences of acting upon these stereotypes.
When you’re growing up saturated with these male gender stereotypes, you begin to believe that this is the norm and any deviation from the norm is frowned upon. Although, they may want to do something other than the stereotypical action they will feel very conflicted. In psychology, we call this cognitive dissonance, where holding two or more conflicting attitudes will lead to discomfort and an attempt to reestablish internal equilibrium (Festinger, 1957).
For example, Eugene is now all grown up and is dating in college. He wants to tell his girlfriend that he loves her but showing emotions or vulnerability may be looked upon as a weakness, so he refrains from saying anything. The tug-of-war within Eugene is two conflicting attitudes: (1) I want to say what I feel and (2) being a “man”.
What about humanistic psychology? If you’ve ever see therapy in the humanistic setting, you would know that the patient-therapist interaction is client-centered. That is, rapport must be built between therapist and patients with unconditioned positive regard (Rogers, 1961). The therapist must show sincere attention to the client’s plight and empathy for the emotional components behind the manifest content (e.g., “I lost my dog. I lost my wife. I lost my home.” can be heard as “I am sad about my losses.”).
Imagine a therapist who doesn’t ascribe to empathy in his/her counseling sessions. He/she would sound very artificial (I typically this “plastic people”) to the patient. You may even describe it as being condescending, cold, or even mocking. Now try imagining the same thing in everyday conversation between friends, family, or loved ones.
“… the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with emotional components and meanings to which pertains thereto as if one person were the person, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ condition” – Carl Rogers, 1959, on defining Empathy.
But, imagine a person who takes the humanistic perspective outside of the hospital, clinic, and therapy chair, and apply it to everyday life. You’re not just parroting the individual you’re interacting with but actually feeling and putting yourself in their shoes. You see the whole person in front of you, inside and out.
I truly believe that everyone is born with the innate yearning for learn about others and to feel what they feel. To experience the wonderment, the emotions, the thrill, and the not-so-happy emotions all roiling within the human shell.
We may be equipped to utilize empathy but it must be nurtured. Empathy is a skill. Just like any skill, it needs to be fostered, nurtured, and practiced.
“Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use.” – Mahatma Gandhi.
More to come (never-the-ending revisions).
Signs of Low Emotional Intelligence (possible signs, but not necessarily having to have all of them):
- They can’t explain yourself clearly or tell you why they feel a certain way
- They don’t take responsibility for their feelings (and often blames others)
- They attacks, blames, or criticize others before listening
- They try to analyze you when you express your feelings (Freud may term this particular sign as a defense mechanism called Intellectualization and it’s not similar to “being intelligent”)
- They use tactics such as guilt trips, exaggerates/minimizes own feelings, and bottling of emotion (until it blows up)
- They may lie about how they feel (emotional dishonesty)
- They carry grudges or hurt feelings
- They are insensitive to your feelings and feelings of others around them
- They have rigid, inflexible rules or structure (to feel secure)
- They do not consider other people’s feelings (or sometimes their own feelings) before acting upon something
- They avoid responsibilities
- They hold distorted viewpoints, self-destructive viewpoints, or viewpoints that conflict with reality
- They avoid connection with other people and may seek substitutes such as pets, plants, or imaginary beings
- They attempt to feel intellectually superior in absence of emotions
- They are poor listeners
Emotional intelligence should be fostered in infancy and childhood and nurtured throughout adolescence and adulthood. Although psychology has had a long history with I.Q. (Intelligence Quotient), maybe it is time to focus on the other half that makes us human, E.Q. (Emotional Quotient).
- Byrnes, J.P. (2005). The development of self-regulated decision making. In J.E. Jacobs & P. A. Klaczynski (Eds.), The development of judgment and decision making in children and adolescents (pp. 5-38). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Denham, S. A. (1998). Emotional Development in Young Children. NY: Guilford Press.
- Festinger, L. A. (1957). Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, Ill: Row Peterson.
- Field, T., Sandburg, S., Garcia, R., Vega-Lahr, N., Goldstein, S., and Guy, L. (1985). Pregnancy problems, post-partum depression, and early mother-infant interaction, Developmental Psychology, 21, 1152-1156.
- Harris, P.L. (2000). Understanding emotion. In M. Lewis & J. Haviland-Jones (Eds). Handbook of emotions (2nd edition). New York: Guildford Press.
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- Marcus, G. F. (2009). Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
- McGuigan, N., & Whiten, A. (2009). Emulation and “overemulation” in the social learning of causally opaque versus causally transparent tool use by 23-and 30-month-olds. Journal of experimental child psychology, 104(4), 367-381.
- Meltzoff, A. N. & Moore, K. M. (1997). Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates. Science, 198(4312), 75-78.
- Rogers, Carl. (1961). On Becoming a Person. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
- Saarni (1999). The development of emotional competence . NY: Guilford. Press
- Saarni, C. & Harris, P.L. (1989). Children’s understanding of emotion. New York: Cambridge University Press.