Emotions are one of the most important aspects of human experience. In one way or another, each one of us lives our lives pursuing one emotion–happiness–while trying (albeit unsuccessfully) to avoid unpleasant emotions like anger, fear, sadness and shame. According to the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy “No aspect of our mental lives is more important to the quality and meaning of our existence than emotions.” Nevertheless, far too few of us grow up knowing what we feel or why we feel the way we do.
“Emotional intelligence,” a term popularized by Daniel Goleman in his book of the same name, is defined as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” According to many researchers, it is more important than intellect, environment and many other factors in determining a person’s success or failure in life. For example, in one study of 450 men, those who were able to manage frustration, control their emotions and get along well with others as youngsters were far more likely than those without these skills to be successful later in life. This was true in spite of the fact that over 60 percent of them were from economically disadvantaged environments, and many had a less than average IQ.
Can we learn emotional intelligence? Science says we can. The latest research shows that the adult brain, for many years thought to be the incapable of forming the neural circuitry necessary for new learning, actually forms new connections quite well. Known as “brain plasticity,” this function allows us to learn new habits, skills and behaviors no matter how old we are. It isn’t easy, but journaling is one excellent way of reinforcing these new connections in our brain.
Change happens in the boiler room of our emotions… so find out how to light their fires. – Jeff Dewar
Before you can create new patterns of behavior, it is important to discard old conditioning and habitual behaviors that no longer work. Over the next few days, spend some time reflecting about what you learned about emotions as a child and how that learning still affects you today. For example, most societies teach men to express anger and aggression freely, but deny them the opportunity to show sadness or pain. At the same time, they teach girls to be quietly passive and accommodating, while permitting them to appear weak, to cry and to show fear. This kind of early conditioning continues to affect us long into adulthood unless we challenge it and replace it with something else.
As you reflect on your experience, think about your role models. What did they teach you about expressing your emotions? What messages did they convey to you about which emotions were acceptable and which were not? Bear in mind that you learned mostly by example. Like all children, you internalized what your role models did, not what they said.
As you write about these experiences, remember that you are looking for information, not trying to place blame. Understanding how you came to be the person you are today is the first step to self-awareness and positive change.
Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. Carl Gustav Jung