How to Avoid Our Cultural Detours to Emotional Bypass

©Steve Whiteford, 2022

I am concerned about how emotional intelligence continues to be characterized by terminology that can promote emotional bypassing. Despite all of the great research and writing that has been done on the power of embracing emotions, and having a strong emotional vocabulary, I still notice resistance to the foundational skill of emotional intelligence. Leadership experts often tread lightly in references to the topic.

The foundational skill of Emotional Intelligence is emotional self-awareness. It is positioned as the foundation of Daniel Goleman’s model of Emotional Intelligence. Bar-on Levy (the creator of EQi) cited, “It is not only the ability to be aware of one’s feeling and emotions, but also to differentiate between them, to know them, to know what one is feeling and why, and to know what caused the feelings.” It is that acceptance and ability that makes it possible for us to regulate them – the adjunct skill of emotional self-awareness.

These two essential skills depend on the acknowledgment and acceptance of emotions, and their value – the very useful data they give us regarding our state of being, and the impetus to evaluate the information and make the best use of it.

But we live in a culture that continues to be suspicious of emotion. This is especially true of corporate culture. It’s also an aspect of our male-dominated culture that holds a stubborn bias against the acknowledgment and expression of emotion as feminine. What is feminine is repulsive in this context. No matter how complex our romantic characterizations of the feminine may be, at base there is disgust. It is this bias that stubbornly blinds us to the usefulness and inherent humanity of our feelings.

*I credit Brené Brown for having the insight to recognize that at the core of most prejudice is the emotion of disgust.

Generally, emotional intelligence is described and measured by characteristics, traits – and assorted concepts. They include words like self-esteem, accountability, genuineness, optimism, empathy, assertiveness, honesty, curiosity, resilience, kindness, accountability, independence, self-actualization, flexibility, and many more.

The challenge is that without a strong practice of emotional self-awareness and regulation these signposts serve as detours to emotional bypasses. Emotional bypassing is when we skip the real work of the practice of emotional self-awareness and regulation and just try to portray a characteristic or skill. We fake it. We shortcut by assuming behaviors. We quickly believe “we got this.”

When I first tested in EQi, Independence was my highest score of the 15 subscales (skills/characteristics). So, being a diligent learner I immediately assumed some more interdependent behaviors. I invested in more small talk, checked in with my manager more, and performed more drive-bys with my peers. But I remained unaware of the emotions that drove my independence. I continued to take pride in my independence as a part of my identity. My coaching was behavioral, not emotional. It helped me emotionally by-pass true learning. If we try to gain emotional intelligence through the vagueness of a concept we miss the point. We need to track the feelings that motivate the behavior.

After years of practicing emotional intelligence (which I consider a LIFE-LONG LEARNING), I can now see that my independence is driven by a lack of trust, a fear of rejection, and the arrogance of wanting to be right and superior. That makes me sad. By applying a little self-empathy the sadness genuinely opens me to learning and empathy which enables me to make genuine interpersonal connections.

Our culture constantly tempts us to emotionally bypass. We love memes, pictograms, and concepts. Don’t you feel great when you read a meme like: “You are not your emotions!” and you say to yourself “Damn! I got that” with great pride? I do. Doesn’t feel good to read a list of characteristics, check ‘em off, and start acting as we should? Sure it does. Short-cut heuristics catch our attention and inspire, but they can also deceive us.

I learned how cool a bypass was as a kid when I lived a mile from the West Chester, PA Bypass that allowed trucks and cars to totally circumvent the great beauty of our little college town with its huge trees and old mansions. The bypass was faster and supported commerce. Eventually, the quaint downtown died when they opened a new mall on a nearby main route.

When we emotionally bypass, we miss the beauty of our humanity and the depth of learning. We trade them in for acceptable business behaviors that we’re told support our commerce and keep our jobs.

I challenge you to notice the repulsion in our bias toward emotions and its powerful subtlety. Take a personal deep dive and practice the vital skills of emotional self-awareness and regulation. Indulge in the study of emotional knowledge and build your awareness of how to work with emotions, recognize them in others, and build your vocabulary and range of expression. Through these skills, we can hasten the establishment of the kinds of work cultures that will help us thrive.

Studies prove that suppressed emotions result in psychological problems. Emotions that are intelligently utilized result in greater mental health.

Here’s the practice, consider it an art:

·        Pause and notice body sensation/feeling

·        Allow yourself to experience it

·        Name the feeling(s)

·        Explore their cause

·        Determine their meaning – interpret the data

·        Consider how to benefit from the information

·        Take action to use, change or release the emotion

This can take less than a minute. For instance, mild anxiety might be relieved with a physical stretch, or by taking a break. When an emotion is confusing or disruptive it may take a little bit longer but will still lead to a workable expression.

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