The pursuit of Emotional Intelligence is not for the faint of heart. The foundational skill for its pursuit is self-awareness. Like peeling an onion, it’s apt to result in tears and involves shucking many layers.
I remember several years ago when a friend was redesigning my web, I stopped by to see how it was going and found him in a painful state of exasperation. He was clearly engulfed in anxiety, spewing random self-deprecation about multiple facets of his life. I was saddened and concerned about his state. Being someone who struggled with anxiety I felt great empathy for him. I had been meditating for several years by then and believed that the practice had beneficially increased my self-awareness. I’d also been studying emotional intelligence, so I gingerly suggested investigating those practices might lead him to more self-awareness and understanding, that seeing yourself more clearly could alleviate the pain of self-criticism. He stopped the conversation by angrily stating that seeing himself more clearly would only make things worse. What he saw now was excruciatingly painful. I said that I absolutely understood and extended an open invitation to go to a meditation group with me if his feelings about it ever changed.
He was right. It takes courage to face yourself. You clearly begin to see the habits that limit you. It requires self-compassion. And it’s a gradual journey through which each revelation teaches the power and value of the journey more deeply and clearly.
In business environments, self-awareness is usually created by some form of assessment, feedback, or results. Even with these leveraged tools, we tend to resist self-awareness.
The human brain is wired to resist pain. The amygdala and other functions of the limbic system activate our defense against it. The classic forms of defense are Flight (including Denial), Fight, and Freeze. The denial aspect of flight can show up as rejecting assessment results or rejecting the motivation to change – “that’s just the way I am, I can’t change.” Fight may also appear as denial or a strong effort to eject the assessment as invalid. Freeze may show up as a refusal to have the conversation or take the feedback at face value and add it to their self-concept, instead of seeing it as information to work with.
Many of us have the habit of using Fundamental Attribution Error against ourselves. We solidify our identity by interpreting mistakes and ineffective behaviors and emotions as “who we are” instead of patterns that we might change. It’s ironic that many assessments are interpreted as hard wiring. The truth is that when you’re aware of the wiring it’s possible to reroute or regulate the current.
Interoception is the perception of sensations from inside the body and includes the perception of physical sensations related to internal organ function such as heartbeat, respiration, and satiety, as well as the autonomic nervous system activity related to emotions (Vaitl, 1996; Cameron, 2001; Craig, 2002; Barrett et al., 2004).
The foundation of Self-Awareness beyond any external feedback is Emotional Self-Awareness. This is the fertile ground for any seeds of change and an authentic sense of self. The scientific term is interoception. Although interoception is vital to healthy functioning, there are many messages in our culture that encourage dampening the emotional awareness skill. We’re taught to stuff it down and “get the job done.” In doing this we also forfeit a very useful aspect of our psyche. Over-controlling or shutting down our emotional awareness effectively short-cuts our natural drive to achieve recognition of our personal dignity. To cut off the emotional signals of interoception uses global circuitry in the brain and is exhausting. Although there may be some circumstances in which it might save our lives, if it is our primary emotional strategy for regulation, it leads to mental illness. It also leads to self-alienation. (Reference: Department of Psychology, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China)
It’s interesting that for decades we’ve subscribed to the belief that “there is no place for emotions in the workplace.” Now we’re seeing that workplace satisfaction statistics are consistently low and that there is an outcry for and healthy movement toward management based on authentic relationships and recognition. This will not happen without professionals building the skills of emotional self-awareness. But it takes courage. And we need encouragement to do it.
Yet it requires the type of courage that is not based in defense and aggression, but in openness and trust. We simply need to notice and experience the sensations our body/mind is sending us and trust that there is value in them that is particular to our life experience. And because they are unique to our experience, we may also need to examine their meaning. Give yourself the gift of self-recognition.
The how-to is simple but it’s also a practice. Do it often. Practice it.
- Create the habit of pausing to check your physical/mental/emotional state.
– Notice your thinking, your physical sensations, and emotional feelings – taking a deep breath can help you tune-in
I’m criticizing my teammates, my shoulders are tense and up to my ears, and I feel…
OR – I’m having trouble focusing, I’m tired, and I’m…
- Identify the feeling – *Allow self-empathy for whatever it is. We often criticize ourselves for any feeling that is not upbeat thus denying our reality
– I’m angry
Ask why. Is it related to current circumstances or might this remind you of a situation in your past that is intensifying the feeling? Either way, it’s good information.
– I’m hungry
Get something to eat.
- Work with the feeling to answer your question “Why” and understand its origin, past or present
– You might decide to do something to change it
– Or determine an appropriate way to use it
This is often called “Regulation”
1. This simple process builds Emotional Self-Awareness.
2. It gives us the self-assurance derived from self-recognition.
3. Practicing self-empathy naturally builds empathy for others.
4. Regulation skills increase our interpersonal and social skills.
The study and practice of Emotional Intelligence will touch every aspect of your life. It refines and reaches far beyond leadership, management, and productivity. It is a set of life skills that if promoted and practiced can realistically address the domestic and global divisions we currently face. It begins with the simple practice described above.