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How to Cultivate Emotional Intelligence

You reflect on yet another moment which you were reactive or just weren't able to meet someone close to you in a time of emotional need and you realize you want more access and skill with emotions.  Intellectually you understand the concept of emotional intelligence.  You understand your own experience and from the books and research just how important it is to attend to emotional skills.  But how do you start?


Perhaps the most helpful thing to start with is accepting that building the resilience and skills of emotional intelligence requires effort and practice like anything else.  It's a lot of work, at first.  With consistent practice you can learn the skills to move into relationship with emotion.  You can feel the depth and breadth of great joy and great grief without being tossed about in the emotional sea.


Let's start with three foundational skills that will help you cultivate emotional intelligence:  

  1. Awareness & Comfort with Emotions

  2. Emotional Regulation or Access to Emotions

  3. Following emotions to universal needs and actions to meet those needs


Awareness & Comfort with Emotions

Set your intention to cultivate mindfulness of emotion.  It might sound something like this:  "I will notice and allow emotion to arise.  As soon as I notice any emotion, I will breath into my center and ask myself where do I feel this emotion in my body?  How is it moving?  I will tell myself that it's okay to feel what is there.  I can handle it, I can be with it."


Each time you simply name an emotion as it arises you are teaching yourself to become more aware.  Each time you notice what's there without making meaning of it or moving toward or away, you are expanding your comfort with emotion.  For more on this practice see this article:  http://www.wiseheartpdx.org/post/809


Access to Emotion and/or Emotional Regulation

If you have adapted to difficult life events by shutting down access to emotions, then you can start to open the door to your emotional world by simply asking yourself to notice what you feel, and celebrate even the smallest bit of body sensation or emotion.  In mindfulness practice or meditation, keep asking, "What do I feel?".  The more you ask the more the door will open and consciousness will answer you.  This is something you can do on your own.


Practice on your own is important, but not enough.   The secure presence of someone who can listen with empathy is also needed to open the doors to your emotions.  This might be a therapist, spiritual teacher, spiritual community, mentor, close friend, or partner.


If you already feel plenty, so much so, that you experience an emotional roller coaster, then emotional regulation is your focus.  Emotional regulation is founded on the practices of awareness and increasing comfort with emotion as described above.  Here are a few ways to help with emotional regulation:

  • Spend a significant part of each day or week in an emotionally healthy community that treats you with kindness and respect.

  • Know what's grounding for you and do it on a regular schedule whether you think you need it or not.  Grounding activities might include; gardening, exercise, time with pets, crafts, sculpting, painting, journaling, time in nature, massage, qigong, deep breathing, prayer, meditation, etc.

  • Ask for and receive empathy as often as possible.  Even a moment of being heard makes a difference.  

  • Learn and practice self-empathy until it is an automatic part of your internal dialogue.

  • Find a schedule that fits your bio-rhythm and follow it in a regular way, that is, regular sleep, meal times, exercise, you know - the basics.

  • Allow and accept any emotion that moves through.  Resisting or trying to hold onto any emotion will create dysregulation.  Just saying to yourself "It's okay that emotion is here.  I can be with it."  will allow you to stay centered in the biggest emotional storm.


Follow emotions to universal needs and action to meet those needs

The purpose of emotion is to let you know about your needs.  Feeling calm and content after working in the garden lets you know you met needs for grounding, exercise, contribution, and fun.  Getting curious about what needs might be connected to an emotion can lead you to take skillful action in caring for yourself and others.  Of course, being able to identify your needs is a whole skill in itself.  At the very least you can begin by becoming familiar with the needs list.  You can find it on my website:  http://www.wiseheartpdx.org/resources.html


Sometimes emotions arise out of an habitual sense of threat to your needs when no threat is there.  Anxiety is often one of these emotions.  Learning which emotions arise out of a misperception of threat and which arise out of the actuality of a met or unmet need means following the emotion to the need many many times and becoming incredibly intimate with the nuance of each experience.  In time, particular emotional states become like old friends, you recognize them from a distance and you know what they need.  For example, habitual anxiety may simply want to met with acknowledgment that it's there and that's okay and the information that you are safe and loved.


When you choose to commit to the journey of cultivating emotional intelligence, you are also creating access to abiding peace and well-being and this is a precious gift to yourself and all those you encounter.


Practice

If you are already committed to this practice, take a moment now to celebrate the rewards you have experienced.  If you are new to this practice, celebrate the courage you have that allows you to begin a new adventure and choose one specific practice to focus on for today.

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