emotional intelligence jam session: 5 key truths to understand & work with your emotions

emotional-intelligence I love talking and writing about emotion, and while it can be an incredibly complex phenomenon, learning a few core truths can make understanding and working with emotions much more approachable. Also, I just have to say, I had a total dork-out moment just now when I realized how I wanted to title this post: "emotional intelligence jam session." I think I just came up with a whole new series of posts! I will plan to do regular "jam sessions" on different topics in which I lay out the most fundamental info on a topic (not going super deep into any one area), because I know sometimes that's all you have time to read.

So let's jam for a few minutes about emotion, shall we?

1 // Know your "core emotions."

Know them, identify them, speak them. Having a large emotional vocabulary can be useful at times, but it's even more important to be able to identify and label the most basic "core" emotions. These differ depending on who you ask, but I've found that these nine cover it pretty well: happiness, joy, love, fear, anger, sadness, loneliness, guilt, and shame. When you're in an emotionally charged situation, it can be really difficult to separate the facts from the story. When you say "I feel hurt and disrespected," this might be part of how you're interpreting the situation, but if you identify and label the core feelings under this experience -- perhaps anger, fear, and loneliness -- this can ultimately be more empowering and validating than just using the language of your interpretation. Communicating core emotions also tends to help you be "heard" better than just speaking your interpretation. Another good rule of thumb: When you say "I feel _______," try to be conscious of actually using an emotion word there, rather than a statement like "I feel like you never listen to me!" That's a thought, not a feeling.

2 //  There are no negative emotions.

I say this with a mild caveat, in that I have a hard time finding value in the emotion of shame, but there's definitely value in guilt (which some folks call "healthy shame" as opposed to "toxic shame"). Still, there is no way to totally prevent or avoid shame, so we're better off accepting its inevitability and having an action plan when it shows up rather than demonizing it altogether. And there's undoubtedly value in all the other core emotions, even though they may not always feel pleasant at the time. The only way out is through, right? (Sing it, Alanis.) When you look back at the experiences in life that you've grown the most from, are they all happy ones? I highly doubt it. As NY Times columnist David Brooks writes, "It should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible. But some people are clearly ennobled by it ... Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring."

3 // We have limited control over our emotions.

Yeah, this one sometimes sucks. But it's just true. There is no opting out of sadness, fear, or loneliness, no matter how many positive affirmations, spiritual practices, or meditation you do. If your motivation is to try to prevent unpleasant emotions, you'll find yourself chasing your tail -- and chances are, you'll actually end up creating more suffering with some of the things you do to avoid feeling. Also, as Brené Brown always reminds us, there's no such thing as selective numbing. You want to numb fear and anger? You'll end up numbing joy and love, too. Once you start thinking of your emotions as teachers and communication from your body instead of annoyances to rid yourself of ASAP, you can start to have a different relationship with even the not-so-warm-fuzzy ones.

4 // Emotions show up in your body, not your head.

Starting to recognize how and where you feel each emotion in your body is a huge step toward cultivating emotional intimacy with yourself and in your relationships. Most people in our hypertechnologized culture are largely disconnected from their bodies from the neck down, living totally up in their heads. In order to connect with emotion in the body, you have to first start with connecting with your body in general. This can be done via any practice that involves conscious awareness of your body, like meditation, yoga, dance, or balancing your chakras. When you get more familiar with how each emotion shows up in your body, you can determine better how to tend to those emotions. Also, the emotion-based “gut” often tends to be more accurate and intuitive than listening to the constant over-analysis of the mind. As my colleagues and I like to say, “ask your body, not your brain.”

5 // With that said, your feelings are not an emergency.

A client was actually the first person I heard this phrase from, and I shouted “YES!” because it rang so true. I often need this reminder in moments of intense emotional charge when I want to react immediately to “fix” things in the short-term — because in those moments, I know that my judgment is often clouded by urgency and I’m not considering all the long-term repercussions of my actions. What I really need to do is get to a journal or a trusted friend and process the situation and my feelings before reacting impulsively and doing or saying something I’ll later regret. In DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), the sign of an effective crisis coping skill is not whether it made you feel better emotionally, but whether you got through the crisis moment without making things worse for yourself. That’s a much more realistic goal, because often there is nothing that can be done (beyond sharing your story with someone) that can immediately improve a tough situation or your feelings about it.

I hope you enjoyed this first jam session! I would love to hear any comments you have about this post or emotions in general, and any requests for future jam sessions. 

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.