6 Ways to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence

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  • Category: Experts, Mental Health
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6 Ways to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence

I like to talk with the people I work with in therapy about why we even have emotions. To do so, I often use the metaphor of a baby. When a baby has an emotion, they tend to cry. This crying and this emotion is communicating some sort of need that they have, whether they are hungry, scared, have a dirty diaper, or just want attention. If that need isn’t met, they often cry louder and harder. If it still isn’t met, they will often give up and become unresponsive and helpless. 

As adults, we are much the same. Our emotions are communicating something important to us. However, at some point in our lives, we learn ways to reign in our emotions so they don’t interfere with our productive lives. While this is (somewhat) normal and appropriate, when taken too far can leave us out of touch with our emotions and helpless like the baby whose needs aren’t being met. So, this article is all about the benefits of being able to recognize, use, and manage our emotions. 

What is Emotional Intelligence (EI)?
Emotional intelligence (EI) is defined as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions,” (Salovey & mayer, 1990, p. 189). Essentially, when we are able to recognize how we are feeling in any given moment and use that information to make decisions about how best to move forward. Our EI develops throughout our lifespan and is a critical factor influencing our ability to successfully navigate social contexts. There are four interrelated skills that impact our ability to manage our emotions (Salovey & Grewal, 2005):

  1. Perceive Emotions: This is our ability to recognize and label emotions that exist both in yourself and in others. People tend to give off emotional cues in social settings (tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, etc) and we must be able to effectively pick up on what those cues mean. Similarly, we must be able to effectively express the emotions that we are having. Rather than laughing when we are feeling uncomfortable (incongruent emotional expression), being able to demonstrate our discomfort is critical for effectively communicating with others (congruent emotional expression). That way, others will know when and how to interact with us on a daily basis.
  2. Use Emotions: This is our ability to actually use our emotions to guide our thoughts and behaviors. As our emotions are telling us something about our needs, we must be able to use the emotions to help guide us toward meeting our own and others’ needs. People often feel like their emotions are a burden and either ignore or avoid their emotions or compartmentalize them until they have more time to address them. Regardless, when we do not use our emotions to guide thoughts and behaviors, we are not meeting our needs.
  3. Understand Emotions: This is our ability to comprehend emotion-related language and the complexity of the interrelation between our many emotions. Emotions exist in different intensities and different flavors based on the situation. For example, happiness about finally taking a vacation is different from our happiness at drinking our favorite warm beverage. We must be able to both understand and communicate these nuances. Additionally, our emotions are often layered, with some being in reaction to other, more core emotions. Anger in particular is considered a reactive emotion that we have to other emotions like betrayal or fear. Being able to self-reflect on our core and reactive emotions and how both influence us is key to this third skill.
  4. Manage Emotions: This is our ability to regulate our own emotions and to help others do the same. One important step in our ability to manage our emotions is accepting them for what they are. It often isn’t the emotion itself that causes problems in our life, but rather our reaction to the emotion. Additionally, knowing ways to effectively cope with our emotions over time is critical to their management. What works for us one day may not work for us the next and being able to internally reflect on what we need is a highly individualized skill. We also must have the interpersonal and communication skills to be able to help others manage their own emotions. 

While there has been some debate regarding whether this can actually be called a form of intelligence, EI does help to paint a fuller picture of a person’s overall functioning.  If someone has a very high intelligence quotient (IQ) and is therefore able to quickly reason and problem solve, but they are unable to effectively regulate and use their emotions, they might still have difficulties in completing the tasks they hope to complete. Having both is important to high functioning in society.

How do you tell whether you have strong EI skills? Well, folks who struggle with EI tend to frequently become overwhelmed without knowing why they are feeling that way. They tend to feel misunderstood by others and are easily upset by even small changes in their environment. On the other hand, people with strong EI skills tend to understand how their emotions impact their thoughts and behaviors, remain calm in the face of stressful situations, and are able to use their emotions to influence other people. 

EI & Mental Health
One meta-analysis demonstrated that individuals who have better perception, understanding, and management of emotion (higher EI) are less likely to experience mental health problems (Schutte et al., 2007). People with high levels of emotional perception alone (without other components) tend to be more negatively impacted by stress, expressing higher levels of depression, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation (Ciarrochi et al., 2002). This suggests that it is important to cultivate all four factors related to emotional intelligence to yield the mental health benefits. 

EI & Physical Activity
Those with high levels of EI tend to have greater levels of overall physical activity and have more positive attitudes toward physical activity (Laborde et al., 2016; Zyberg & Hemmel, 2018). It is common for those with higher EI to do more housework-related physical activity (like chores and gardening activity) and participate in more active leisure activities (Zyberg & Hemmel, 2018). Additionally, those who have high levels of EI know that exercise is an effective means of managing stress and use it intentionally to boost their mood (Solanki & Lane, 2010). Therefore, improving your emotional intelligence may be an indirect means for increasing physical activity.

EI & Eating Disorders
People high in EI show lower disordered eating attitudes and those with low EI have higher levels of disordered eating attitudes (Foye et al., 2019). Those who have eating disorders tend to have lower levels of EI in general (Zysberg & Rubanov, 2010). This same pattern holds true across all developmental stages (child, adolescent, young adult, and adult). It also seems that those with high levels of anxiety in conjunction with low levels of EI tend to have even greater risk for eating disorders (Romero-Mesa et al., 2021). 

EI & Chronic Pain
EI seems to be one factor that improves peoples’ overall experience of pain. People with high levels of EI report lesser amounts of pain (Doherty et al., 2017). Women who have fibromyalgia tend to have lower EI and difficulties understanding emotional information overall, but those who develop high levels of EI tend to report lower widespread levels of pain (Luque-Reca et al., 2021). Chronic pain tends to be associated with depression, but high levels of EI can serve as a protective factor, reducing the likelihood of depression (Costa et al., 2017).  

How to Improve EI
So, given that EI is important for functioning and is something that can be improved across the lifespan, what do we do to increase our skills? Here are a few tips that might help you in that process.

  • Identify and Label Your Emotions: One of the first steps in developing emotional intelligence is being able to recognize when you are feeling something and naming the feeling. If at first you don’t have awareness that you are experiencing emotions, this might mean checking in with yourself on regular intervals throughout your day (hourly? Three times per day?). However, once you are able to recognize when emotions are happening, you can be intentional about labeling your emotions as they emerge. It can be easy to label all positive emotions as “happy” and all negative emotions as “sad” or “angry” or “stressed.” However, it is important to be nuanced with emotion labeling and there are many emotion wheels and lists of emotions that can be helpful when first starting out.
  • Practice Self-awareness: Self-awareness is our ability to understand the reasons behind our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Knowing “why” we do things helps us to be able to act intentionally and aligned with our values and priorities (and make changes when necessary). This is not something you either have or you don’t, but is a daily practice. Often, it comes through experiencing life in its many forms and reflecting on why things happened the way they did. However, counseling, meditation, asking others for feedback, and self-reflection are all important ways to increase practice cultivating your self-awareness.
  • Pay Attention to Needs: As mentioned in the baby metaphor, our emotions are often communicating some need for us. One psychological theory suggests that humans are driven by three innate needs: autonomy, competence, and connection. We need to feel like we are independent and capable of making our own choices, like we are capable of succeeding and achieving goals, and that we have a sense of belonging to other people (Deci & Ryan, 2012). If you are struggling to identify what need underlies your emotion, maybe try to tie them back to one of these three needs. The same goes for other people, try identifying what others’ emotions are saying about what they need in life. Who knows, maybe you can help!
  • Practice Empathy: Because emotional intelligence also involves our ability to identify, understand, and help manage the emotions of others, empathy is a key skill in this process. Empathy is the ability to see and understand (at least theoretically) the emotions of others. Ask yourself “What would I feel if I were in their shoes?” while using all information you have about the person. The difficult part with this is that we tend to have biased or one-sided views of other people’s experiences. Therefore, practice gathering unbiased and as objective information as possible about how the person feels and find a way to empathize with their experience.
  • Listen to Understand: Often, and particularly in times of conflict, we listen with the intention to react or respond to what the person is saying. It is natural when we are feeling heated for our defenses to increase and prevent us from being able to truly understand what others are telling us. Therefore, go into these situations with the intention of trying to truly understand what others
  • Pause and Think: Psychologists suggest that we have two modes of thinking. System 1 thinking happens quickly and automatically with very little effort. We will most often default to this mode of thinking to save on cognitive resources. System 2 thinking is when we switch over to effortful and conscious thought processes where we rationally problem-solve within a situation. This is much harder and we have to be intentional about engaging in this type of thinking. Particularly when we are emotional, we tend to feel like we have to address the situation right in that moment. However, it is okay to pause and take time to think about the situation more objectively. Sometimes taking a step away from a situation and the emotion enables us to think about the situation more objectively. This helps us to behave in ways that align with our values and priorities in life. 

Developing emotional intelligence will likely help you with all areas of your life. We would love to hear more about the various ways that you have honed these skills. Let us know in the comments!

Written for Fitness Blender by Haley S, PhD
Licensed Psychologist


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