Great relationships, connections and networking are built on the foundation of emotional intelligence. It’s not enough to pretend to control your feelings, but rather to be fully in touch with your emotions and use them resourcefully.
Although you might have heard of emotional intelligence as if it were a single skill, several different skills and practices come together that allow you to stay in touch with your emotions and those around you.
Typically, there are four key areas to emotional intelligence: self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship management. The nine skills in self-awareness that I will share with you overlap with all four of these areas.
It takes an extraordinary self-awareness to use your emotions effectively to create a better life and stronger relationships.
I want to share nine ways to build self-awareness with you, allowing you to use your emotions effectively without simply swallowing them or ignoring your feelings.
1. Creating safety is the first step of emotional intelligence
Emotions can run high and may be overwhelming. Physiologically, this impacts rational thought. At that moment, emotions can overcome you, putting you in a reactive state rather than measuring your words and focusing on your thoughts.
If you want to practice self-awareness, the first step to master is creating safety; much like you would for a toddler having a tantrum. If you’ve read Crucial Conversations, Non-Violent Communication or any other book on negotiation skills, you will be conversant with the need to create safety. First, safety for yourself. Then safety for others that are with you.
Safety might be physical safety, but it’s often emotional and mental safety. More often than not, it’s safety in your body – turning off the fight/flight/freeze response in your nervous system and bringing yourself into a calm (yet alert) state.
You want to be in touch with your emotions without being overpowered by them.
Until you have mastered the ability to create safety, you will find it impossible to stay in touch with your emotions and your rational mind at the same time.
Emotional intelligence requires that you step into mindfulness.
Intentionally create a space within yourself that is safe and calm. Notice if you need a change in your physical environment to create safety: a library, café or stepping away from the person or situation.
2. Mindfulness and body scans: building self-awareness
How do you know you are in a relaxed and calm state, where you feel safe?
The short answer: because you know what it feels like to be calm and relaxed!
One of the ways that you achieve this, is by regularly practising mindfulness or doing a body scan. Mindfulness can be practised in many different ways:
- Watching your thoughts without getting caught in them
- Noticing your emotions
- Focusing on your breath or heartbeat
- Sitting in nature and concentrating on the sounds or just watching
- Sitting in a plaza or at a café and watching the world pass you by, being present with the world around you
Coming back to yourself
But most of us don’t need help staying in our heads or focusing on the world around us. What we avoid is being present in our bodies and with ourselves. School teaches us that the only memory that matters is in our head and that our thoughts and mindset can change anything.
While that is true to some extent, ignoring all the rest of you can result in challenges for emotional intelligence.
So, practice being present in your body:
- notice your breath and the rise and fall of your chest,
- feel your heartbeat in your neck or belly, and
- pay attention to the state and sensations in your gut: are there any knots in your stomach? Are your guts churning, or are they perfectly at peace?
Noticing the sensations in your body is a small step towards greater self-awareness. It can help you monitor tension, stress and emotions.
A body scan
Get used to running a body scan: starting at your toes, travelling up your legs, through your hips, and up your spine. Notice where you typically hold tension, and any muscles that you find that are tense, tighten them even further, hold for ten seconds, and then totally relax them. Now, notice the difference in how relaxed you are.
Over time, you will begin to notice what emotional states can be identified in your body and how to return to a calm and relaxed state.
3. Emotional intelligence makes meaning of what you are feeling
Part of the power of emotional intelligence is understanding what you feel (putting a name on the emotion) and making meaning of why you feel this way.
You often think, “I don’t know why I feel this way”.
When you don’t know why you feel angry, you might feel helpless to change the situation. This can be disempowering.
We are wired to make meaning in our heads of our emotions, telling ourselves stories that justify the way we feel and then allowing us to choose how to act.
Of course, emotional intelligence requires that the meaning we make be accurate!
Ways we can make meaning of our emotions.
Some of the ways you might make meaning of your emotions:
- Use an emotion wheel to identify what emotion you are feeling
- Make the sensation or feeling bigger, and then remember another moment in the past when you felt this way. Allow that memory to resurface. Notice what is the same about this situation. Also, take note of what is different. Is this emotion merely a reflection of the past, or is it something to be dealt with in the present?
- Journal about what you felt when this emotion appeared and the events and thoughts around it. And, as I said, perhaps consider events or situations from the past that were similar in which you felt the same way. What similarities and differences do these stories have?
Making meaning of your emotions does not require you to overthink or overanalyse things. It is merely noticing what is going on in life and your emotions and feelings.
From this perspective, you can then choose how to move forward with these emotions.
4. Thinking about your feelings: using your rational mind
While it’s not helpful to go overboard in thinking about your feelings, your rational mind plays a role in creating emotional intelligence.
Emotions are not good or bad.
As I’ve mentioned, your feelings can be motivating and helpful, or they can hinder your progress and create chaos in your relationships.
I’ve already mentioned the power of jealousy – you might use it as a map to show you what you desire in life. Just because another person has something does not mean that you cannot achieve what you want.
When you feel jealous, you might take time to analyse what that person is doing differently: why have they succeeded where you haven’t? What lessons can you learn from them? And do you want exactly what they have? Or is your jealousy simply shedding light on the path ahead?
Allow yourself to explore your emotions with some detachment, noticing what you notice.
5. Emotional intelligence in relationships
The biggest challenge you will face is how you relate to others. Those closest to you know your triggers and pressure points best. They probably know exactly where and when to poke you to get the most significant response.
Another perspective that you can gain on your emotions is your relationships:
- How are you relating to yourself at the moment? Are you showing yourself compassion and loving-kindness?
- What are these feelings you’re experiencing right now? Do they reflect needs that you have failed to meet?
- How might you do a better job in relating to yourself?
Ways you relate to others.
In the same way, how are your emotions and feelings resulting from how you relate to others? Do you have unmet expectations? Perhaps you made a story in your mind of how the relationship was meant to be, and you are finding that reality does not meet your expectations.
Notice how you are relating to others:
- body language
- tone of voice
- emotional state
Could there be a better way of relating to them if you took different actions?
Also, consider whether you want to invest more or less time in how you relate to this person. How would spending more time with them impact your emotions and feelings? What if you spent less time and took a break from them?
Emotional intelligence requires that you keep an awareness of your choices – how do you choose to relate to yourself and others?
6. Your emotions and what is important to you
One of the reasons for emotional conflict and turmoil is that we fail to give time, money and energy to what we value most. One of our emotional intelligence roles is noticing when we feel angry or conflicted to make better choices.
Questions that you might ask yourself to get insight:
- What situation(s) give rise to these feelings?
- What needs or desires have you overlooked or ignored? Which values did you stomp over?
Your emotional intelligence is aided by a clear idea of your values: what do you say you value, and what do you feel? Do your emotions and feelings match what you think, do and say?
Values and what you hold important also impact your emotional intelligence in relationships. Do your relationships and the people in your life (family, friends and work) uphold your values? Or are you constantly making concessions that leave you feeling inauthentic?
Can you have authentic conversations with the people that matter in your life about the things that truly matter?
When you are in touch with your emotional state and what you value, your conversations will open up new possibilities. Are you willing to listen to what they love and hold essential?
7. Your emotions are not who you are
You’ve probably said it many times:
- I am angry;
- I am frustrated; or
- any other range of I am (emotion).
But that’s not who you are! It is merely how you are feeling. If you are the sky, your emotions and feelings are the weather passing through. Some days you have sunshine and joy, and others are cloudy with tears.
Emotional intelligence requires that you sit deep in your gut and connect with who you truly are. Consider where you hold your sense of self.
I’m pretty sure it’s not in your head!
It’s somewhere deep within – for some people, closer to the heart and the thorax. For others, it’s closer to the belly button or deeper into the pelvis. And some feel it further back, towards the spine, rather than in the belly.
Only you know where you can sit with yourself. If you’ve never done this exercise before, I invite you to sit and be in your body, exploring and discovering where you feel most “you”.
And then play!
Move between sitting in the silence of being and exploring your emotions and sensations in your body. Notice how it feels just to be you versus what emotions and feelings are stirred up.
An exercise in exploration
If you have an active imagination and can easily re-enact situations, think of a time when you were very angry or frustrated. Remember the people, the place and the sounds. Amplify your feelings and sensations of being angry. Notice what and where you feel this.
Now, stand up and shake or dance for a moment, and then sit down and find that place again within yourself. And sit for a moment in the calm of being.
Now, remember a time that you were happy, laughing and joyful. Once again, add in the details of people, places, sounds and aromas. Amplify your feelings of joy and laughter. Where do you feel this? What are the sensations of fun and laughter?
Shake it off, and return to that place of self.
Emotional intelligence is partly the ability to differentiate yourself from your emotions. It takes practice.
8. Using emotional intelligence to measure risk
One of the skills of an emotionally intelligent person is that they know how to trust their gut. The challenge you face with your gut instinct is that it never speaks in complete sentences and typically doesn’t give an explanation.
It’s just a gut feeling.
Think about the physiology of the gut and the role it plays in your body:
- it is responsible for deciding whether to accept nutrients (digest) or to excrete what doesn’t serve you, deciding what is “self” or “not-self.”
- 80% of the immune system is in the gut
So, does it surprise you, then, that gut feelings are often about boundaries or keeping you safe?
That’s what your gut does for you! But, it’s not very good at talking or explaining itself coherently.
There are several ways to build self-awareness so that you can trust your gut:
- practice being calm and at peace so that you know what this feels like;
- when something “doesn’t feel right”, allow yourself to consider when you have felt this way previously? What situation were you in where this sensation appeared? What was the outcome of this situation?
- Journal some questions for your gut and sleep on them. Then answer the questions in the morning “off the top of your head”, without analysing them much. Notice any dreams or images that might come up when you first awaken.
Trust is something that you build, and it typically has four factors:
- competence, and
You can practice these with your gut instinct to build greater trust. (Competence is about allowing your gut to do boundaries, rather than letting your head overthink and anxiously catastrophise situations).
9. Using movement to get in touch with your feelings
Finally, recognise that emotions typically ask us for a response: what action will you take? The answer might be a smile or laughter and engagement if you are joyful. When you are sad, it’s okay to cry.
It’s easy to simplify emotion to E(energy) in Motion.
When you feel numb, one way to get in touch with your feelings is to move your body!
- Go for a walk or a run;
- Dance or jump around;
- Stretch gently and slowly; or
- Scream and cry at the top of your lungs (it’s also helpful to choose where and how to do this)!
Once you are in touch with your feelings, they often show you a way forward: a conversation you need to have, a decision you need to make.
Emotional intelligence will keep you moving forward in your life and relationships.
How to build self-awareness for emotional intelligence
So, here you have nine ways to build more self-awareness that will help you grow your skills of emotional intelligence:
- Create safety within and externally;
- Practice mindfulness and being present in your body;
- Make meaning of your feelings
- Use your rational mind to think about your feelings
- Consider your feelings in how you relate to yourself and others
- Take time to look at your values and what’s important to you
- Find that place of self and identity within you where you are completely present
- Learn to trust your gut
- Use movement to get in touch with your feelings
Mastery of your emotional intelligence comes with practice. I don’t have a magic wand to give you!