EQ: The Destruction Of Controlling Emotions


I work for a company that champions Emotional Intelligence (EQ) (110%, probably where you are reading this blog). We recruit on EQ, we develop our client’s EQ, and we try to create our own EQ community. So we’re pretty clued up on EQ.

I’m also personally a big advocator of EQ. Essentially, it’s definitely what makes our society go round, makes great leaders, and allows us to function both socially and professionally. Today, however, I’m going to talk about the problem of EQ.

My realisation started when I was trying to write a blog about anxiety. I was going to share my own experiences, draw on others, and hopefully come up with solutions to help lift the weight of anxiety a little. Having high emotional intelligence, should mean that you are able to control your anxiety. Understanding that you are feeling anxious, and controlling that anxiety, is all part of good EQ. Mayer and Salovey who were the first coiners of the term ‘emotional intelligence’ (1997) define it as:

… the ability to perceive accurately, appraise and express emotion; the ability to access and/or generate feelings when they facilitate thought; the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge; and the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth.

The more popular modern name in emotional intelligence is  Daniel Goleman and his  four components of EQ are:

  1. Self Awareness

  2. Self Management

  3. Social Awareness

  4. Relationship Management

It’s hard to argue about the importance of these factors, in fact there is plenty of research in the benefits of honing skills in each. However, when thinking about anxiety, or the mirage of our human emotions, I’m going to take issue with self management, or Mayer and Salovey’s ‘regulation’ of emotions. Not because I think we should be screaming or crying or hurling our emotions out on the street. Of course, that would be limiting, in both our private or public lives. I just don’t think it’s a very helpful to try and 'regulate' or 'manage' our emotions. Goleman breaks down Self Management into the following:

  • Achievement Orientation
  • Positive Outlook
  • Adaptability
  • Emotional Balance

All of these have the undertones for a need of control. My problem is, we can’t control our emotions. We are going to feel things and experience things that we don’t necessarily understand, that might be cripplingly painful, or just numbing. 

This Guardian article has a series of really touching stories about the struggle of living with serious anxiety. There seems to be a trend of 'worrying about worrying'. Jo explains how she has ‘feelings about feelings’.

I worry that my feelings aren’t real or that my feelings about my feelings are the correct feelings, or my feelings are the wrong feelings. I have shame about my feelings, guilt about my feelings, anger about my feelings.

It’s this concept of ‘correct’ feelings that can create our toxic 'worrying about worrying': we need to remove our incorrect feelings. If everything in my life is going well, but I'm still feeling anxious, then something must be wrong with me. 

Sarah Wilson builds changing our approach to anxiety in her book ‘First We Make the Beast Beautiful’, which talks about her own life with anxiety. The book shares her very painful experiences, but also comes to the conclusion that, the thing that helped her most, was acknowledging her anxiety. To feel it. This may sound like madness, but hear it out.

Colin Bien, a sufferer of a panic disorder in his TEDx talk, advocates for a similar thing. He describes his anxiety loop which started with perceiving signs of anxiety or panic, having physical reactions to this, panicking about these further, and resulting in the feeling of losing his mind. He discovered what really helped was accepting, not fearing and fighting, his attacks. The more he started to accept his attacks, the more he was able to feel calmer about them

Bien also mentioned the need to create routines that lessen stress. What that means to each of us, will be different. For him, it was removing caffein and doing exercise. For others it might be watering your plants, taking time to write, sharing a piece of cake with friends, or travelling around the world. 

So perhaps emotional intelligence is missing out a key concept, and that is acceptance of emotions. I might feel anxious today, and I might feel anxious tomorrow. But that’s ok. These feelings are a part of living. We might not be able to manage them, but what we can do, is talk to others about them, acknowledge they are there, and make sure we look after ourselves. Because likewise, it's no good accepting we are feeling stressed or anxious, but not adapting our lifestyles to try to alleviate any of that. 

Anxiety is a difficult thing to understand or control. But what we can do, is allow ourselves to feel it, to acknowledge and accept it. This in return, may allow us to understand ourselves.

The School of Life  offers some very valid thoughts on accepting our anxiety. Alain De Botton says it’s important to ‘accept that we’ll always be anxious’. He vouches for the need to share our anxiety with others. We will be alone in our anxiety, but there’s no need to be lonely.

So I'm not discarding Emotional Intelligence, I'm still a strong believer in the need to develop it. However, I'm going to suggest that it's more helpful to start with accepting our emotions. Allow yourself to feel them.