Take responsibility for your feelings — When you’re feeling down, take a moment and think about why you’re feeling this way. Make it a point not to blame anyone for why you’re feeling down. It’s easy to think, “My boss keeps dumping projects on my lap and this is why I’m so stressed.” This might be true but what’s your role? Are you not saying “no” enough? Are you skipping your workouts and other healthy habits and using work as an excuse? You play a part in every situation. Find your part and change what is within your control.
As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tess Brigham.
Tess Brigham (MFT, BCC), dubbed the ‘Millennial Therapist’ by CNBC, is an expert psychotherapist, certified life coach, and public speaker. She specializes in helping millennials discover their unique life path in order to go out into the world and make an impact. Tess’ acclaimed one-on-one coaching empowers young adults to gain the confidence they need to create their dream life through concrete and actionable steps.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born in a small town about 100 miles north of San Francisco called Ukiah. When I was 10 my mother and I moved to Berkeley, California. Growing up in Berkeley definitely gives you a unique perspective on the world and I’m grateful to have been surrounded by so many different types of people. In Berkeley, everyone is accepted and you’re allowed to be whoever you want to be.
My father is an attorney and my mother is a teacher and they both instilled in me drive and determination to work hard and believe in myself. My older sister, Brooke, is also an attorney and actually works with my father so I’ve spent most of my life listening to legal analysis.
I went to college on the east coast and graduated from Boston University with a Broadcasting & Film degree. My original dream was to work in the entertainment industry. I interned in the PR department at Columbia Pictures the summer before my senior year of college and then got another internship my senior year working at Warner Bros Pictures doing local PR and promoting films to other college students.
After graduation I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area and worked for 2.5 years at a local talent agency. When I was 24, I moved to Los Angeles and worked as an assistant at a mid-level talent agency and then after a year got a job working for a top talent manager.
While I should have been on top of the world, I was miserable. At work I would go into the bathroom and cry because I had no idea why I was so unhappy. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was going through a quarter-life crisis. When I was 27, I decided to leave Los Angeles and my Hollywood dreams and return to the Bay Area.
When I returned home I tried to figure out what made me happy. I kept going in circles about what it was about my former jobs that I really loved and it always came back to my love of helping our clients. I really enjoyed talking to our actor and writer clients, helping them problem-solve and finding their purpose.
This inspired me to go to graduate school to become a licensed psychotherapist almost 20 years ago. Today, in addition to being a licensed psychotherapist, I’m also a board certified coach and specialize in helping Millennials/Gen Zers find their own passions and purpose.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
It was a tragic event that inspired me to pursue my current career. When I was 27 and back in Hollywood trying to figure out what to do with my life, I learned one of my good friends and college roommate, Heather, had passed away suddenly.
After Heather’s funeral I returned to Los Angeles and everything became crystal clear. Life was too short. I wasn’t going to wait one more day to be happy and I was going to honor Heather by pursuing what was important and meaningful to me.
Heather’s death helped me make the decision to leave Hollywood and pursue not a life I thought would look good to other people, but a life full of meaning and purpose. This is why I work with young adults today. The 20-something years into the 30-something years are so important. It’s the decisions we make during this time that shape our lives. It was Heather’s death that shook me awake but I don’t think we have to experience a tragedy to discover what’s important.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
Honestly, I have to say it’s my parents. My parents taught me the value of hard work and they impressed upon me so many of the values I try to instill in my own child. I feel incredibly blessed to have parents who told me I could be whomever I want to be. They never stopped me from pursuing any of my dreams and they went out of their way to support me, financially and emotionally.
I never understood how much my parents did for me, or the sacrifices they made, to ensure I was provided with a good education. They really did give me everything I needed in order to become a productive and successful adult. Even today they’re still making sacrifices by helping me pay for my son’s education.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Probably the most important mistake I ever made was believing that since I didn’t have years of experience in something, my opinion wasn’t very valuable. After I left the entertainment industry and returned to the Bay Area, I started working for a production company. This company produced short videos/ads for a large retail store and I didn’t have a lot of experience in production or advertising. While I had been working for several years I didn’t have a lot of direct experience.
I remember being in a meeting with one of the heads of the company and everyone was talking about these pitches and I didn’t think he would want to hear from me so I was not prepared when he turned to me and said, “What do you think Tess?”
I don’t remember what I said exactly, I just stumbled over my words and made an excuse about how I didn’t know and I didn’t have any experience. I cringe every time I think about that moment.
This taught me when you’re in the room, have something to say. You don’t always have to say it and you won’t always be called on but be prepared to say something. It also taught me even though I might not have direct experience, my opinion matters. Really we were talking about ads for a retail store — of course I have some experience — I’ve been to the store, I shop, I’m a consumer.
No matter how much experience you have and no matter how old you are, you have something to say.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
If you want to become either a therapist or a coach I would urge you to first work with your own therapist or coach. It’s really important to understand yourself, your history and your early relationships. It’s through the process of understanding yourself and your early experiences that you can determine the kind of person you want to be and the kind of life you want to live. It’s through this kind of exploration that will inform your decisions.
Being a therapist and coach will bring up a lot of feelings and you want to be able to have a healthy relationship with yourself so you can have a healthy relationship with your clients and provide them the best service.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
There are so many books that have made a significant impact on my life but the one that always stands out is: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
“Man’s Search for Meaning” is Viktor Frankl’s story of spending over four (4) years in a Nazi death camp. Frankl lost everything: his medical practice, his manuscript, his wife and his parents. Frankl had a choice, he could stay angry about the devastating loss of control and wither away and die or he could find a way to survive and actually create meaning in his life.
The first ½ of the book is about Frankl’s time at the death camps which isn’t an easy read but it’s worth understanding Frankl’s mindset and his ability to face the worst imaginable situation and emerge with a new way of being. It resonates so much because it constantly reminds me: I create my reality.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Courage isn’t the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking.” Dr. Susan David from her book, “Emotional Agility”
This resonates with me because I love the image that it brings me in my mind. We see someone doing something big and scary and we assume they have no fear and all the confidence in the world. Not true. When you see someone doing something big and scary, they feel fear, they just don’t let that stop them.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Currently I’m working on a book! Right now it’s called, “Find Your Path: the ultimate guidebook for navigating your 20-something years.” This is just a working title but essentially I’ve taken everything I’ve learned in the last 10 years from primarily working with young adults.
The book is about the 6 key issues all of my clients struggle with and I talk about how to navigate these issues along with stories about clients I’ve helped over the years and some of the exercises I use to help these clients. I want the book to be fun and easy to read but with lots of great advice and actionable steps you can take if you want to start to make better decisions, let go of your fears and find your own passion and purpose.
My mission is to help young people gain the clarity and confidence they need to make a huge impact on the world. Imagine if our young people gained these skills now, what could they accomplish in their 30s or 40s or 50s. I want to empower this younger generation so they can build a better future for all of us.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority about Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is the foundation of what I teach my clients. When you have high EQ (Emotional intelligence) you’re able to better manage how you feel, you can address your stress and anxiety in healthier ways, diffuse conflict and, most importantly, practice empathy.
In addition to teaching the concepts of EQ to all of my clients, I’m also certified to provide assessments in EQ-i 2.0 and EQ-360. These are both great tools to use to better understand your level of emotional intelligence as well as in the areas that need improvement.
For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?
Emotional intelligence refers to having the ability to manage your emotions as well as the emotions of other people. There are 5 key elements to EQ: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.
How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?
Intelligence quotient (IQ) is based on the standardized assessments we’re all familiar with and those assessments cover: visual and spatial processing, knowledge of the world, fluid reasoning, working memory and short-term memory and quantitative reasoning. Someone with a high IQ is thought of as being “book smart.”
Having high EQ means you’re aware of yourself and your emotions and having the ability to manage those emotions. Motivation to work for a larger meaningful goal as well as having a desire to continually learn. Empathy and social skills are about looking outward, past your own interpersonal experience. Having empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see the world through their perspective and social skills is about being able to have positive and healthy relationships which allow you to build rapport and find common ground. Someone with a high EQ is thought of as being “street smart.”
Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?
It was once believed that having a high IQ would automatically lead to having a successful life but what more and more studies are showing is the ability to regulate your emotions and practice empathy are the signs of good leaders. Intelligence alone can’t build a successful company and it can’t create solid interpersonal relationships. You need to have a high EQ if you have a job that requires a lot of interaction with other people.
Over the years I’ve worked with a number of highly intelligent and incredibly hard working people who struggled when they’re put into a position of leadership. There was one executive coaching client I worked with who was probably one of the smartest people I had ever encountered but he had no idea how to communicate with his direct reports. Since my client was intelligent and a hard worker, his bosses assumed he would make for a great manager but the moment he started the new role he was baffled because his direct reports weren’t following through with their projects.
What we realized was his direct reports were confused about the projects he was assigning them and based on our conversations, I believe my client was really intimidating to many of them. My client didn’t spend any time building rapport with his team or trying to understand their current workloads and challenges. My client thought that his team should simply be motivated because they got a paycheck but that’s not the case for many people. While my client had an incredibly high IQ, his inability to connect with and understand his direct reports made it difficult for his team to get much work done.
Would you feel comfortable sharing a story or anecdote about how Emotional Intelligence has helped you in your life? We would love to hear about it.
About 10 years ago, I worked at an inpatient drug and alcohol program. It was a short-term program which means patients stay anywhere from 14–28 days. This meant there were people constantly leaving the program and people entering into the program. In addition the level of motivation to be sober varied greatly. There were some people who really wanted to get sober and there were others that only came to appease a loved one. Some of the patients were very happy and grateful to be in our program and others were really angry about having to be there.
A big part of my job was running groups for the patients which meant you had to be on your toes all the time. There were constantly new personalities and the dynamics of the group were always changing based on the people in the program at that moment.
Emotional intelligence helped me not only manage my own emotions but also help me not take things personally. Our patients were going through a hard time, for some this was the hardest thing they’ve ever been through, and they would take their anger and frustration about their present situation out on me. I didn’t enjoy being treated this way but it taught how to not let someone else’s “stuff” affect me and my own mood.
Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?
One of the 5 key elements of Emotional Intelligence is empathy. Learning to practice empathy in the workplace will not only help you create a better connection with your colleagues, managers and direct reports but it will help you build trust, increase motivation and retain valuable employees.
Leaders with high EQ understand their employees which allows them to “read the room” and speak with honesty and integrity. When you have a high EQ you have less stress because you know how to manage your anxiety. Empathy as a leadership skill helps you build the bonds of trust, it gives you insight into how people think and feel and it will help inform your decision-making and helps sharpen your intuition.
For example right now we’re in the middle of a pandemic which means everyone is anxious and on edge. Employees are scared about losing their jobs, they’re struggling to be productive and they’re worrying about family and friends and themselves getting sick. Some employees are having to care for elderly parents or young children while also trying to work or simply feeling overwhelmed in general.
In order to help your employees through this tough time and help them continue to stay motivated and productive leaders must practice empathy. When a leader lacks empathy everyone keeps their guard up and protects their own self-interest. This means your employees will fear sharing with you how they are really feeling which can have long term effects on the company’s overall productivity and growth as well as effects on the mental health of your employees.
Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?
Often in relationships, we think about what our partner or friend or relative is or is not doing and how that affects us and how we feel about the relationship. We see relationships as 50/50 and we’re always comparing what someone else is doing for us before we’re willing to do anything for them. This attitude towards relationships doesn’t work. When both people in any relationship are always weighing out and considering what the other person is doing for them then the relationship starts to feel transactional as opposed to something you want to invest your time and energy into because you care about this other person.
When you have high EQ, you’re more self-aware of how your thoughts and feelings are affecting your attitude towards the other person and you can make adjustments to stop comparing and competing and start focusing on the kind of relationship you want to have and start treating your partner/friend/loved one the way you want to be treated.
If you want to increase communication and have deeper conversations, practice empathy and think about what’s going on in your partner’s life and when they would be most receptive to having a deeper conversation. Having high EQ also means you’re able to accept you may not get the answer you were hoping for right away and to continue to look for ways to create a deeper connection without blaming your partner.
Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?
Over the years of working with thousands of people, I’ve found there are many things that contribute to having optimal mental health. You’re confident in yourself and your life decisions, you feel optimistic and hopeful about the future, you’re able to take responsibility for your actions while staying compassionate with yourself and you’re able to manage your thoughts and emotions on a daily basis.
Many of my clients struggle with decision-making. They make decisions from a place of fear or they make decisions not for themselves, but for other people. One of the key elements of EQ is self-regulation. Self-regulation is “using emotional knowledge to prevent moods or emotions from causing impulsive behavior.” If you’re able to self-regulate your thoughts and feelings you’re going to make decisions not impulsively because you feel like you “have to” but from a place of deep understanding of what you want for yourself and your own life.
Another key element of EQ is internal motivation which is taking action and making decisions based on your own inner drive. You’re not acting impulsively, but from a place inside of you that desires a different kind of life. Many people feel like they have no control in their lives. They have no control over their thoughts and feelings but in actuality this is the one thing they have complete control over. When you feel more in control of what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling you’ll make better choices and you’ll have the inner drive to accomplish your goals. These skills increase your confidence and makes you feel more optimistic about the future.
Ok. Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you recommend five things that anyone can do to develop a greater degree of Emotional Intelligence? Please share a story or example for each.
1) Practice becoming more self-aware
I’ve talked a lot about becoming more self-aware, but this is the foundation for everything. If you don’t know what you think and feel, you’re going to allow your emotions to rule your life. A great way to learn how to be more aware of your thoughts and feelings in real time is to set your alarm on your phone to go off 3–4x a day, and when the alarm goes off, stop what you’re doing and check in with yourself. What are you thinking about? How are you feeling mentally, physically, emotionally? Are you ruminating about something from the past or something that may or may not happen in the future? Allow yourself to focus on the present moment. Don’t judge yourself or your thoughts and feelings, you’re just noticing and then redirecting back to the present moment. You’re learning how to train your attention. The more you practice the more you’ll notice you won’t need the alarm.
2) Take responsibility for your feelings
When you’re feeling down, take a moment and think about why you’re feeling this way. Make it a point not to blame anyone for why you’re feeling down. It’s easy to think, “My boss keeps dumping projects on my lap and this is why I’m so stressed.” This might be true but what’s your role? Are you not saying “no” enough? Are you skipping your workouts and other healthy habits and using work as an excuse? You play a part in every situation. Find your part and change what is within your control.
3) Get curious
Start getting curious about the people in your life. Imagine you just landed on this planet or you’re a detective out to solve a case — how would you look at the world? Ask more questions than statements. Each opportunity you get to meet someone new or go to a new place, keep repeating to yourself, “get curious.”
4) Practice your listening skills
This goes hand in hand with getting curious. When you’re meeting someone new, shut off all of your devices and give them your full attention. Your mind will wander and that’s OK but practice being really present with this person and listen to what they have to say. Don’t just sit there pretending to listen and think about other things. Really listen to the words and don’t worry about what you’re going to say or how you will respond.
5) Start networking on an individual basis
Start focusing on your relationships with people. When are substituting social media for real connections. A big part of having high EQ is having good social skills and learning to connect with individuals is a great way to practice your social skills and many of the other skills I mentioned earlier like curiosity and active listening.
Do you think our educational system can do a better job at cultivating Emotional Intelligence? What specific recommendations would you make for schools to help students cultivate Emotional Intelligence?
Absolutely the educational system can do a better job of cultivating EQ in their students. The rise of technology has made it too easy for children to avoid learning some of the basics of good human interaction. The best way to bring more EQ to schools is by teachers learning how to embed EQ into their lessons. I have a 13 year old son so I know how hard it is to teach EQ to kids! I find when I try to talk to him directly, it never works but if I ask him a question or pose a scenario to him he is more responsive because it doesn’t feel like I’m teaching him a lesson.
One way to help schools is to start teaching principals EQ. Everything comes back to leadership and the principal sets the tone for the entire school. Once the principal is practicing their EQ skills, then the teachers can learn. The more the principal and teachers practice EQ and challenge each other to practice it with their students, the more it will influence the students. Modeling is really important with children. Then the teachers can start to embed this into their lessons.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement it would be to empower 20-something and 30-something women to use these years of their life to improve their sense of self, to stop focusing on other people, to ask for what they need at work and to feel empowered to say “no” when they mean “no” and “yes” when they mean “yes.” Imagine if young women just starting out in life and in their careers could feel bolder and stronger? We’ll have generations of women who are able to make great changes for the next generation.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Brene Brown! She is my favorite author, speaker and I love the work she is doing to help all of us be more vulnerable and let go of our shame. Her research has been so influential for me and I recommend all of her books, Ted Talks and her podcast to my clients.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can learn about me on my website: www.tessbrigham.com. I also have a Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjI9IB39wZK2ZuowijDzCFQ
Or you can follow me on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tess_brigham/
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.