“Be a student of your painful experiences”, Dr. Andrea Lein and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Be a student of your painful experiences. Let life be your teacher. Are there problematic patterns in your relationships — at work, in romantic relationships, with friends — that continually crop up? It can be difficult to do this kind of self-examination, but with curiosity (not judgment), look at the role you and your emotions played in these situations […]

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Be a student of your painful experiences. Let life be your teacher. Are there problematic patterns in your relationships — at work, in romantic relationships, with friends — that continually crop up? It can be difficult to do this kind of self-examination, but with curiosity (not judgment), look at the role you and your emotions played in these situations or relationships. Ask yourself questions and be honest with yourself. Was it an issue of not knowing how you felt? Or perhaps you knew exactly how you felt, but you didn’t know how to effectively express it? Do people tell you you’re hard to read? Or do you have trouble regulating your emotions and, as a result, turn people off? Are you known for having a temper? Or are you over rational and difficult for people to connect with emotionally? Be as honest as you can with yourself. It’s from this place of radical self-honesty that we can take ownership, learn new skills, and apply new behaviors moving forward. If you do this work, you can be your best teacher.

As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewingDr. Andrea Lein.

Dr. Andrea Lein is a psychologist, parent coach, and consultant focused on helping bright, struggling young people succeed in life. She holds a Ph.D. in Clinical & School Psychology from the University of Virginia, and has spent the last twenty years serving as a school administrator, school psychologist, researcher, teacher, and gifted education expert. Most recently, she was the Head of School for a specialized therapeutic school for gifted and twice-exceptional adolescents. Dr. Lein believes in the transformative power of a holistic, systemic, positive psychology approach to mental health and emotional well-being.

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?

Absolutely. My childhood definitely shaped who I am today, and it directly plays into the work I feel called to do. I’m the oldest of four children, born to a mother who grew up on a small farm in Wisconsin and a father who immigrated from the Philippines. My parents came from two completely opposite cultures! Neither of my parents had a college degree, so from a socioeconomic perspective, we didn’t have a lot of money and it seemed like it was always a struggle. But they wanted us to go to the best schools possible, so we moved to an affluent school district in VA. I was a serious, driven student and enjoyed learning from a very young age. It came easily to me, and I received a lot of validation in that area. Plus I had the benefit of growing up around other gifted, high-achieving students in a school environment that fostered high levels of success and leadership. It’s no surprise that I’ve spent most of my career working in education.

My childhood was great in many ways, but by the time I was entering adolescence, it became clear that my parents’ marriage was crumbling. My parents eventually split up (and it wasn’t pretty), and I became a classic parentified child, thrust into very adult responsibilities at a young age. I spiraled downward emotionally. I became clinically depressed, anxious, suicidal, and began acting out in various ways. I went from being this sweet, happy, compliant child to being a surly, hurt, rebellious teenager. I was jaded and angry at the world. It was the 90s, and I sang in an indie rock band and wrote depressing music! You get the picture.

At age 19, I became pregnant and had my daughter. As someone who had high hopes of getting her Ph.D., this was definitely not part of the 10-year plan! But I can say this: it jolted me — in a very good way. It gave me a renewed sense of purpose and determination to not become a statistic. I consciously decided to raise my daughter alone. I wanted to be able to show her one day that you can make mistakes and course-correct. Still fulfill your dreams. And so, I worked really hard, graduated from college with honors, and eventually went on to pursue my Ph.D. in clinical and school psychology, while getting an M.Ed. in gifted educational psychology along the way. For me, It’s not so much about the degrees as it is about who I became in the process. I’m a very different person from my teen self, but in many ways, that angry, lost teen-aged self is what has enabled me to help other bright, hurting adolescents.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I was one of those rare people who had a pretty good sense at an early age that I wanted to be a psychologist. When I was 15, I recall telling people, “I want to be a psychoanalyst,” not fully appreciating what that meant! But in college, I met a clinical neuropsychologist, Dr. Mona Tiernan, who later became my supervisor and first real mentor. At the time, I thought I wanted to study neuropsychology, and I had the privilege of working alongside her when I was just 20. I had a brand new baby and was motivated but really scared, wondering how I would ever be able to get through graduate school as a young, single mother. Dr. Tiernan was a living, walking example of hope. She had also had a daughter at a young age, and eventually went on to get her doctorate in clinical psychology. By the time I met her, her daughter was grown up and getting married. From my perspective, here was this woman, living out her dream, unlike my mother who had been unable to fulfill her career dreams at that point in her life. (She since went back to school and loves her career as a special education teacher!) I had this tangible example in front of me that anything was possible. It gave me the hope and belief that I needed to take the first step and apply to graduate schools. I often wonder what might have happened had our paths never crossed at that particular time of my life.

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?

Both of my parents instilled a belief in me at a young age that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. My entire family helped me tremendously in the early years of my daughter’s life. I could not have done it without their love and support. From a practical standpoint, though, I’d say that my husband has been my biggest cheerleader. We met and married later in life, and I was used to being super-independent! After my upbringing and 15 years of single parenting, you learn to rely on yourself — perhaps to a fault. But he’s been the one, all along, to encourage me in new endeavors, conquer my fears, and live out my truest and highest self. I would not be who I am today without him.

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?

On my first job interview when I was wrapping up graduate school, I remember walking up to this grand, imposing castle in New England. It was the school building where I would, eventually, become the headmaster. But here I was — 29 years old, in an unfamiliar area of the country on a snowy, December morning. I’m sure I was not properly dressed for the weather since I was a southern beach girl, not accustomed to real winters. I recall standing outside in the cold for quite a long time, banging the gargoyle door knockers staring at me from the towering, arched double-entry doors. No one was answering the door. At some point, I called the Head of School, and he abruptly told me to just walk in! (He may have used more colorful language.) I felt like such an idiot. I realized at that point if I was going to be a southerner working with a group of New Yorkers, I was going to need to learn to be much more assertive and, perhaps, not so sweet and polite.

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?

I’d say: Don’t ever give up working towards your Big Dreams. The key is: working towards. Daydreaming will only take you so far. You’ve got to commit to your future self, and then put one foot in front of the other. You’ve got to believe you can do it so you’ll have the grit to keep going when things get hard. Trust me, they’ll get hard! And the journey to get there is almost always longer than we want it to take. So do your best to enjoy the process of becoming. The journey is truly the best part of the story.

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?

I don’t remember when I first read The Alchemist, but ever since I did, I’ve recommended it to the teenagers I’ve worked with over the years. (That and anything by Brene Brown!) I think it beautifully paints the picture of self-exploration, identity, belonging, faith, and home. Themes that young people are grappling with and trying to answer for themselves. I know I was. Sometimes we have to leave to return home to who we truly are.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

I have so many quotes that I love. In fact, I used to post a different quote almost daily when I ran a school! But there was one quote, in particular, that the students often said to one another as encouragement: “You alone can do it, but you can’t do it alone.” For many of my students — and I could definitely relate — it was easy to fall into the trap of being overly independent. Our American culture promotes it. Well, I like to say I’m a recovering perfectionist and solo-artist! I’ve spent way too much of my life believing I had to do it all by myself. I secretly relished in the power that came with feeling uber-self-sufficient. I’ve now learned that the best way to go through life is to get clear on what I’m responsible for, and then allow myself to lean on others for help. Community is beautiful. And yes, I’m practicing everyday.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’m in a new chapter of my life. Earlier this year, I stepped away from a rewarding, albeit stressful, job running a therapeutic school. I needed space to step back, reflect on my priorities, and dream again. I loved my work but I also knew it was time for a shift. I currently offer consulting and coaching for parents who have teens or young adults struggling with mental health or addiction issues, though I also work with young adults. I’m also currently writing on mental health and giftedness for a book due out next year. My expertise has always been focused on high-potential, gifted, and creative individuals, and there are a lot of incorrect assumptions about that population when it comes to mental and emotional well-being. I’m in the planning stages of some creative projects that, I’m hoping, will have a greater impact on helping young people and families. In 2021, my dream is to build a community of like-minded individuals and create accessible, online programming to share what I’ve been teaching to a small, select group for over a decade. I’m passionate about teaching emotional and mental fitness from a holistic, positive psychology perspective.

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?

I’ve devoted my entire career to helping high IQ people develop their emotional intelligence, or EQ. Unfortunately, emotional intelligence is not something that has, historically, been taught in schools. And I find that many adults have a hard time with it, so how can we expect adults to teach children if they’re not well-equipped themselves? I’ve worked with many adults who, by all outward appearances, are considered extremely successful in their careers. Many of them would even be considered elite — in the top tier of their profession in terms of accomplishments and prestige. And yet, even these highly intelligent, educated people had a hard time knowing what to do with their emotions. And guess what? Their children ended up having a hard time, too. I find that in our culture, we often place too much emphasis on the head vs. the heart, on being the best in the class vs. being the best friend to others. I’d like to see us find a better balance.

For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?

In the simplest sense, Emotional Intelligence is the ability to be aware of, identify, express, and regulate one’s emotions — and respond to others’ emotions — in an effective, healthy way.

How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?

Intelligence, as we typically think of it, is a measure of cognitive ability. It’s our “brainpower” — how capable and effective we are at learning and adapting to novel situations. Cognitive ability is important but it will only take you so far. Emotional intelligence has been found to be a more powerful predictor of future success. We are thinking and feeling creatures, and we can’t exclude one or the other.

Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?

People who are high in emotional intelligence are not only more effective in their lives, but they also tend to have more satisfying relationships with others. And we know that close connections, sustained over time, actually play a role in prolonging one’s life span! In my experience working with young people, I’ve seen how their relationships improve as they build skills that help them understand and manage their internal world. But they also do better across the board: in their academics, in long-term pursuits, and in challenging family dynamics. I cannot overemphasize the importance of developing emotional intelligence. I wish I had been exposed to it at a much earlier age.

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.

Of course! I’ve always been sensitive and highly attuned to emotions — to my own and those of others. In kindergarten, I remember being too scared to ask a kid on the bus to move so I could get off, and so I just stayed on the bus until the driver eventually realized what had happened! I’d say I’ve always been very high in empathy, but that has not always served me well. I was always afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. I can still struggle with that! So, in my own emotional growth, I’ve probably had to focus most on regulating them better. Not letting them get the best of me — whether it’s fear, anger, sadness, you name it. Earlier in my life, I felt so overwhelmed by my sensitivity and intense emotions that I went through periods where I tried to be overcontrolled and self-protective. That never worked very well. I would get too disconnected from my own self. It was a false front. I’ve since learned much better ways to stay emotionally grounded and connected. I’m not scared of my emotions; I give them ample space to move and breathe. And I find that when I do that, I can stay relatively happy, buoyant, and flexible through the ups and downs of life. It also makes me much less fearful of other people’s strong emotions, which is obviously quite helpful in relationships and, of course, in the work that I do.

Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?

I’ve known many powerful people who have relied on what I would call “lower forms” of influence in the business world. As they developed more sophisticated emotional intelligence, they moved from relying on force, manipulation, or intimidation to get things done, to motivating and serving others as their primary way to lead. A highly emotionally intelligent business leader possesses the most powerful form of influence, in my opinion.They’re the leaders who create cultures where employees want to stay because they’re inspired and feel appreciated. They feel they’re a valuable part of something bigger than themselves. And emotionally intelligent employees are typically the ones who are seen as natural leaders and are more likely to be promoted into formal leadership positions. They’re the ones who can be trusted to help create healthy emotional atmospheres in the workplace, which benefits everyone as well as the bottom line!

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?

Well, I bet we all can think of examples where we witnessed (or struggled with) emotions that really hurt a relationship. We’re human after all! I think that when you witness how emotionally intelligent people tend to handle relationships, you learn a lot. Setting clear boundaries in a straightforward, calm, caring manner. Respecting others’ boundaries without blowing up. Knowing how to connect and come together with another person, even during stressful times — or perhaps, especially during challenges. Emotional intelligence allows more space and freedom in a relationship. There’s breathing room. There’s empathy. There’s reciprocity. Relationships can only benefit from emotionally intelligent behavior, in my view.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?

Emotional intelligence has been shown to be a protective factor for depression, anxiety, and stress. And the research definitely supports a link between emotional intelligence and greater mental health. People who struggle with depression, borderline personality disorder, or substance abuse disorders, for example, have varying degrees of difficulty when it comes to identifying and effectively managing their emotions. The great news is that these are skills that can be taught and learned by most people. So even if you look at your family history and think, “Oh no, I’m doomed!” just know that you can learn something new and break the generational cycle. We sometimes forget that aspects of mental health issues that run in families are passed down experientially or behaviorally. Meaning, we talk a lot about genetics, but we forget about learned behaviors. If our parents were somewhat low in emotional intelligence, then it’s less likely that we’ll learn emotionally intelligent behavior from them. Remember, we learn and do what was modeled for us.Today we have effective programs and interventions to help people, whether that’s in school or in the therapy room. Dialectical behavior therapy, for example, has a skills-based component that actively teaches and helps you increase emotional intelligence and improve your mental health. I know many people who have grown leaps and bounds when they set out to do this work, no matter the age.

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. Set your intention — mindfully. We get more of whatever we focus on. So, if you’d like to increase your emotional intelligence, start by making a conscious decision to focus on it. You’ll most likely find that by simply setting this intention, you’ll be more curious about your emotions and those of others. Our minds actively begin to pay more attention to something once we bring it into awareness.You may naturally find opportunities throughout the day to pause and respond with more mindfulness when it comes to emotional engagement. You’re able to be more proactive, rather than reactive, with your emotional responses. You’ll likely have to bring yourself back to this intention multiple times, but that’s completely normal. You can put a reminder on your phone or a sticky note on your bathroom mirror if it helps you to stay focused on your intention. You could also share your intention with someone you trust.
  2. Create space and rituals for connecting with yourself. Many of us live life much too fast, going from one task to the next. Be sure to set aside time to check in with yourself, starting with your body. Paying attention to how you’re physically feeling can help you get clear on how you’re emotionally feeling. For example, you may feel tension in your upper back and shoulders, and may feel stressed or irritable. But when you allow yourself to slow down, take some deep breaths, and just be with yourself, you may find that you’re, in fact, sad and hurt about a situation. Without realizing it, you may have been “holding it in,” resulting in body tension. Yoga helps many people get reconnected to their bodies, but simple stretching and breathing can do the trick. Journaling has always been one of my personal go-to strategies, and I always encourage people to try it. It helps you to slow down and practice articulating how you’re feeling, and if you write by hand (vs. typing), that’s even better. You don’t necessarily need to journal every day, but just make sure you’re finding space and time to notice and label how you’re feeling. Over time, you’ll become more adept at doing this in the moment. If you need a little extra help, I highly recommend using an “emotional wheel,” which you can search for online. It’s an excellent tool to help expand your emotional vocabulary!
  3. Decrease your emotional vulnerability. Emotionally intelligent people know what it takes to stay in an optimal range of emotional functioning, and they instinctively adjust their behavior to stay in that zone. Healthy principles such as getting adequate sleep, staying hydrated, getting enough sunlight, exercising regularly, avoiding mind-altering substances, and eating nutritious foods form the foundation of resilient emotional health. When you nurture your relationships, limit negative self-talk, and regularly engage in pleasant activities, you’re more likely to remain in an optimal emotional state. I think we can all relate to feeling more irritable or impatient when we’re exhausted or under the weather. We have to remain aware of how our daily choices may be positive or negatively impacting our emotional state and adjust accordingly.
  4. Give coaching or psychotherapy a try. If you want to do more focused work, say, to improve at your job or in your marriage, you can definitely make progress by working with a coach or therapist. Group therapy can also be extremely useful because it provides in-the-moment feedback from multiple people, not just an individual therapist or coach. I have found that for young people, in particular, the transformational power that comes from genuine, caring peer feedback is like no other. Getting professional help can catapult you ahead in this area, so don’t be afraid to try. Plus, once you develop emotional skills for a certain area of your life (e.g., work), you can practice transferring these same skill sets into other areas of your life (e.g., romantic relationships). In fact, I’ve worked with many parents who later told me that the emotional work they did in the context of improving their relationship with their child ended up tremendously improving how they interacted with their colleagues.
  5. Be a student of your painful experiences. Let life be your teacher. Are there problematic patterns in your relationships — at work, in romantic relationships, with friends — that continually crop up? It can be difficult to do this kind of self-examination, but with curiosity (not judgment), look at the role you and your emotions played in these situations or relationships. Ask yourself questions and be honest with yourself. Was it an issue of not knowing how you felt? Or perhaps you knew exactly how you felt, but you didn’t know how to effectively express it? Do people tell you you’re hard to read? Or do you have trouble regulating your emotions and, as a result, turn people off? Are you known for having a temper? Or are you over rational and difficult for people to connect with emotionally? Be as honest as you can with yourself. It’s from this place of radical self-honesty that we can take ownership, learn new skills, and apply new behaviors moving forward. If you do this work, you can be your best teacher.

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?

Yes, I do, and I also know more schools today are incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL) into their curricula. One of the most important recommendations I’d make is to ensure that the adults working in the schools are supported in cultivating their own emotional intelligence. If educators aren’t doing their own emotional work, then what do you think children really learn? Sure, they may gain some book knowledge, but I believe social-emotional learning is best taught through modeling and promoting a positive school-wide culture. Children are always learning by observation. It can’t be “do as I say, not as I do”! So, I’d say an experiential and systemic perspective is needed. You can’t simply incorporate more lessons into the day.

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.

My mind and heart are set on the next generation: Gen Z. I believe they are collectively set up with the tools, creativity, passion, and vision to make great things happen in their lifetime. And we desperately need them if we’re going to effectively tackle the modern challenges we face. Unfortunately, many of them are at risk of not fulfilling their potential due to crippling depression, anxiety, trauma, substance abuse, and other behavioral addictions. Many of them feel lost and hopeless. I see my younger self in them, and I’m committed to shining the light of possibility. My big dream is to inspire a movement where we fundamentally shift our paradigm when it comes to young people’s mental health. To move away from being primarily reactive and individualistic: diagnosing, labeling, and medicating their pain away, seeing the problem as “inherent” to the child or teen. And move towards a holistic, systemic, and proactive approach: valuing and creating healthy communities and families, funding preventative programs and services that tend to the whole child, and teaching children and teens skills and mindsets that bolster resilience and hardy mental and emotional well-being. We live in a culture that wants quick fixes, which usually means a medicine that will “cure” the problem. I think it’s much more complex than that. But it really starts with us, of course. We have to change and model what we want them to learn and become. If we can accomplish that, I believe multiple generations will benefit from Gen Z’s collective well-being. That’s my hope.

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 🙂

Multiple names immediately came to mind, and I realize that they have one thing in common: they are all women of color with great influence. As a young bi-racial girl, I didn’t have many role models who fell into that category. However, growing up in the 90s, I religiously watched and admired Oprah, who I believe is a stunning example of someone who has used her incredible intellect and emotional intelligence to serve others. Her vulnerability and empathy were so different than anything else I remember being televised back then. She will always be a great source of inspiration for me, though I might be speechless if I had the opportunity to eat any meal with her!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me at www.andrealein.com and on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn @Dr.AndreaLein.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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