Wisdom//

New Neuroscience Reveals 5 Secrets That Will Make You Emotionally Intelligent

Have you heard of the RULER approach?

By mimagephotography/Shutterstock
By mimagephotography/Shutterstock

How are you feeling?

These days it seems like there are only two answers: “Fine” and “Busy.” After all, if you did say everything that’s on your mind, you’d get strange looks from that barista for the rest of your life. And it’s no better at work, where the room for legitimate emotion can be measured in microns.

We’re perpetually squashing feelings and playing roles everywhere. It’s only 2 minutes into a rant that you realize you’re angry. Only after you unclench the muscles in your shoulders do you notice you’ve been on edge for hours.

As recently as the 1980’s even many psychologists felt emotions were things that just got in the way. Cognitive noise. Stuff you had to ignore, get over and stop whining about. Yeah, back in the 1980’s BFE (Before Feelings Era) there wasn’t a concept of “Emotional Intelligence.” That didn’t exist until 1990 PFE (Post Feelings Era) when Salovey and Mayer published their landmark paper on the subject. Cliff’s Notes version: we all have feelings, they affect the majority of what we do in life, they’re not going away and they actually provide useful information if we pay attention to them.

They defined EI 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.”

And subsequent studies showed the multitude of benefits high EI provides.

From Permission to Feel:

Among adolescents, higher emotional intelligence is associated with less depression and anxiety and may be a protective factor against suicidal behavior…There is also data suggesting that emotional intelligence is related to higher SAT scores, greater creativity, and better grades among high school and college students…The benefits don’t go away once we reach adulthood. Individuals who score higher on emotional intelligence tests tend to report better relationships with friends, parents, and romantic partners…Research has also linked emotional intelligence to important health and workplace outcomes, including less anxiety, depression, stress, and burnout and greater performance and leadership ability.

But 30 years out from that first paper on EI and, if anything, we’ve gotten worse at it.

From Permission to Feel:

According to the 2019 World Happiness Report, negative feelings, including worry, sadness, and anger, have been rising around the world, up by 27 percent from 2010 to 2018… According to a Stanford University study, more than 120,000 deaths annually may be attributable to workplace stress, which accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs…our research at Yale revealed that high school students, teachers, and business professionals experience negative emotions up to 70 percent of the time they are in school or at work.

Alright, no more ignoring the valuable info and benefits feelings can provide. We gotta tear this one down to the studs and get to the science. Because if we can harness the power of emotions — both good and bad — we’re gonna live much better lives. You feelin’ me?

So who knows this stuff? Marc Brackett is the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. His book is Permission to Feel and it has a simple system we can use to build real Emotional Intelligence skills.

Let’s get to it…

More Than A Feeling

Feelings can make us smarter and sharpen real world skills. But we often hit the snooze button every time the feelings alarm goes off. We take good emotions for granted and try to ignore or eliminate the bad, never really paying attention to what they mean or how we can leverage them. And then we wonder why our performance is so inconsistent, happiness is elusive and our relationships are unsatisfying.

Feelings (even negative ones) direct our attention and focus our thinking, often in helpful ways.

From Permission to Feel:

Pessimism can make it easier for us to anticipate things that could go wrong and then take the proper actions to prevent them. Guilt acts as a moral compass. Anxiety keeps us trying to improve things that a more generous mood might be willing to accept. Even anger is a great motivator—unlike resignation, it drives us to act and perhaps to fix what made us angry in the first place…

Feelings have an enormous impact on our decision making — but we rarely realize it.

From Permission to Feel:

In an experiment we conducted at Yale, teachers were divided into two groups. One was told to remember and write about positive classroom experiences, and the other was assigned to recall a negative memory. Then all were asked to grade the same middle school essay. The positive-mood group marked the essay a full grade higher than the negative-mood group. When we asked the teachers if they believed their moods affected how they evaluated the papers, 87 percent said no.

Your emotions have a major impact on your health.

From Permission to Feel:

Negative emotions have been associated with hypertension, increased heart rate, constriction of peripheral blood vessels, unhealthy blood lipids, and decreased immune system function… In one study, laughter caused by watching a comedy film increased the flow of beta-endorphins, which enhance our mood, and stimulated growth hormones, which repair our cells.

And do I even need to mention the effect feelings have on your social life? No? Thank you.

I’m not saying you’re gonna study Emotional Intelligence and develop super mutant mind powers that will bring you unrelenting waves of orgiastic happiness. That’s for infomercials. But if you improve your EI skills even a tad, you’ll have a better idea of how you’re feeling, what you’re emotionally missing, and what you need to be thriving in life. You’ll be able to ask those you love to help you get exactly what you need when things get challenging.

(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

Marc lays out a 5-step process. Remember the acronym RULER: Recognize, Understand, Label, Express and Regulate. First up…

1) Recognize

We’ve all had days where the world is “awful” and only later do we realize it’s just a crappy mood and Earth has not undergone major changes overnight. It’s like the scene in the war movie where the person doesn’t realize they’ve been shot until they look down and see the blood.

You need to check in with yourself. You can’t address bad emotions or increase good ones if you don’t take the time to recognize your emotional state.

From Permission to Feel:

We need to pause—to physically stop whatever we’re doing, check in with the state of our minds and bodies, and ask ourselves: At this exact moment, what is my emotional state? Am I feeling up or down? Pleasant or unpleasant? Would I like to approach the world or steer clear? Next, let’s check for physical clues. Am I energized or depleted? Is my heart racing, am I clenching my fists, is there a knot in my stomach, or am I feeling balanced, cool, and at ease?

Make it a habit. Tie it to something you already do, even if it’s only a couple times a day.

This isn’t a test. There’s no right or wrong answer. You want to be an emotion scientist here. Examine, don’t judge. Getting angry about feeling angry is rarely helpful.

(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

You’re recognizing. Awesome. Now you’ve got something to work with. Next step?

2) Understand

It’s all about the word “why.” Why are you feeling this way? Don’t ask it in a rhetorical, judgmental way. Be a sincere and curious emotion scientist.

Why this feeling? Why now? What’s causing it? What happened before it? What events, associations or memories could have triggered this feeling?

You may not have a big epiphany but this is the first step on the path to self-understanding. Just one little data point but, with time, you’ll start to see connections and patterns. You’ll start to make more accurate emotional predictions. You’ll be able to prepare effectively: to avoid, to cope or ask for help.

It’s deceptively simple but keep doing this and you’re on the path to emotional self-authorship.

(To learn how to deal with passive-aggressive people, click here.)

Done playing detective? Good. Now we’re gonna zero in and really start building those EI skills…

3) Label

Neuroscience studies by Matthew Lieberman at UCLA have shown the incredible power of labeling to help us control and dampen powerful emotions. When we put feelings into words we get our “thinky brain” (prefrontal cortex) on the case and put the brakes on our “wet yourself in fear and punch people brain” (amygdala). Gotta name it to tame it.

From Permission to Feel:

…participants who were identified as having extreme fear of spiders—arachnophobia—were placed in a room with a caged spider. Some subjects used emotion words to describe their feelings in that situation, while others used emotion-neutral words to simply state the facts. The result? Members of the first group were able to take more steps closer to the cage than the other participants. Additionally, greater use of words such as “anxiety” and “fear” during exposure to the spider was associated with reductions in those emotions.

Ironic as it might seem, saying the word “anxiety” reduces anxiety. And if we take the time to broaden our emotional vocabulary — to think about the different things we feel and give them distinct names — we can better regulate our emotions and get the most out of them. We need to take those big emotional buckets like “happy” and make them more granular: are you happy or joyous or ecstatic?

From Permission to Feel:

…participants who were deemed granular were better able to differentiate their emotional experiences. Subjects who were low in granularity—called clumpers—were less skilled at differentiating emotions (e.g., angry, worried, frustrated). When the two groups were compared, she reported, granular individuals were less likely to freak out or abuse alcohol when under stress and more likely to find positive meaning in negative experiences. They also were better at emotion regulation—moderating their responses in order to achieve desired outcomes. The clumpers, on the other hand, scored worse on those counts, tending to be physically and psychologically ill at a higher rate than the granular crowd.

Imagine if the only diagnosis a doctor could give was “sick” or “not-sick.” No cancer or flu or multiple sclerosis, just “sick.” How useful would that be? “Ah, I’ve found the problem: you’re sick.” That’s what most of us are like with our feelings. But if you understand on a fine-grained level what you’re feeling, then with time you can discover the best way to address it, dampen it or amplify it.

Maybe you feel “stressed.” More granularly, is it anxiety about an uncertain future? Or fear of what you assume will happen? Or pressure because of too many responsibilities? This level of understanding allows you to solve the problem. Now the doctor can say “contact dermatitis” instead of just “sick.”

Once you start regularly playing emotion scientist you can realize that when you’re sad you need to distract yourself, when you’re melancholy you need to see friends, and when you’re unfulfilled you need to attack some personal goals.

All this wordplay may sound crazy but it’s not. Other cultures have whole emotions you’ve never delineated and therefore never experienced.

From Permission to Feel:

Iktsuarpok is the Inuit word that describes the anticipation you feel when you’re so impatient for a guest’s arrival at your home that you keep going outside to check… Kvell is the Yiddish word that describes the feeling of overwhelming love and pride you get when you see what your child can do… In Mandarin, there were more than one hundred different shame-related terms…

Don’t accept emotions off the rack; custom-tailor them. Break out the thesaurus next time you’re feeling something and start playing wine connoisseur. Is this a “bold, supple distress with an aftertaste of hopelessness”? Or perhaps “an unbalanced and stinging longing with a regret finish”? Direct your descriptive powers toward your inner life, not toward fermented grape juice.

With time, you’ll develop A Field Guide to Yourself. And then you can share these insights with others. How much easier would it be to help loved ones understand what you need if your self-knowledge was this rich and detailed? I’m lucky enough to have people around me who can distinguish between “Eric’s peeved, better change the subject” or “Eric’s angry, better talk this out” or “Eric’s gone quantum dumpster fire again, evacuate a three-mile radius and call the National Guard.”

And it’s not all about negative emotions either. If you understand the difference between pleasant and joyful you can learn what it takes to get yourself to that next rung — and what it takes to extend it.

(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)

Okay, it’s time to deal with the scary stuff…

4) Express

No, I’m not telling you to run around “venting.” Don’t go all emotion grenade at work or at home saying the blogger-man gave you permission to act on every impulse. No, the blogger-man most certainly did not.

But nor do you want to suppress all those feelings. “Surface-acting” takes its toll. It’s correlated with burnout, lower job satisfaction, and even increased anxiety and depression.

Jamie Pennebaker is a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin and he’s done work showing that bottling stuff up makes you sick. On the flip side, converting emotions into words improves health. When people talk about their problems or write them down, research shows a drop in doctor visits, lower blood pressure, less absenteeism, higher grades and a long-term improvement in mood.

So we should just open up and express our emotions, right? Ah, if only it were that easy…

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to say it’s okay to express emotions everywhere at any time and nobody will think you’re crazy or weak… And I will not be saying that. We’re afraid of expressing our emotions to others for damn good reasons. Some people will say you’re weak. Some will say you’re crazy.

You gotta be choosy about where, when and with whom you open up. This is why psychologists talk about “display rules.” Those are ”the unwritten but widely agreed-upon guidelines for how, where, when, and in whose presence we may express our feelings.” You need to test the waters and build your personal display rules. Take your time and slowly discover your safe people and safe zones.

When you open up and are vulnerable with someone, it’s about as intimate as you’ll ever be. That’s how real relationships are forged.

(To learn more about how to make friends as an adult, click here.)

Last one. How do we regulate difficult emotions, in the moment, when they suddenly hit us?

5) Regulate

We all have methods for regulating our emotions. Babies suck their thumbs. (No, I’m not recommending that during work meetings.) Which strategies do experts recommend?

1) Positive Self-Talk

Yeah, you’ve heard this one before. Here’s the new twist, courtesy of neuroscience: always do positive self-talk in the third person.

From Permission to Feel:

In one experiment, subjects were shown neutral and disturbing images or asked to recall negative moments from their own lives. By monitoring their emotional brain activity, the researchers found that the subjects’ distress decreased rapidly—within one second—when they performed self-talk in the third person compared with the first person.

Saying, “Eric, everything is going to be fine” tricks your brain. It’s like a friend reassuring you. You’re being empathetic… with yourself.

2) Reframing

Deliberately choose to see things in a way that generates fewer negative emotions and assumes others have good intentions.

From Permission to Feel:

Students who were asked to think of pretest anxiety as being beneficial performed better on exams than a control group. In another experiment, reframing anxiety as excitement was found to improve negotiating and public-speaking skills.

When someone yells at you don’t assume they hate you; assume they’re having a bad day. Believing that will make you feel better, you’ll respond compassionately instead of harshly, and even if it isn’t true it will certainly make the situation better rather than worse.

3) The Pause

When you feel a negative emotion rising, pause. Don’t do anything. Take a deep breath. Pausing helps you refrain from making a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion. Then ask yourself one question:

“What would my Best Self do next?”

Take another deep breath. And then be your best you.

(To learn an FBI behavior expert’s tips for getting people to like you, click here.)

Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Time to round it all up and learn the fun thing that can put all of the above on “Easy” mode…

Sum Up

Here’s how to increase emotional intelligence. Remember RULER:

  • Recognition: Ignore your teeth and they’ll go away. Ignore your emotions and they’ll stay right here and progressively ruin your life.
  • Understanding: Keep asking yourself “Why?” (But don’t do it 100 times in a row like 4-year-olds do or all your friends will band together and slay you.)
  • Label: Name it to tame it. Be a wine connoisseur with your feelings. (I’m feeling all Iktsuarpok because I’m eager for you to get started.)
  • Express: You gotta open up — but develop “display rules” so it’s safe.
  • Regulate: 3rd person self-talk. Reframing. Best self.

So how do you make RULER easier? By taking care of yourself. Getting enough sleep. Exercising. Seeing friends.

From Permission to Feel:

Spend time with family and friends, pursue passions and pastimes, get in touch with your spiritual side, immerse yourself in nature, read a good book, watch a funny movie. We build up cognitive reserves that way, which will help us when emotional turmoil inevitably strikes.

When you’re fully charged, it’s easier to follow the steps above. But when you’re not getting enough rest or not having any fun, you’re gonna have a very short fuse.

Get to know yourself. Become the author of your emotional life. And share your findings with those you love…

And so I ask you again: How are you feeling?

“Fine” or “busy” won’t cut it with me. I’m hoping more for:

“Flamboyantly serene with crisp silky notes of optimism and a hint of buttery enthusiasm.”

Originally published on Barking Up The Wrong Tree.

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