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The B.A.R.E. Necessities
Balance, Awareness, Responsibility, Empathy
The main principles of Emotional Intelligence can be conveniently remembered using the acronym of BARE, for Balance, Awareness, Responsibility, and Empathy. Let's take a look at each of these.
Since the days of Aristotle, philosophers have spoken of the virtues of balance. In ancient times, however, emotional issues were thought to involve the heart. We now know that our emotional history is stored in our lower brains. For example, the lower brain remembers the times we were scared by someone shouting at us, the times we felt disapproved of by people important to us, and the times we were filled with delight. Our upper brain is our rational brain which conceptualizes, analyzes and judges. It evaluates situations, and assesses the risks and rewards. A major principle of EQ theory is that those with high EQ are able to balance the functions of the two brains as they communicate with each other. For example:
You see an opportunity to start your own business. You are afraid of bankruptcy if it fails, yet you are excited by the potential rewards. Your upper brain carries on a conversation with your lower brain to assess the risks and rewards, and assign probabilities to each. When your emotions and reason are in balance, chances are improved you will make a decision which results in long-term happiness.
Now let's look at four specific practical examples of maintaining balance between our emotions and our reason: Cognitive distortions Impulse control Delaying gratification Emotional detachment
1. Cognitive Distortions
Research has confirmed what has long been suspected: emotions have the ability to distort our vision of reality. Hence the following common expressions:
He sees the world through rose colored glasses. He was blinded by his rage. She always expects the worst.
At such times we are making what have been called "cognitive distortions" since our thoughts, or our cognitions, are being clouded by our feelings. When this happens we are thrown off balance from reality. Consider these examples:
Emotional reasoning. This is when we allow our emotions to lead us to faulty conclusions. An example of this is someone who believes that because he feels like a failure, he is a failure.
Emotional imprisonment. This is where we become a prisoner to our feelings. We feel trapped or we feel locked into a certain course of action, even when our better judgment and all the evidence is against it.
Mental coloring or filtering. We may either see everything in an overly positive or overly negative light. We may for example, see any sign of trouble as "a disaster." Or we might allow our emotions to trick us into converting a positive into a negative. An example of this would be someone who feels so bad about herself that she thinks people who compliment her are lying out of pity.
Over-generalization. This is where we mistakenly think that because something happened before, it "always" happens. High EQ people refrain from making themselves feel worse by their distorted "self-talk." Some examples of negative self-talk are:
I always screw up. I am always forgetting things. I always get lost. I will never be happy.
Awareness of these common distortions reminds us to see things as they are, not as what they appear to be.
2. Impulse Control
Many authors say that the ability to control your impulses is a sign of high EI. I believe, however, that there are also times when it is a sigh of high EI to quickly follow your heart or instincts. When to follow your impulses and when not to is probably a combination of several factors including your innate level of EI, the degree to which you had an emotionally secure childhood and adolescence, and your life experience.
3. Delaying Gratification
Balancing emotion and reason also leads to the ability to delay gratification when it is in our best interest. When starting a business, for example, long hours are required initially, but the rewards can be great.
In 1996 a commonly cited example of the positive effects from having the ability to delay gratification is the marshmallow study. In this study, a group of four-year-olds were given the chance to have one marshmallow immediately, or receive two after the researcher returned a short time later. When the children reached high school, researchers found that those who had waited generally were happier, had more friends, and were more confident, persistent and adventurous. They also scored an average of 210 points higher on their SAT's.
Many people have said that this study was also measuring an aspect of the child's emotional intelligence. But I am not so sure. I suspect it was also a function of how the children had been raised for the first four years of their life, as well as other aspects of their personality not necessarily related to their innate level of EI. But in any case, knowing when to delay gratification and when to "go for it" now, could be a part of a healthy developed level of EI.
4. Emotional Detachment and Connection
If we are not connected to our feelings, we have nothing against which to balance our reason. If we make decisions and form relationships strictly based on logic, we are likely to miss out on many joys in life by thinking of all the practical reasons not to experience pleasure. Emotionally detached people are unable to experience emotional intimacy, for example, since they can not relate to someone else's feelings until they have gotten in touch with their own. Finally, if we are not in touch with our feelings, we may fail to listen to our conscience, and feel no remorse for causing harm to others. In most cases, such socially irresponsible behavior eventually comes back to harm us as well.
Without awareness of our feelings and what causes them, it is impossible to lead a happy life. We may be able to lead a productive life, even a successful life, if one defines success by the level of status or material worth. But to lead a happy life, we absolutely must know what feels good and what does not. We must also know what is likely to feel good in the future based on an accurate self-awareness. To be fully aware of our feelings we must acknowledge them, accept them, and identify them.
Acknowledging Our Feelings
Our feelings want our attention. They call out to us in many ways. They send us signals through the mind and through the body. If we do not acknowledge them, they relentlessly continue to pursue our attention. A good example of this is guilt. All of us have done things we feel guilty for. If you reflect for a moment, you can probably begin to tick off many actions from your past which still bring guilt.
Recently, it has become increasingly popular to attempt to thwart nature's intricate guidance system. More and more people try to meditate, medicate, exercise, work, distract, smoke, drink, hope, wish, or pray their feelings away. For example, millions of people lead unhealthy, stressful lives and then either (a) attempt to burn off their stress and calories after work in exercise gyms, (b) go out drinking after work and on weekends, or (c) flood their brains with television. Rather than acknowledging the stress, identifying its causes, and taking action to remove the sources of the stress, they get caught in a vicious cycle. They struggle to earn more and more money, so they can afford more and more distractions to relieve the mounting stress and expanding emptiness from their unfulfilling lives.
Nature's purpose for negative emotions is to call our attention to the causes of our negative feelings. Man has corrupted this process by treating the symptoms. By so doing, we are fighting literally millions of years of evolution, and I'm afraid, destined to fail in our battle.
Not only are more adults turning to medication to eliminate the unpleasant symptoms of their unhealthy lifestyles, but a growing number of parents are putting their children on mind-altering prescription drugs. I am extremely disturbed by the number of exceptionally bright children I meet who are bored at school and neglected at home, and then put on medication to make them easier to control. In my experience, behavioral problems are, almost without fail, signs that something is wrong in the home. To quash the messages that our children are indirectly sending us, without discovering the meaning of the message, is like turning off the fire alarm because it annoys us, while the flames spread throughout the neighborhood.
2008 Note - I wrote the above in 1996, before I had ever counseled any suicidal teenagers. Now I can say with certainty that the teenagers I have worked with who are depressed and suicidal do not need drugs. What they need is emotionally supportive homes and schools. Their emotional needs are simply not being met and this is causing them pain, just like we have hunger pains when go without food. If we would listen to these teenagers, we could re-design our schools and societies to prevent needless depression and loss of life.
Identifying Specific Feelings
After acknowledging that there is some unpleasant feeling, it helps to identify the feeling as specifically as possible. For example, when we are angry, it helps to be more precise. We might get angry for any number of reasons. Perhaps we are afraid of losing control. Perhaps we are afraid of physical danger. Perhaps we feel disrespected or ignored. The more specific we are, the more accurate we can be in identifying the source of the feeling. See alsol this section on anger.
The more we practice identifying our emotions, the better we get at quickly selecting the correct name for the feeling. Each time we identify an emotion and assign a label to it, our minds remember the circumstances surrounding the emotion, and the label that we attached to it. As we get better at choosing appropriate responses, we are actually retraining our minds. If we are fast learners, this process comes relatively quickly. Most of us can learn just about whatever we set our minds to, so if we have low EQ, chances are good it is only because we lacked either high EQ role models, or the proper instruction, not because we lacked ability.
Once an emotion is identified, it is important to think about what it is trying to tell you. Each emotion comes bearing a gift of information for us. Our job is to figure out what the information means to us, and then use the information wisely.
An important point to note is that we often feel many emotions at the same time. Sometimes our feelings may even seem to contradict each other, but each has a message and a purpose. For example, I might feel insulted or offended by something someone said, yet feel admiration for the person who had the courage to tell me the truth.
A high EQ person is aware of her feelings in "real time." In other words, she acknowledges her feelings as she is feeling them. She can say to herself:
Wow, I am really feeling jealous, afraid, inspired, appreciated, proud, defensive, etc.
If we don't acknowledge our feelings as they occur, we may miss the chance to learn from them. Most of our lives are excessively busy, so we are unlikely to make the time later to reflect on our emotions and listen to their messages. Instead, we keep working harder and harder. (If you have read George Orwell's Animal Farm, you might remember this was the horse's response to the corrupt society.) As a result of ignoring our feelings, many of us stay in unhappy, unhealthy situations for years upon years. In fact, if we are not in tune with our feelings we may become like the frog who isn't smart enough to know when to jump out of the water as the water slowly reaches a boil. Almost incredibly, it has been shown that even when the frog could easily jump out, he will remain until cooked to death, if the change in temperature is gradual enough.
The Value of Reflection
From my own personal experience, identifying feelings as they occur takes a lot of practice. I can remember many times when I felt strong negative feelings, but I wasn't able to identify them at the time. Sometimes I didn't get the chance to reflect on them until I was alone several hours later.
During one meeting I was facilitating, one of the participants was very disruptive and negative. I was caught totally off guard and felt very disoriented when I left the meeting. It wasn't until later that evening as I entered notes into my journal, that I realized that I had accumulated a long list of negative feelings. By taking the time to reflect on my feelings, I was able to learn from the experience and take corrective action. Should such a situation occur again, I suspect I would be much more likely to catch myself and take immediate steps before the meeting was seriously affected.
Distinguishing Between Productive and Counter-Productive Feelings
Sometimes our feeling brain will send us exaggerated signals of distress. EQ research explains that this is because fear leaves such strong imprints in the brain--the more the fear, the deeper the imprint. The reason for this is, of course, our survival instinct. Each time we are confronted with threatening situations, it is the job of the upper brain to assess the severity of the danger before the lower brain initiates an emotionally impulsive knee-jerk response to the perceived threat. In modern day society, these threats are primarily non-life threatening, but our survival instinct causes us to respond as if we were in physical danger. Evolution, it seems, hasn't caught on to the fact that we are no longer threatened by tigers and bears on a daily basis. Nowadays, it is primarily our egos which are threatened. If we respond as if our lives were in danger, we often make the situation worse for ourselves, which obviously isn't too smart.
For example, if someone hurts your reputation, the lower brain might say, "This is a disaster. This guy has ruined me. He had no right to do what he did. I feel like shooting him." Obviously, such a response, if acted upon, would be counter-productive to long-term happiness. The upper brain helps us focus on more productive feelings, say for example, the desire for restitution. Proper role modeling, emotional skills training, good decision making skills, and a clear sense of purpose all help increase the odds of selecting productive, rather than counter-productive responses. Forecasting Feelings
Ability to Forecast Feelings
An extremely important skill deriving from emotional awareness is the ability to forecast our emotions. We do this by pausing to consider how we will feel if we choose one course of action as opposed to another. The value of this ability can not be overstated. Only when we can predict our feelings in advance can we make decisions which will lead to our happiness.
Consider these statements:
I know I am going to regret this. I know I will feel guilty if I do this.
It's going to feel so good to... I know I will feel better if I ...
In the first case, our prediction of negative feelings is trying to help us avoid something. In the second case, our prediction of positive feelings helps motivate us. Making better decisions requires only that we listen to our inner messages. Our feelings are literally the inner voice that guides us. We just need to listen.
A personal example of forecasting emotions is when I was in Paris recently. I was on the train to the airport to fly home. I had mixed feelings about leaving. During the entire 30 minute train trip, I was debating whether I "should" leave or not. I had a flexible ticket and I knew I could easily stay a few more days. I tried to forecast my feelings if I were to stay and if I were to leave. I thought about how I would feel sitting on the airplane home. I knew that I would be asking myself why I left. That thought told me I would feel regret for leaving. I thought about the parks and the cafes in Paris. I was beginning to feel the regret already. At the same time, I felt an obligation to follow my original plans. I didn't know quite where this feeling of obligation was coming from, but I felt it. I felt something was forcing me to leave against my will. My upper brain said, "You don't need to go home, just because your ticket says so." But my lower brain was reluctant to concede to this logic. Eventually, though, my upper brain won that little battle, and I changed trains and returned to Paris.
On the train back to town I felt renewed, as if I had been given a few extra days of life. I realized that I had indeed been given a gift-- a gift from me to myself.
The most empowering decision we can make is to take responsibility for our feelings.
The issue of responsibility is not often associated with emotions. To be self-reliant and responsible people, however, we must take responsibility for our own well being, including our own mental and emotional health. In addition, our emotions motivate us to make choices which lead to our actions and behavior. To take responsibility for our lives, then, means we must take responsibility for our emotions. More specifically, we must take responsibility for our actions which are largely motivated by our thoughts, our values, our fears, our desires, and our beliefs.
Responsibility for Our Actions
Taking responsibility for our actions involves examination of our motives. Some of these motives are our fears, our desires, our values, our beliefs, and our resulting thoughts. Let's take a look at each of these to see how they each affect our feelings, and how we can take more control over them.
Fears and Desires
Virtually all of our actions are motivated by one of two basic emotions: fear or desire. See if you agree after looking at the lists below:
Fear of disapproval
Fear of rejection
Fear of failure
Fear of losing control
Fear of dying
Fear of losing our jobs
Fear of offending others
Fear of being alone
Fear of pain
Fear of uncertainty
Desire for wealth
Desire for happiness
Desire for success
Desire for acceptance
Desire for approval
Desire for security
Desire for certainty
Desire for pleasure
Desire for power
Desire for growth
The relative degree to which we are motivated by each of our fears and desires depends largely on our individual values. For example, if we value security, we will be more afraid of uncertainty, failure, rejection, and disapproval. As a result, we will take fewer risks and stay closer to home. On the other hand if we value freedom, we will take more risks, be less concerned with acceptance, and venture further from our roots.
Our values also affect our motivations and our feelings. What we value tells us what is important to us. When something is important to us, we want it, and if we don't get it we are either upset or afraid.
Here are some of the things we may value:
Since our personal values are strongly influenced by the values of those around us, it is useful to take a close look at your social values. One quick way to do that is to examine how people in your society or social circle spend their time and money. For example, do they spend it on personal development or impersonal distraction? Do they go to natural parks or amusement parks? Do they go to the library or to sports events? Do they spend time developing meaningful relationships or insulating themselves from other people? What kinds of books do they read? What kinds of movies do they watch? What kind of TV shows?
When I look at the western world, I see people increasingly spending time and money on cars, clothing, cosmetics, appearances, material goods, electronic gadgets, video games, and every type of entertainment imaginable. All of this, I am afraid, comes as much from our emotional impoverishment as it does from our financial enrichment.
We each are unique in what is important to us. This is one reason our feelings vary so greatly amongst us. Another reason our feelings differ is because of the differences in our beliefs. For example, if you believe it is wrong to lie, you will be more upset with dishonesty than will someone who thinks lies are just a part of life.
One reason values and beliefs are so important is because they are underlying influences on our thoughts and feelings. We may not always consciously realize that we are operating from the basis of a belief or a value, but generally that is exactly what we are doing. Consider this seemingly simple question: Where do you want to go eat? The answer to this question depends. It depends on, among other things, your values and beliefs.
For instance, if you value healthy food, you will avoid certain type of restaurants. If you believe that eating meat is immoral, this too will affect your decision. If you believe that a certain chain of restaurants is unsanitary, you won't patronize them. You may also believe it is good to patronize local restaurants. Whether you value speed, atmosphere, service, taste, or price, they each make a difference in your choice.
We can see, then, that actually there are many factors affecting your decision. It is unlikely that you are aware that you are subconsciously processing all this information--but you are just the same. If you know yourself well, i.e. if you know what is important to you and what will feel good to you, your decision is much easier. If you don't, you will either make choices you regret, or you will be stuck in indecision.
If we have never examined our beliefs, we don't really recognize their impact on our feelings. If someone questions our beliefs, for example, we may get angry. We may mistakenly think that they caused us to get angry by their impertinence. What we don't realize is that we are actually afraid of our belief being shattered.
To many of us, the thought of our most fundamental and sacredly held beliefs being questioned is extremely threatening. The less secure we are in those beliefs, the more threatened we feel. At any rate, to really take responsibility for our lives, we must take responsibility for our actions, the feelings that motivate the actions, and the beliefs and values which prompt the feelings.
Each of us has undoubtedly picked up some, if not many, beliefs which are hazardous to our mental health. Such beliefs are dysfunctional beliefs. They are counter-productive to our goal of being happy because we waste so much time and energy trying to reconcile the real world with our world of make-believe. (The term make-believe is an appropriate one, since adults often literally make children believe things that no amount of observation, experience, or reason could ever substantiate.)
Our thoughts also have a major impact on our feelings. For instance, most of us can make ourselves angry merely by thinking about something which really bothers us. Likewise, if we think of pleasant things, we feel better. Many people, though, think they have no choice but to react the way they do. They think events cause their reactions. In other words they think this is how things work:
Event (A) causes Reaction (B) A----------->B
Instead, what actually happens is more like this:
Event (A) triggers Thoughts, Beliefs, Values, and Emotions (B) which cause Reaction (C).
A--------> B -------->C
Let's use the example of you coming out of the store to find your new car dented, with no note in sight.
Thought: Oh, my God! Oh, no! This is terrible. My brand new car! This will cost a fortune! I don't have time for this now. I can't afford to get this fixed. I don't know if this is going to be covered. I am afraid I let my insurance run out.
Values: The appearance of the car, the cost of fixing it, the principle of taking responsibility for denting someone else's car.
Beliefs: It is wrong for someone to dent a car and drive off. People should leave notes on cars when they dent them. People should be more careful. Cars shouldn't have dents in them.
In situations like this, what you think definitely affects your feelings. By applying a little EQ, you acknowledge your feelings and use your upper brain to soothe your emotions, rather than to work yourself up. You literally select your thoughts based on their effect on your feelings. If one set of thinking is just making you feel worse, you take another approach (assuming it is still based on reality).
If you can apply EQ to regulate your thoughts, select your values and beliefs, and regulate your emotional state, you are going to be in almost full control of your reactions. This gives you a tremendous feeling of being in control, and helps free you from the rut of your outdated patterns of thinking and responding.
Our thoughts also cause us to blame others for our emotions. Often we think that other people "shouldn't" do the things they do, so we blame them for our feelings. Consider the following common expressions. In each case we are avoiding taking personal responsibility for our emotions.
She made me so angry. He makes me so jealous. He hurt me so much.
In each case, we are focusing our attention and our thoughts on the other person. In so doing, we are avoiding looking at ourselves to see what it is about us that causes us to be so upset. Without fail, when we are hurt, angry, upset, etc. there is something important to us which we believe has been compromised. To take responsibility for our feelings, instead of focusing our thoughts on other people, we look only at ourselves to try to understand the cause of our reaction. (An exception to this general statement is if we are physically hurt by someone.)
When we do this, we learn about ourselves. We find out what beliefs and values we hold sacred. Most of these were probably instilled upon us as children. When we were young, we generally either were not permitted to adopt our own beliefs and values, or we never considered doing so. But part of our responsibility as adults is to examine our beliefs and values to see which are causing us unhappiness.
By examining ourselves, we open the door to making changes which will make us happier. If we only focus on those outside us who we erroneously think are "making" us feel what we feel, we will get caught up in trying to change them. We will try in vain to hold them responsible and them accountable for our feelings. Such an approach is sure to bring frustration, as all of us who have tried it can attest!
Taking personal responsibility for our feelings, on the other hand, is tremendously empowering. When we take responsibility, we take control. We acknowledge that we are in charge and that others don't make us do or feel things. Instead, we see that everything we do is a choice based on our needs, our beliefs, our values, our fears, and desires.
Taking Care of Our Emotions
Another aspect of responsibility is to nurture our own emotions and mental health. By taking care of our mental health we raise our level of happiness and lower our likelihood of physical illness. Besides that, by taking care of ourselves, we are actually in a better position to help others. If we are miserable, for example, we can be of little help to anyone seeking happiness. Likewise, when we are unhappy or unhealthy we are a burden to others. Therefore, we must take care of ourselves. The three primary ways we do this are by:
1. Not hurting ourselves
2. Accepting our feelings
3. Setting our boundaries
1. Not hurting ourselves- A simple, but often overlooked, responsibility in caring for ourselves, is to not hurt ourselves. The truth in the saying that we are our own worst enemies is a sad reflection of pervasive low self-esteem. Many people needlessly go through life at war with themselves. On one hand they say:
I have to... I should... I am expected to ... I have an obligation to... I am supposed to... I must... It's my duty to...I need to...
On the other hand they are saying and feeling:
I don't want to... I hate... I can't ...I resent having to... I feel obligated... I feel trapped... I feel guilty... I feel forced...I mustn't... I shouldn't..
If we are benevolent caretakers of our own emotions, we learn to become our own best friends rather than worst enemies. But how does one treat a friend? A good starting point is found in the physician's Hippocratic oath:
First, do no harm.
The vast majority of us, however, violate this rule in these five ways:
1. Judging ourselves - That was a stupid thing I did. - I am too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short. - I shouldn't feel this way.
2. Questioning ourselves & regretting our choices - Why didn't I think of this sooner? - How could I have been so dumb? - What is wrong with me?
3. Labeling ourselves - I am a loser, a failure, an idiot, a klutz, a disaster
4. Limiting and imprisoning ourselves - This is just the way I am. I could never ... - I'll never change.
5. Discouraging ourselves - There is no point in trying. I'll probably fail.
All of the above is beating yourself up, i.e., self-abuse. You wouldn't do that to someone you really cared for...would you?
2. Accepting our feelings - Accepting our feelings means simply allowing ourselves to feel what we feel without judging, ignoring, defending or denying our feelings. Whatever we feel is real to us at that moment, and it is always smart to accept reality rather than try to fight it.
Accepting and acknowledging our negative feelings, for example, immediately triggers our upper brain to work on possible remedies. This may occur at the subconscious level, but it does occur, so long as you acknowledge the feeling. Accepting your feelings is a big part of self-acceptance; and self-acceptance is universally proposed as a first step to all personal growth.
3. Setting boundaries - After you have accepted your feelings, you can use them to help you set the personal boundaries that are right for you. Only you can know what feels right for you and what you feel comfortable with. Therefore, only you can be responsible for setting your boundaries. By clearly expressing your feelings you let people know "where they stand." When you are uncomfortable about something, simply say "I feel uncomfortable about this," or, "I don't feel good about this." If you choose to, explain why you feel the way you do. Be aware, however, that feeling the need to defend your feelings may either be a sign that your feelings are being questioned by someone, or that you feel insecure in expressing them.
Most people will respect our boundaries or try to reach a compromise with us if we clearly express our feelings. It is our responsibility, though, to communicate our feelings rather than expect them to read our minds or just "know" what is acceptable and what is not. Part of EQ is knowing how to express ourselves in an assertive, but not aggressive way. If we do not make our boundaries clear, we are partially responsible if someone crosses them.
At the same time, if we have clearly expressed our feelings and someone repeatedly disrespects them, it is helpful to ask ourselves what kind of relationship we want to have with them. In other words, we ask: "Is this worth it?" Until we have become aware of our feelings and can accurately predict them, it will be difficult to answer that question. But whatever we decide, if we realize that we are making a conscious choice, we are less likely to later feel resentful or bitter. In the same way, if we have bitter feelings about something that has already happened, it helps to look for the ways we contributed to the situation. When we do this we take the focus off of blaming others, and we are able to learn about ourselves to prevent a future recurrence. Accepting responsibility helps us learn. The process of learning not only empowers us, but it helps release the resentment, bitterness, disappointment we are feeling towards others.
Responsibility to Others
Living in a free society requires that we respect each other's needs. The respect for another person's needs is actually not only a responsibility, but it is in our own best interest in the long run. This is because others tend to treat us as we treat them. Additionally, if we treat others irresponsibly, they will eventually band together and restrain us, causing us to lose our freedom.
Do No Harm - The first responsibility to others is the same as that to ourselves: Do no harm. From an emotional standpoint this means to not damage the self-esteem of other people. At the same time, there will be occasions when not saying something is equivalent to allowing someone to hurt herself. In other words, since silence can mean tacit approval, you may be enabling someone's unhealthy behavior by standing idly by while she continues on a course of self-destruction. At such difficult times, compassion, empathy, and other EQ skills will help keep the relationship together while the truth is presented.
There are many ways you can harm someone psychologically but perhaps the most lethal is invalidation. Invalidation is the rejection, repudiation, denial, diminishment, or judgment of someone's feelings. It is so damaging and so prevalent that an entire chapter has been devoted to it. Here, let me just stress that invalidation is extremely harmful to someone's self- esteem and emotional welfare.
Honesty is the Best Policy - Another responsibility we each have to one another is to be honest. Society relies on truthful communication. Without truth, commitments cannot be relied upon, information cannot be trusted, and good decisions cannot be made. Lying and withholding information is manipulative and controlling.
All of this applies to the communication and expression of emotions. If we do not honestly express our feelings, others cannot know where they stand. Thus they are unable to make decisions which are in their best interests.
Not only does honest expression of feelings help others, but it helps us build close relationships, since few people want to associate with those who can't or won't express their true intentions.
To summarize, we act responsibly when we:
To show empathy is to identify with another's feelings. It is to emotionally put yourself in the place of another. The ability to empathize is directly dependent on your ability to both feel your own feelings and identify them. If you have never felt a certain feeling, it will be hard for you to understand how another person is feeling. This holds equally true for pleasure and pain.
If for example, you have never put your hand in a flame, you will not know the pain of fire. And if you have not experienced sexual passion, you will not understand its power.
People who have experienced great depths of emotional extremes may, therefore, have the potential to be the most empathetic. Likewise, those who have limited emotional ranges are commonly thought of as cold and uncaring. We say that people like this "can't relate" to others. What we mean is that they can not relate to our feelings because they haven't experienced or acknowledged their own.
Awareness & Acknowledgment
Empathy begins with awareness of another person's feelings. It would be easier to be aware of other people's emotions if they would simply tell us how they felt. But since most people do not, we must resort to asking questions, reading between the lines, guessing, and trying to interpret non-verbal cues. Emotionally expressive people are easiest to read, of course, with their eyes and faces letting us know how they are feeling.
Once we have figured out how another person feels, we show empathy by acknowledging the emotion. We may say, for example,
- I can see you are really uncomfortable
- I can understand why you would be upset.
We can also show empathy through a simple sign of affection such as hug or a tender touch.
In addition to being aware of another's feelings, empathy includes showing sensitivity to their feelings. The first rule of sensitivity is to not invalidate their feelings by belittling diminishing, rejecting, judging, or ignoring them. Even apathy is better than invalidation. For example, just a simple acknowledgment without any real empathy is much better than totally ignoring someone's feeling.
Sensitivity means treating others' emotions with "kid gloves." In our insecure world most of us have had our feelings hurt so many times that we are literally the walking wounded. Sensitivity also means being receptive to others' cues, particularly the non-verbal ones such as facial expressions. This is similar to a highly sensitive radio antenna which can pick up faint signals. The more information you are able to receive, the more you can help them and yourself. This does not mean, however, that you should feel responsible for another person's feelings, or that you should lie or withhold the truth to protect them.
Compassion and Understanding
Generally speaking, the more information you have on a subject, the more you understand it. By collecting information about other people's feelings, you get to know them better. This almost always leads to a deeper understanding, which in turn leads to greater compassion. As you get to know others, you will usually see how similar their needs and feelings are to yours. This helps you identify with them, relate to them, and thus, empathize with them. Because we are all human, we share basic human needs. The more we really get to know others, the more this becomes evident.
Sometimes we have already made our minds up about someone, perhaps by labeling or categorizing them. Nothing destroys empathy, understanding, and relationships quicker than judging and labeling someone.
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