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Empathy, Caring, Importance, Defensiveness and Responsibility

We all want to feel cared about. We want someone to feel empathy for us when we are in pain. That pain may take the form of hurt, sadness, or "anger" (see discussion of why anger is a secondary feeling), but in all cases we want someone to care how we feel. This is an evolutionary survival need. It was critical to our survival that when we were injured, we were able to express ourselves, to get someone's attention who cared enough to go out of their way to help us. Before we had words, our emotions expressed themselves in moans, cries, tones, facial expressions, body language, etc. The better we were at communicating our pain, and the more empathy we were able to get, the more likely we were to survive.

Also, the more important we are to someone the more likely they will care about how we feel. Thus we all want and need to feel important. If we meant nothing to the tribe that we were in, they might just decide to leave us behind at some point. But if we were important to the tribe for some reason or another, they would make an extra effort to help us.

When we are in pain though, it is a bad time to start trying to become important to someone and to get them to care about us. This is better done before we are in pain. Once we are in pain, we may quickly become bitter if we need their help or empathy and for some reason they are not giving it or showing it. If we then start to attack them, they will become defensive. Again, this is strictly an evolutionary survival response. The more we attack them, verbally, psychologically or otherwise, the more defensive they become. And, importantly, the less empathic they become. This was something I discovered by chance one day when I was being attacked for not caring, for not showing empathy. A girl I was dating started crying and said "..and you don't even care how I feel! Do you!?" I paused a moment and said "Well, actually right now I really don't because I am just thinking about how to defend myself." I realized later that day that feeling empathy and feeling defensive seem to be mutually exclusive. You simply cannot feel empathy when under attack. This apparently is due to the hierarchy of survival responses: we have evolved to protect and take care of ourselves first.

When you most need someone's empathy and caring then, it is probably counterproductive to attack them for not caring about you. It is probably not helpful to say things like, "If I were important to you, you would....." or "You don't care about me!" You might be able to get the immediate behavior you want from the person, but you are unlikely to be generating sincere feelings of empathy. More likely you are generating feelings of guilt, which is not a healthy motivation for behavior. It is a common one, but not a healthy one. Those who learned to get their short term needs met this way are in effect using guilt to manipulate the other person. That person will feel resentful over time. And their self-esteem will suffer because they are not acting out of their own free will. They experience a loss of power, so there will be future power struggles in an attempt to reclaim it. Feelings of competition, superiority, inferiority, victory, defeat, punishment, judgement and general mutual resentment may be the result, all of which are toxic to a romantic relationship.

Part of being emotionally skilled, then, is expressing your feelings in a non-attacking way. And part of having a high level of innate emotional intelligence is being aware of the emotions you may be generating in the other person. If you use your emotional intelligence in a healthy way, you will produce positive, loving emotions in the other person. But if you use it in a negative way you will produce feelings of resentment, guilt etc. How you use your emotional intellience is up to you, once you become aware that you have choices in how to apply it.

Now let's look at the four branches of emotional intelligence as defined by Mayer and Salovey. (source) These four branches are:

1. the ability to perceive accurately, appraise, and express emotions; identifying emotions in oneself and others
2. the ability to access and/or generate feelings when they facilitate thought; using emotion in reasoning and problem solving.
3. the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge, and
4. the ability to manage emotions in yourself and in others; the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and personal growth

First, let me say that I agree with Mayer and Salovey for the most part on branches 1 through 3 when they say these are the components of emotional intelligence. But I disagree that the ability to manage your emotions is a sign of high emotional intelligence. I believe this is more a product of your environment than of your innate level of EI. But that said, let's look at each branch.

In a romantic relationship it definitely helps to be able to accurately identify and express your own feelings. To do this you must be able to "access" them or in more common terms, you must be in touch with your feelings. When you are feeling hurt, upset, etc. your feelings definitely will generate thoughts on your part. But the key word is "facilitate." I take this to mean that your feelings help you think more clearly about what is happening. With high emotional intelligence, a healthy upbringing and helpful skills training, the thoughts you are generating are helping you solve the problem. But if your innate emotional intelligence has been corrupted by a dysfunctional past, your thoughts may do just the opposite. In other words, they may make things worse. (see cognitive distortions)

Also, if you are able to understand emotions and know what is likely to happen in your partner, you are less likely to attack when you need empathy and caring. Thus by using some self-regulation and choosing your words carefully and thoughtfully, you may indeed be growing emotionally and intellectually, while helping to get your needs met and strengthening the relationship bonds at the same time.

A simple example of this is to say "I feel hurt," rather than "You hurt me." Here is where we take a step beyond the academic definition of emotional intelligence and move to the more practical applications. You are now expressing your emotions with feeling words. You are not blaming or attacking your partner. You are simply providing information.

If you expect or demand your partner to make you feel better, though, you still are not taking responsibility for your emotions, something fundamental to my definition of emotional fitness. Many people try to change their partner, often in manipulative ways. Perhaps they invoke feelings of guilt or responsibility when they say either "You hurt me," or "I feel hurt." This could be done just by their tone of voice.

As I see it, the more you blame your partner for your feelings and expect them to change or do something about your feelings, the worse the relationship. Instead, after you express your feelings it is healthier to leave it up to them to voluntarily decide what to do with this information. (See above section on voluntary change)

When you express a feeling, it is wise to make a mental note of it, or perhaps write it in your journal. If you find you are experiencing the same feeling over and over again, I suggest you not blame your partner. Part of the value of clearly identifying your feelings, if not the primary value, is to help you decide when it is time for you to make a change. This change may take many forms, but the point is to take primary responsibility for taking care of your own feelings.

This is something I very rarely see in the world, and something I have trouble doing myself. Nearly all of my role models blamed others for their feelings. They then spent vast emotional and intellectual resources trying to get the others to change, through any number of tactics: guilt, coercion, bribery, punishment, reward, subtle manipulation, threats, intimidation, fear, etc. Not only was this what I saw in my immediate environment, but it is what I continue to see around the world on TV, in film, in literature, in schools, business and religion.

The ability to break away from this dysfunctional model, to take responsibility for managing one's own emotions, emotional health and happiness is a real achievement. We might say it is better called emotional enlightenment than emotional intelligence. When we reach this level of emotional growth, we are close to emotional self-sufficiency. We are able to meet more of our own emotional needs. When we do find that special person for whom we have passionate romantic feelings of love and desire, we are much more likely to bring happiness into the relationship rather than try to get happiness out of it.


This is an excerpt from the romance page


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