What is Emotional Intelligence, and is There a Way To Improve It?

September 22, 2023   •  Posted in: 

Have you ever thought about what type of people are the most successful in life? Initially, you might think it’s someone who’s intelligent. We tend to think of intelligence as being knowledgeable or educated; someone who’s able to think on their feet and solve problems with ease. Someone who is very intelligent might score high on an IQ, or intellectual quotient, test.

But there’s also another type of intelligence that’s not as often talked about: emotional intelligence, or EQ (emotional quotient). Experts say having high EQ is even more important than having a high IQ and can bring you more successes in life.

So what, exactly, does it mean to have high emotional intelligence, and is it possible to start developing emotional intelligence in adulthood?


Components of emotional intelligence (EQ)

Defined generally, emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware of and manage your emotions in healthy ways. People with high emotional intelligence are able to communicate effectively, regulate themselves when emotions are running high, have empathy for the emotions of others, resolve conflict, and more[1].

The term “emotional intelligence” was popularized in the 1990s by psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman. In his book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ,” he described 5 components of emotional intelligence[2].

These 5 components are:

1. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to identify how you’re feeling and why. You understand the patterns of your behavior and what situations cause you to feel and act in certain ways. Many of us go through life without noticing how we’re feeling in each moment. We may simply be too busy, or the emotions might be so painful we push them away.

Self-awareness means we stop to notice our emotions. We’re able to put a name to them, in the moment, and see them for what they are.

2. Self-management

Not only are highly emotionally intelligent people able to notice and be aware of their emotions, they’re also able to manage them in healthy ways. This is called self-management or self-regulation.

Self-regulation is about responding rather than reacting. People who have strong self-regulation skills can take a moment to think about how they want to respond, even in situations that are highly emotional or triggering. They don’t lash out. And when they’re facing a high level of emotional distress, they’re able to find ways to calm themselves down.

3. Motivation

People who are emotionally intelligent are also driven toward self-actualization. They tend to be intrinsically motivated to reach their highest potential. They set goals and take steps toward them without anyone pushing them. What they want most is to grow as a person.

Having motivation also means you take initiative. When something needs to be done, people with a high EQ get to work.

4. Empathy

Not only are emotionally intelligent people highly aware of their own emotions, they have the ability to be aware of others’ emotions – also called empathy.

Empathy requires you to take the perspective of another person and understand their worldview without judgment. High EQ allows people to deeply understand how others feel, perhaps because they’re so attuned with their own emotions. Emotionally intelligent people show compassion for others, and rarely, if ever, are judgmental.

5. Social skills

Coming from a place of empathy allows people with high EQ to build strong interpersonal relationships. They generally have good social skills. They’re able to communicate effectively and assertively, resolve conflict, and work well in teams.

Having high emotional intelligence means you can show people you are listening. You empathize with others’ feelings and show them you understand through both verbal and nonverbal communication.


What are some signs of low emotional intelligence?

On the flip side, people who have low EQ are lacking in all 5 of these traits. If you have a low EQ, you may struggle with relationships or feel overwhelmed by your emotions.

Some signs of low EQ include:

  • Having frequent emotional outbursts
  • Severe mood swings
  • Having a difficult time saying no or establishing boundaries
  • Lacking in empathy
  • Having a limited emotional vocabulary (feeling like you can’t describe your emotions in words)
  • Not forgiving self or others for mistakes
  • Trouble accepting criticism
  • Challenges understanding how others feel
  • Being oblivious to social or emotional cues
  • No interest in taking initiative
  • Lack of motivation in meeting personal goals
  • Difficulty working on teams
  • Needing to be right all the time
  • Tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time
  • Being impulsive
  • Turning to alcohol, drugs, or other risky behaviors frequently in order to cope
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships
  • Oten feeling misunderstood

Many different circumstances can cause someone to have low emotional intelligence, from how you were parented to different mental health issues. For example, Alexithymia is a condition that causes people to have a hard time recognizing emotions in others. Alexithymia has many potential causes, including childhood trauma, traumatic brain injury, and autism.


How to improve emotional intelligence

Having low emotional intelligence doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. But it is important to find ways to work on improving your emotional intelligence. People with high emotional intelligence are more likely to succeed in every area of their life, including relationships, love, and work. They’re also more likely to be resilient and bounce back quicker after the inevitable hardships and changes in life.

There are many actions you can take to strengthen your emotional intelligence. Just like traits, such as kindness and patience, emotional intelligence is a skill – with practice, you can get better and better at it.

Here are some strategies you can try to improve your emotional intelligence[3]:

Do daily emotional check-ins

Take some time to intentionally practice self-awareness of your emotions every day. Try to get in touch with your emotions. How are you feeling right now? What is making you feel this way? Try to use a wide variety of words to describe your feelings – looking at emotional vocabulary lists on the internet can help. Do this check-in every single day until it becomes a habit.

Become curious

Rather than reacting with anger or stress, become curious about situations that upset you. Why is this situation, in particular, upsetting to you? When was the last time you felt this way? Do the same for other people. When others become upset, maintain a sense of curiosity. Try to figure out the deeper reason behind your and their emotional reactions.

Practice active listening

When someone is sharing something with you, practice active listening. Don’t interrupt them, but give them signals you’re listening (such as nodding or smiling). Pay attention to your body language. Try to maintain appropriate eye contact and lean in to show you’re listening. Truly reflect on what this person is sharing with you, and ask open questions to learn more.

Ask for feedback

Get others’ help in strengthening your emotional intelligence. Ask for feedback on how emotionally intelligent they feel you are in certain situations. You might not like the answer, but it will be valuable in letting you know how you’re perceived by others.

Start a journal

Journaling about your emotions and social experiences can be a great way to self-reflect. At the end of the day, write about the emotions you felt as you moved through the day. What happened before, during, and after you felt this way? How did you react, and how (if at all) would you like to react differently next time?

Apologize when needed

One important aspect of building emotional intelligence is being able to admit when you’re wrong. If you have hurt someone in the past, own up to it. Take responsibility and offer a sincere apology. Moving forward, when people tell you they’ve been hurt by something you said or did, take the opportunity to reflect on your behavior and admit your wrongs.

Learn coping strategies

People who are emotionally intelligent know how to manage their strong emotions effectively. It isn’t that they never feel upset – they’re just equipped with effective tools they can use to calm themselves down. What tools work for you? For example, maybe you feel more calm when you listen to music or go for a walk. Make a list of these coping strategies, use them, and learn more if you need to.

Get mental health treatment

In some cases, mental health treatment might be needed to improve emotional intelligence. This is especially true if past trauma or a mental health condition like depression has made it challenging for you to be attuned to your feelings.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we offer unique mental health treatment programs – including a trauma recovery program and a depression treatment program – using our proven Whole Person Care method. Whole Person Care means we see and honor who you are beyond the trauma you’ve been through and can help you heal on every level of your well-being.

With support, you can strengthen your emotional intelligence and heal your relationships.

Schedule a callback, and our team will get back to you at your earliest convenience.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4085815/
[2] Goleman, D. (2007). Emotional Intelligence (10th ed.). Bantam Books.
[3] https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/emotional-intelligence-skills

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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