Get Smart

Emotional intelligence: "the capability of individuals to recognize their own and other people's emotions, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one's goal(s)". 

Unlabeled emotions often go misunderstood, which leads to irrational choices and counterproductive actions.
— Travis Bradberry

Research has shown a correlation between emotional intelligence (EQ) and greater mental health, leadership skills, and job performance. Travis Bradberry, co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, through data analysis, has identified hallmark behaviors of the emotionally intelligent.

I'd like to look at these features he's listed, one at a time, here. 

According to Bradberry, the first core behavior is having a robust emotional vocabulary

We all experience emotions and science has shown how necessary they are. However, the majority of people have difficulty clearly identifying what emotions they are experiencing in the moment or even upon reflection. People tease that counselors want to know and look at how you feel. However, there is scientific merit to giving space to exploring one's emotional reactions. 

Bradberry and his team found that "only 36 percent of people can [accurately identify their emotions as they occur], which is problematic because unlabeled emotions often go misunderstood, which leads to irrational choices and counterproductive actions."

He explains that those with high EQ's are not overrun by their emotions because they understand what they are feeling. They are able to locate the source of the emotion by utilizing an extensive emotional vocabulary to specifically capture and identify what it is that they feel. The majority of people may generalize their emotions to a few categories: "bad", "sad", "happy". But that generalization can make it difficult to gain insight into what is happening internally.

For example, I can be sad for multiple reasons: conflict with a friend, being misunderstood by my boss, losing a special memento, a friend's cancer diagnosis. Even listing only a few probable situations, there is a wide range of sadness that is possible. Associated with each of these different situations, there are varying degrees of how the emotion is experienced. Feeling misunderstood by my boss is not the same depth of sadness as learning of a friend's grave health status. Labeling one as "disappointing" and another as "sorrowful and grievous" gives the appropriate weight to what is being internally experienced. Having access to this insight and self-awareness allows me to respond appropriately to each situation because I understand what is occurring and why.

In their New York Times bestseller (and one I highly recommend!), The Whole Brain Child, Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson, have a strategy for emotional regulation called, "Name it to Tame it". They are employing the same idea that in identifying one's emotion we can have mastery over the emotion. For many, you may feel like you are tossed and turned (emotional dysregulation) by what you are feeling because there is a lack understanding of what and why something is happening. Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson recognize what Bradberry does, "The more specific your word choice, the better insight you have into exactly how you are feeling, what caused it, and what you should do about it."

To be emotionally healthier individuals, it's crucial you expand your emotional vocabulary. Most often it is beneficial to do so in the company and presence of one who will help you find this language to give more texture and depth to your life and relationships. We name to not only tame but to honor. 

My So Called Life

In a few days, my sister will be walking across the stage in a cap and gown for the third time from The University of Texas at Austin. Yes, THIRD time. She will be receiving her post-Masters degree because one, apparently, is not enough for this bright, hard-working and driven person with whom I have the pleasure of being related. (Congratulations, Stephanie!) 

After the confetti has settled, post-college life can feel overwhelming, daunting, and uncertain.

Over the next few weeks, countless videos of inspiring commencement speeches for the graduating class of 2017 will be posted to YouTube. (Dr. Will Ferrell's USC address is worth the 25-minute investment, in my opinion.) After all, this is graduation season. A season of excitement and promise of a bright future. While this may be true for those who have secured jobs in their desired field, for the rest, after the confetti has settled, post-college life can feel overwhelming, daunting, and uncertain. 

Freshman 18-year-old you had this idea of what graduating 22-year-old you would be and something isn't matching up. You've stepped into adulthood all of the sudden without a map, yet you're expected to navigate this new terrain like a pro. It seems your peers are owning adulthood, and life, in general, for that matter: excelling and mastering their dream job, climbing their respective field ladders, settling into romantic relationships and all the while still make time for Sunday brunch. Why, then, is it so hard for you? Is your internal compass faulty? Did you miss the manual that everyone else received along with their diplomas? How do you begin to figure things out when you don't even know where to start? 

How do you begin to figure things out when you don’t even know where to start?

What happens when life doesn’t go according to the script you had laid out?

What happens when life doesn't go according to the script you had laid out? This is a question for everyone, at every life stage. (However, I think for those coming into their own during their 20s, this question can be particularly challenging.) I doubt many people include cancer diagnosis, miscarriages, heartache and heartbreak, divorce, unemployment and other gut wrenching realities in their "Oh, The Places You'll Go" ideals. And yet, they find their way onto that undesired landscape. 

The unexpected can really disrupt and disorient us. Living in this haze, we wobble and stumble forward trying to find some version of our dreams, some aspect to not feel so powerless and helpless, some landing place to not feel inferior. I believe two things can happen here: 

1) It feels too excruciating to keep trying, to make sense of things, to be disappointed that life isn't what you wanted/thought it would be so you numb out. You disconnect and isolate from yourself and others emotionally and you find solace in various addictions to stifle your inner strife.

OR

2) It feels quite painful, excruciating at times, and you bravely choose to engage the pain. You allow yourself to explore false beliefs you have about yourself and the world. Our pain highlights an emotional depth needed to live a life of meaning, purpose, and hope. Our pain informs our joy. Our pain, like our joy, makes us real. Emotional resiliency is birthed.

There's not an in-between. There is not an option to not not feel pain if you want to have a life of connection. You either ignore your pain, which has its own cost, or you choose to befriend your pain and see what it wants to tell you. You're at a crossroads. This decision has far weightier and far-reaching implications than most others you'll have to make.

I wish for you the courage to remain present in the midst of uncertainty, disappointment, and expectations not being fulfilled. Perhaps you'll stumble upon something beautiful among the unexpected. 

Secret Keeper

If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.
— George Orwell

We all possess secrets. We've been entrusted to keep them. We have also offered them to others to hold with us or sometimes for us. At times we consider it an honor to be a confidante and other times it is a curse to be asked to hide something that should be revealed. Secrets are not just things we keep from the outside world; they are most often things we keep from ourselves.

In last month's issue of Pyschology Today, writer Carlin Flora explored the damaging effect secrets have on our mental, emotional, and physical health.

Founder and director of The Institute of Behavior Therapy, Barry Lubetkin explains, "Deep secrets are often traumatic events from the past such as a rape that has made someone feel vulnerable or a compulsion or obsession that feels too shameful to disclose". Other buried secrets according to Lubetkin include illnesses, a stigmatized identity, an addiction or a moral transgression such as a marital affair. Shame underlies much of secret keeping but secrets aren't necessarily secluded to the realm of shame. Flora says that "Hopes and dreams that people don't dare speak aloud are also secrets."

We withhold, not just painful memories but also celebratory or exciting things, because to acknowledge them requires vulnerability, to let people really see us, fears AND hopes. We wonder what people will think if they knew. Or if they did know, we don't want to know what they think because it may be different than what we want to hear. And if I acknowledge it to you, I am simultaneously acknowledging it to myself. Dare I speak aloud my deepest fears and fantasies? What if my fears become reality? And will I be able to bear the crushing weight of disappointment if my dreams do not come true? So we protect ourselves through withholding, denial and dismissal.

The mental bandwidth expelled to protect secrets takes a physical toll. According to Michael Slepian of Columbia University, "Secrets we consciously protect alters the body's stress response and "depletes mental resources". Studies conducted by James Pennebaker of The University of Texas at Austin "found that people who had a traumatic sexual experience as a child or teen were more likely to have health problems as they got older, particularly if they had hidden the trauma from others". 

Secrets are usually a signal or manifestation of an underlying set of conditions. If someone is experiencing shame or fear, they create an internal marketplace for secrets.
— Nando Pelusi

However, Pennebaker found that making sense of traumatic events had a powerful effect on the body. Those who spent 20 minutes each day for several consecutive days visited the health center "far fewer times in the following months than students who had written about a general topic or who revealed a secret but didn't delve into the emotions around it".

Clinical psychologist Nando Pelusi explains that secrets are a mirror of what one believes about themselves. Beliefs that one is incompetent, deficient, worthless, unlovable is often hidden beneath a traumatic secret. Pelusi advises the importance of "[taking] apart the traumatic event. Someone might always regret what happened, but if he looks at it in a safe environment, like a therapists' office, the trauma diminishes because it's been powered by secretiveness". 

And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter-they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside so long.
— Slyvia Plath

Examining and exploring the purpose of the secret and the beliefs that have held it in the dark can release the power of shame. Being willing to look behind the curtain to find a mere man instead of the all powerful Oz can be quite painful. The Wizard of Oz was constructed for a reason and we are slowly dismantling that image, facing fears of who we are and are not. But from there, if you are willing, you can find meaning and chart a new course for yourself with healthier, more accurate beliefs of your true identity. 

Masters of Illusion

“Hush, Dorothy,” whispered the Tiger, “you’ll ruin my reputation if you are not more discreet. It isn’t what we are, but what folks think we are, that counts in this world.”
— Frank Baum, The Road to Oz

Early on, we unconsciously learned to present certain things to the world (like a powerful man in sunglasses) so the world will accept us. Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins sums this up brilliantly about the transformation of his character Chiron in his film Moonlight, "Over time some people become less and less themselves and instead turn into this thing that they feel like they need to be in order to survive."

So we hide in plain sight. We keep our true selves tucked away beneath layers and layers of the false images we portray. Carlin Flora's Psychology Today article, "Unlocking the Vault", dives into our propensity to hide. She interviews Barry Farber, Professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, who explains, "A struggle plays out constantly between a wish to be known and helped on one hand and the avoidance of feeling the shame of acknowledging pieces of ourselves we're not pleased with." Like the Tiger, we want to present ourselves in the best possible way that causes others to think highly of us because that is what "counts in this world". And somehow, being human with faults, fears and wounded histories doesn't fit into that equation so we bury those parts of us into the recesses of our soul.

To quiet the noise of incongruence between the mask and the man, it’s easier to assume the mask is the man.

To hide our humanness, we put a lot of energy to maintaining these facades. So much energy is given to employing these covers and keeping them in tact that we can't hear what is happening inside us.

To quiet the noise of incongruence between the mask and the man, it's easier to assume the mask is the man.  We lose track of who we are and unknowingly allow the self-protective ways of relating to take over. You wear this mask long enough and become known this way so it seems foolish to take it off. If you took it off, who would you be? Would you even recognize yourself? And would you be accepted without it? 

Yet, you're tired. You're tired of being different things to different people. It's exhausting wondering if you'll be exposed. Ultimately, it's lonely being a stranger in your own skin. Something inside longs to breathe, to connect, to love, to belong, to be known. That part wants to be real, wants to be authentic, wants to be true. Being true means accepting yourself as human and loving and seeing those parts you deemed unworthy. 

We can only test the climate of authentic revelation in a safe environment of compassion, kindness, patience and understanding. Without this, the masks and the belief of their necessity will be reinforced. As you shed those false layers, you'll come face to face with the painful reasons that caused those layers to originate. This uncovering is uncomfortable and can feel disruptive but it is necessary. You're knocking down what you've falsely built your world around in order to rebuild something true. This is wildly vulnerable.

But if you are willing to give yourself the gift of your own humanity you will learn like the Skin Horse, that "real" is a "thing that happens to you". When you are really loved, then you become real. Becoming real takes time "but once you are real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

That sounds like a comforting invitation to me. Will you accept what being real can offer you?

Once you are real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.
— The Velveteen Rabbit

Befriending the Stranger

Before we can become who we really are, we must become conscious of the fact that the person who we think we are, here and now, is at best an imposter and a stranger.
— Thomas Merton

Manipulating and mastering one's image is crucial these days. Social media let's us present the outward looking face we want. We determine what someone sees and knows through various filters because there are great rewards to be had (follower increase, "likes" which studies have showed increase our dopamine levels-our brain's reward system). But maintaining for the sake of reward has its dark side. Think about public personas and their falls from grace and how quickly contracts are dropped in order to disassociate from their now marred/soiled image. (Hi, Ryan Lochte.) Which is usually followed by PR attempts to reassemble and salvage whatever can be done from the charred remains.  

When we unwittingly show we are less than perfect in some way, we pay a price. While our mistakes may not take on the depth of public scrutiny as celebrities, we have all certainly felt the sting of someone's disappointment, their judgment and in some cases, even relationships ending. This is not new...we've talked about this before. But it's worth continually revisiting. 

Because we determine to get around in the world as unscathed as possible, we layer our personality with various masks to protect our authentic selves from any form of harm that will leave us feeling rejected, misunderstood, shamed, lonely.  We become enslaved to our defenses and feel naked without them.

Ian Morgan Cron sums it up well, "Made up of innate qualities, coping strategies, conditioned reflexes and defense mechanisms, among lots of other things, our personality helps us know and do what we sense is required to please our parents, to fit in and relate well to our friends, to satisfy the expectations of our culture and to get our basic needs met...[Our adapative strategies] get triggered so predictably, so often and so automatically that we can't tell where they end and our true nature begins." 

The line of truth and facade becomes so blurry. Over time, we lose ourselves and don’t recognize the person staring back at us in the mirror.

These masks are quite successful at keeping us well guarded from painful relational interactions so we continue to rely on them. So much so that we forget they are masks and assume they are us. The line of truth and facade becomes so blurry. And who we are actually gets buried underneath the layers. Over time, we lose ourselves and don't recognize the person staring back at us in the mirror. 

This is a sad and sobering consequence. To not know one's self is truly a tragedy because you cannot be known and if you cannot be known, you cannot be loved wholly. We'll continue this ongoing conversation but I want to leave you with this beautiful exchange from The Velveteen Rabbit. May we all learn to have the courage to be made real. 

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?" 

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." 

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit. 

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt." 

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?" 

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand." 

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled. 

"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always.” 

May we all learn to have the courage to be made real.

Hygge it out

I know I'm late to the hygge game. My apologies. While there isn't an exact translation in English, as best as authors can explain, the Danish word means feeling cozy, "like you've gotten a hug, just without the physical touch" (Meik Wiking, The Little Book of Hygge), or "an appreciation of the simple pleasures in life" (Signe Johansen, How to Hygge). 

The qualities that define hygge are simplicity, happiness, balance, beauty and quiet. Along the way we've decided that the pursuit of hygge is the pathway towards happiness. 

Happiness has become a barometer of how well we're doing at life. If this is true, the majority of Americans are failing. The World Happiness Report ranks the U.S. at 19th among the 34 countries measured. This would make one think the appropriate step is to find ways to curate more happiness in one's life.

But what if the point is not to secure individual happiness? What if happiness is actually the source of the problem?

In an interview for Scientific American, Emily Esfahani Smith explains, "The happiness frenzy distracts people from what really matters, which is leading a meaningful life. Human beings have a need for meaning. We’re creatures that seek meaning, make meaning, and yearn for meaning. The question is—how can we lead a meaningful life? The route to meaning lies in connecting and contributing to something bigger than yourself—and not in gratifying yourself and focusing on what you, yourself, need and want, as the happiness industry encourages us to do.”

To be clear, Esfahani Smith "[doesn’t] think there’s anything wrong with feeling happy, but [she] think[s] that setting happiness as your goal and relentlessly chasing it can lead to problems."

Because so many of us are struggling to understand our ‘why’, I think we’re turning to false substitues for meaning.
— Emily Esfahani Smith

She expounds on those problems. "Research shows that there are millions of people who are unsure of what makes their lives meaningful—and that rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and drug addiction have been rising for decades. Because so many of us are struggling to understand our ‘why,’ I think we’re turning to false substitutes for meaning—like technology and the pursuit of happiness—to fill our existential vacuum."

We, as a culture, are restless, overloaded, consistently battle FOMO and consume to fill what is empty. Esfahani Smith finds that meaning evades us because we deny ourselves moments of reflection. It is difficult to reflect when you're constantly taking in and consuming. 

If reflection leads to meaning and meaning gives my life purpose, how does one acquire meaning? A requirement for a meaningful life is "being reflective, being present and aware of others" and this occurs through storytelling. Esfahani Smith explains, "Storytelling is the act of taking our disparate experiences and weaving them into a coherent whole—a narrative. Psychologists say that one of the building blocks of a meaningful life is coherence or comprehension. That means that people leading meaningful lives don’t conceive of their experiences as random and disconnected. They have worked hard to understand how their experiences fit together into a narrative that explains who they are how they got to be that way."

The concept of hygge is ultimately to be intentional towards giving and finding spaces to discover your narrative. Many people live disparate stories and it's reflected in their chaotic, busy and noisy comings and goings. Taking the time to sit to make meaning of one's experiences can lead to a life of simplicity, happiness, balance, beauty and quiet. In a culture that praises busyness, you must fight to have moments of togetherness, reflection, and quiet. Often times and for many people, this happens sitting across from a counselor who empathizes, supports, and holds your process as you seek to make sense of it.

And as you learn and grow to reflect and become a storyteller, perhaps meaning making will coincide with Fike (Swedish word for sitting down for coffee and cake).

How will you create daily rhythms of reflection in your life?

Happy Happy, Joy Joy

I recently read an article by a journalist who tracked her happiness for a year in an effort to see what motivates her. She did this in order to incorporate more of these happy generating things into her life. That's smart...science really is relevant. I appreciated her intentionality to document and track because it can be easy to minimize everyday simple pleasures.  As an anxious culture, we rarely sit in the here-and-now. This reality contributes to our difficulty to be presently engaged with ourselves and others (and I've already noted the actual health risks in a previous blog post). There is something to be said about taking time to capture the various here-and-now moments, collecting them, and reflecting on them. This benefits us by adding a level of conscious awareness. This is important if we want to lead fulfilled lives. 

While I have not kept an actual jar (though I like this idea), I do keep a monthly account of things that were particularly special and meaningful to me, from coffee with a friend, trying a new restaurant, a fun date, or getting an interview for a dream job. Even if there might have been something sad or stressful, I'll jot down the flowers a friend sent or the text messages that blew up my phone to comfort me. These are things I want to remember and be thankful for; it reorients me back to what I have in front of me in this given moment in time. My perspective shifts from what I lack to what has been given.

At the end of the year, I look back on each month and reflect on different things that were highlighted and otherwise would have forgotten. Because I've written it down, I can remember the great weather the day my friend and I walked Town Lake and the funny anecdote she told. It's a form of journaling that informs me of things that I value and give my time and attention. Because there are often repeated themes each month, I can be more diligent in how I choose to spend my time and focus. I can gauge how well I am doing at incorporating people and experiences that contribute to my overall mental and emotional health. Was this month particularly stressful or rejuvenating? The answer can be correlated to what did or did not make the list. This awareness reminds me I'm responsible for my own self-care and can take active steps to lessen my anxiety and stress simply by initiating with a friend to go for a walk or have coffee. While life will still be stressful, I do not have to feel helpless by those events or situations. I can take ownership of what I can change, what is within my jurisdiction and sometimes, that's a step in the right direction.

What are things that would make your jar/list? 

Inside 'Inside Out'

A few years ago, Pixar knocked it out of the park (yet again) with Inside Out. This special film creatively depicted the significant role our emotions play in our day to day interactions with the world. It showed that each emotion is necessary and vital. Even more impactful, the film discussed the importance of grieving our losses. 

[We have] to have this full complement of emotions to develop. I think we all need to remember that. This is a weakness in Western culture and the United States. You need sadness, you need anger, you need fear.
— Dr. Dacher Keltner

Dacher Keltner, leading scientist in the study of emotions and a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, was one of the psychologists who served as a consultant for Pixar's Inside Out. He shared in a PacificStandard magazine interview with J. Wesley Judd, "Well, I think that the film really got a couple of big ideas about emotions right. One, [emotions] are really critical to how we look at the world — our perception and our attention and our memories and our judgment. They guide us in our handling of really important life circumstances, like moves and developmental changes...People in different traditions like to refer to emotions with a social idiom or a grammar of social interactions. Emotions are the structure, the substance, of our interactions with other people. If I’m falling in love with somebody, everything that I do in that euphoria of love — buying flowers, reciting poetry, touching the individual’s hair — it’s textured by the feeling, and it sets up these patterns of how we relate to each other. Those scenes in particular with Riley’s fights with parents and running away and coming back are all about sadness. That’s what it really got right. Emotions shape how we relate to other people."

One thing I personally and professionally appreciated about the film was its portrayal of Sadness. The film normalized an emotion often discarded because it is uncomfortable and is often a response to a loss. Often times, people will come into my office struggling with their sadness. Their sadness confuses them and they want to ostracize or minimize it. But it's a real emotion and true to the human experience.

Keltner and his colleague, Paul Ekman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote a New York Times article entitled, "The Science of 'Inside Out'" explaining that sadness is a healthy part of emotional development.

Dr. Keltner says, "One of the things I really resonated with is that we have a naive view in the West that happiness is all about the positive stuff. But happiness in a meaningful life is really about the full array of emotions, and finding them in the right place. I think that is a subtext of the movie: The parents want Riley to just be their happy little girl. And she can’t. She has to have this full complement of emotions to develop. I think we all need to remember that. This is a weakness in Western culture and the United States. You need sadness, you need anger, you need fear."

1. Emotions organize- rather than disrupt- rational thinking.
2. Emotions organize- rather than disrupt- our social lives.
— Dr. Dacher Keltner

He writes, "The real star of the film is Sadness, for "Inside Out" is a film about loss and what people gain when guided by feelings of sadness."

The articles continues by explaining insights from the science of emotion, "First, emotions organize- rather than disrupt-rational thinking. Traditionally in Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations. But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation." 

"Second, emotions organize- rather than disrupt- our social lives. Studies have found, for example, that emotions structure (not just color) such disparate social interactions as attachment between parents and children, sibling conflicts, flirtations between young courters and negotiations between rivals." 

""Inside Out" offers a new approach to sadness. Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen's emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike."

Sadness purposefully contributes something beautiful to life. Keltner explains the "vital function of Sadness" is to guide the main character "to recognize the changes she is going through and what she has lost, which sets the stage for her to develop new facets of her identity." 

As a counselor, I want to help clients become acquainted with their sadness, their grief, by identifying and acknowledging their loss and its affect. In doing so, over time, their grief can add new textures and significant meaning to their lives. There is strength in the sorrow and beauty in the tears.

Sadness can be one of our best teachers. We have much to learn from her. Will we be willing students?