Practicing Emotional Intelligence


How would I turn my desire to respect another person’s independence into a “practice”?

This probably sounds like a weird question, but I was reading an online article entitled The Myth of the ‘Aha’ Moment in which the author talks about how having the original epiphany isn’t enough to exact change in your behavior. You have to develop a regular practice of responding in a new way to make change stick.

It makes sense. We are creatures of habit. We have to make a habit of routine exercise before a culture of fitness becomes an ingrained part of our lives. It makes sense that the same thing applies to our emotions and the way we behave, toward ourselves and others.

I had an “Aha!” moment this morning when I read this paragraph by Erich Fromm:

“Productive love always implies a syndrome of attitudes; that of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. If I love, I care – that is, I am actively concerned with the other person’s growth and happiness; I am not a spectator. I am responsible, that is, I respond to his needs, to those he can express and more so to those he cannot or does not express. I respect him, that is (according to the original meaning of re-spicere) I look at him as he is, objectively and not distorted by my wishes and fears. I know him, I have penetrated through his surface to the core of his being and related myself to him from my core, from the center, as against the periphery, of my being.”

I am terribly guilty of seeing people I love through the distorted lens of my own wishes and fears. I don’t think this is at all unusual human behavior, but it’s something I want to change.

So. If because of my own insecurities I react badly to a loved one’s need for independence, and I’ve determined that I don’t WANT to behave that way – how do I translate that into a practice? I have said many times that I want to love differently, less selfishly. But just thinking about it will obviously not make it happen.

If I had taken some time Saturday night to just think, would I have behaved differently? Instead of going out and stewing my resentment and hurt in a couple of martinis and some bourbon (not a good recipe for anything sensible or kind), what if I’d turned that moment into a self-assessment ritual? Something tangible. I’ve always benefited from writing out my thoughts. If they stay in my head, they just swirl around and go nowhere.

So, for instance, take out a piece of paper, turn down the lights and light a candle. Put on some soothing music without distracting lyrics. Get the dogs to stop panting and the cat to stop howling then give up and shut them up in another room. And seriously think about and answer some or all of the following questions:

Why am I reacting this way? What am I afraid of? Why does another person’s behavior affect me so greatly? What is the real source of my resentment? (Because ultimately it is probably something other than what is happening right this second.)

What do I know of the other person? I’m assuming in this moment that I know their thoughts, but of course I don’t. What do I know? Why would I assume that their motives in this moment have anything to do with me? What does that say about me?

And – the question I think I should ask myself any time I’m feeling a negative emotion of any kind – for what am I grateful? It’s impossible to feel gratitude when you’re feeling strong negative emotions. But if you really start thinking about all the very good things in your life, I think it’s also impossible to stay angry or sad for very long. You can’t feel gratitude and anger/sadness/fear simultaneously.

And there’s always something for which to be grateful.

I think that’s a start anyway. I seriously want to change the way I think and behave. I don’t know exactly how, so I’ll just have to experiment and find what works best.

My upbringing taught me to largely avoid emotions, as did my marriage. I don’t think many of us are taught emotional intelligence. We have to figure it out on our own.

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