Life is new, fresh, full of doors to open and opportunities to seize. There is a distinct freedom that comes with being in control of your emotions. This was my lightbulb moment, when I realised I could choose to have complete control over my emotions and reactions; I could understand others’ emotions, improve my capacity to form successful relationships, and ultimately lead a happier life. Anyone can learn this, even YOU. Indeed, the idea of emotional intelligence can be attributed as far back as Socrates and his ‘know thyself’ belief.
Your mind is a palace, your own world, where you form, develop and update information, dreams and wishes. It can be your best friend and your enemy. With such range in each single mind, it is unsurprising we have trouble understanding our own minds, let alone nurturing them to our advantage. Reading other people’s minds… well, that is for scientists. Right? Wrong. If I told you, you do not have to be a slave to your emotions, what would you feel?
10 years ago, I had much to learn about my own emotional intelligence—being a fun, active, academic student of the University of St Andrews, I had my life ahead of me. I was on the road to ‘success’ and was excited about the future. Then, illness struck. I did not see it coming and was unprepared. I spent the first few years of my 20s ill. I made wrong choices and felt self-pity. I was emotionally unintelligent. I constantly felt like a failure. When I gradually recovered, next came the race to ‘prove myself’ and ‘catch up’. I gained a 1st class law degree and worked in the legal sector in China. Supposedly, I had ‘made it’. The world was my oyster. Yet, I still felt like I was playing catch up. I still had not found my place in the world. I had a broken engagement, left 2 jobs and felt lost.
Then I found a lifeline, a friend, a mentor who taught me I could live a life I wanted, that I was in control of my destiny. She taught me how to appreciate myself, to see the world differently and showed me I had something to offer it. Looking after my mental health was a large part of this: little steps are the quickest way forward, trusting myself and learning that there isn’t always a right and wrong answer. Also, learning that other peoples’ opinions, even if I seek them, do not have to be taken or acted upon. It is for me to do what I think is right, taking responsibility for my own thoughts and actions. This led to research…lots of research! Deep research into emotional intelligence and self-understanding has led me to want to share this knowledge with others, to unlock others from being slaves to their emotions.
We have all been guilty of using our emotions as an excuse for lashing out at people. We may regret it afterwards, but it is too late then. How many times have you said to someone ‘I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean that’? You apologise but the damage has been done. Then there is the adage that a person’s first response is what they truly feel, but this has its limitations. It is what your brain has been programmed, through years of unconscious synapse building, to think. It is not necessarily what you believe or wanted to reply. However, we can learn to re-wire our brains to become more emotionally intelligent so we do not make that comment/ response. Eventually not only do you just stop yourself saying something that first comes to mind, but you don’t think it in the first place… your mind will have matured and created different paths, rendering you more in control of your initial responses.
It is not easy as your natural instinct will nearly always be to retaliate, as it is like a defence mechanism. But consistency and practice to increase new synapses in your brain and reduce the default will eventually demonstrate a change.
Take this scenario:
You have had a bad day at work: someone let you down, you wrote a bad report, and the traffic was a nightmare on your way home. A normal half-hour journey takes an hour. The weather is diabolical. You open the door to your house, dripping wet, cross, upset. You are hungry and want an early night. However, it appears your partner has done nothing all day. They are laying on the sofa, the house is a mess, they did not go to work, and nothing has been prepared for dinner. Automatically, you get cross and accuse your partner: ‘why haven’t you done anything?’, ‘I’ve had a hard day at work and you haven’t even been bothered to get any dinner ready’; this may escalate to ‘why are you always so lazy?’
Clearly, such a reaction demonstrates a lack of self-control and letting emotions get the better of you. With this response, the evening does not look like it will improve, an argument may begin, and each goes to bed cross and upset. What might be a better reaction? Perhaps to stop and think why have they not done these things? They might have been ill that day; perhaps had bad/sad news; they may have had a hard week and deserve some time out. Perhaps they have actually ordered a take away as a surprise and it has not arrived yet. So instead of bursting out in anger, take those 5 seconds and think how you could make the situation better. You may say something like ‘it looks like you have had a quieter day today, is everything okay’? You may go and put the kettle on and make tea or pour a glass of wine for you both before suggesting making dinner together.
Keep responses positive, not argumentative or accusatory. The evening becomes more positive and you both go to bed feeling de-stressed. It is very easy to let your emotions cloud your day and take it out on others, but remember, they are generally not the reason you have had a bad day. Reading books like ‘The Chimp Paradox’ by Professor Steve Peters or and Daniel Goleman’s ‘Emotional Intelligence’ are a good starting point. Understanding why the brain works the way it does, the default settings.
Equally important in happiness is to define your version of ‘success’. Contrary to automatic assumption, each person has a different definition. Some may define it as a large salary, a high-powered career, a large house, a nice car, international holidays etc. Others feel it is more about being happy, sustainable, or living a life different from others. The crucial difference is that when you take time to define what success means to you, and stick with it, you stop competing against everyone else who may have a different definition. This is better for your mental health but it also is a much more emotionally intelligent choice to make. Do not confuse success and happiness; ‘success’ may lead to a temporary euphoria but the goal shifts further. As such, learning to be happy with yourself and your current situation is the key to long- term happiness. Happiness is not a future state of being: ‘I will be happy when I have bought a house’, ‘I will be happy when I am earning x amount’ etc. Your story may change. Keep it fluid. Defining your version of success and being happy in yourself mean that you can go through life more positively, being resilient and ultimately achieving more.
My mother once said to me that when she was 18 she had no plan, no goals to achieve by a specific time; she just trusted her instincts, her gut, worked hard and remains a positive, strong woman. Successful in my eyes, just living life and taking opportunities in her eyes. At 18, I had specific goals to achieve by different ages. I achieved none of them. Instead, my life took different turns, made a different path, with opportunities I could never have predicted. My life is full, not the shell of success I desired.
Now I reach a new decade, one which I start by knowing myself, how to look after my mental health, along with how to control my emotions. Emotional intelligence is a divine breadcrumb, a small phrase with mighty implications; ones that you know will change your life, as you know it.
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