Overcoming the Obstacles to Emotional Intelligence


“We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity; more than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.” ~ Charlie Chaplin

“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” ~Daniel Goleman

Many years ago after a book-signing I met the author. His name was Daniel Goleman, and he was there to talk about and sign his new book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ. As we chatted for a few moments, he didn’t look around for the next hors’ d’oeuvre tray or search the crowd for someone he’d rather be talking to. He stood quietly and looked at me. He made eye contact. Watched my face. Took a moment to gather his thoughts. And then he responded to my words with a question about something I’d said.

Until that evening I had never had a meaningful conversation with a man who seemed genuinely interested in what I’d learned from working with my emotions in my dreams and how helpful that was. He listened attentively, completely absorbed not only in my words but the emotions behind them. He was genuinely interested and curious about my experience. He didn’t try to impress me or flirt. He didn’t fidget or try to avoid me. He was just real: peaceful and open and centered and genuine.

The impression those few moments made on me was remarkable. I walked away from our conversation irrevocably changed. I’d gained a whole new level of awareness of how to be with people in a compassionate way that is kind, comforting, and healing, plus a powerful desire to become like that. The fact that I can recall our conversation twenty-six years later is a testament to the power of this man’s extraordinary presence and self-awareness.

But being fully present to others with mature emotional intelligence doesn’t come from simply wanting. The trajectory of my emotional growth is a testament to that reality. Just as surely as yours is. We can’t just read about emotional maturity and decide we want it then automatically get it. There are obstacles in every path that first must be overcome.

The first obstacle is unhealed childhood wounds:

“Men who do not turn to face their own pain are too often prone to inflict it on others.” ~Terrence Real

I knew a man who liked to make fun of women for being “…so sensitive and emotional,” yet was totally unaware of how his own sensitivity, self-pity, envy, and hidden anger hurt others. To him, every cruel remark he made was, “Just kidding around.”

This is true of women too, of course. Women who suffer in silence from having been abused, or simply treated as a second-class citizen from childhood can spend years denying and trying to forget their pain. If we finally acknowledge we didn’t deserve it, we usually go through a phase of anger and rage that can be deeply wounding to ourselves and others if it’s not addressed. To address it means to stop trying to escape our emotions, accept the pain of our experiences, and consciously grieve for as long as it takes until noticeable changes begin to occur.

“Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

The second obstacle is lack of self-acceptance:

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” ~ Carl Rogers

Much as we might want to be reasonable, we are not naturally creatures of logic. Fundamentally, we are creatures of emotion who have very limited awareness of how, when, or why our emotions are triggered. Some of us are so thoroughly in our heads, detached from our bodies and afraid of our emotions, that we can’t even feel them, let alone name them. We need more than words and advice to learn to feel again. We need to become deeply, emotionally involved in self-reflective practices that help us see and accept the parts of ourselves we dislike and fear. We need to change from the inside out.

The third obstacle is lack of self-awareness:

“It is a choice. No matter how frustrating or boring or constraining or painful or oppressive our experience, we can always choose how we respond.”  Edith Eger

Acceptance of my uncomfortable emotions has not been enough to completely change how I treat myself and others. One can wallow in resentment and self-pity over a lifetime if they choose to. I can easily accept and manage my frustration one day and lose it the next. Lasting change comes with growing self-awareness. I need to see my unwelcome emotions as soon as they arrive at the door, then find imaginative, intelligent ways to express them. And I’ve had to do this over and over again even after compassion began to take root. This takes more work, more time. But if I keep at it, maybe one day I will feel what it feels like to be Daniel Goleman:

“True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved to help relieve it.” ~ Daniel Goleman

Paper and E-book versions of The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. The Wilbur Award-winning Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications.com. Jean’s new Nautilus Award-winning The Soul’s Twins, is at Amazon and Schiffer’s Red Feather Mind, Body, Spirit. Subscribe to her newsletter at www.jeanbenedictraffa.com.

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6 Responses

  1. This is one of the most powerful things you have written. Thank you so much. I love the description of your moment of revelation with Daniel. I wish life could be like that. I wish I could be like that.

    1. Thank you, Diane. Conversations always go better for me when I’m aware that I’m feeling a bit anxious and distracted and remember his way of being with people. Really listening to another is a huge gift. I wish I could do that all the time too. Can you imagine a world full of emotionally intelligent people?

  2. Thanks Jeanie so much. Giving another your attention is really the greatest gift. The other feels heard and valued. When another is looking over his/her shoulder or checking the cell phone while in conversation is thoroughly upending – and actually quite rude! What a lovely lesson to learn from Daniel Goleman. These sorts of encounters are powerful learning experiences.

    I agree, we too often blunt our emotions, disallowing the pain of them, often due to the expectations of others and /or fearful of being labelled ‘too emotional’. I love that the word emotional contains the word motion … it’s what keeps life alive and vital.

    I loved all your quotes thank you so much!

    1. I never thought about ’emotional’ containing ‘motion.’ But of course. Jung says there’s no psychological growth without emotion. Others can tell us we need to change to no avail, but it’s the pleasure or pain we feel emotionally, along with the archetypes these emotions represent, that finally move us to actually do something new and different…to move in the direction of change. Our emotions stir us to motion. Thanks for that insight, and thank you for writing.

  3. I haven’t read anything by Daniel Goleman, but Vic admired him so much and their few personal contacts via the Dalai Lama. Goleman is quite a force in many worlds. I’m glad you had a powerful and affirming contact with him. I’m drawn to his book with the Dalai Lama ‘A Force for Good, and it’s on my “to-read” list which only grows larger and larger, but maybe someday–especially now that the Monarchs have migrated. This piece is a testament to Daniel Goleman’s power and presence, but also to yours. Thank you, Jeanie.

    1. Thank you, Elaine. I don’t know anything about Daniel Goleman’s other books or his relationship with the Dalai Lama. But what you’ve said here certainly reinforces my experience of him as a very unusual, authentic, and powerful “force for good.” Now I’m going to have to buy that book! Thanks for letting me know about it.

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