When we arrive at work, most of us are expected to check our emotions at the door. But who’s kidding whom? Emotions can’t be shed like winter coats.
Even when we tune out our emotions to focus on our never-ending to-do lists, our bodies hold onto the stress of those emotions.
Body tension builds when we ignore or are unconscious of the sensations the body is sending to the brain. For example, we may know that we grind our teeth at night, but we remain unaware of the fact that we hold tension in our jaw all day long. There is awareness of the disconnect, even if it is not at the level of our conscious minds, and physical sensations will get louder until our conscious minds become aware of them. This may result in our suffering physical consequences as a result of ignoring these signals, and, importantly, we also miss out on important information our bodies are sending us.
This all-too-familiar phenomenon has ramifications for our emotional intelligence (“EQ”) training. Most employees trained in EQ are highly intelligent and more than capable of understanding the concepts of emotional intelligence. But when EQ is presented from a primarily cognitive emotional basis, highly analytical or traditionally labelled “left-brained” people may remain “stuck in their heads.” While they learn the book definitions of emotionally intelligent behaviors, these employees can still be derailed because they have not identified what emotions feel like physically. Highly analytical personalities in particular can easily get cut off from sensory awareness below the neck, disregarding the important feedback the body is sending. This is especially true in the midst of a busy work day. The disconnect may also manifest as unconscious non-verbal reactions (a twitch, for example) that others pick up when we are having conversations.
I’ve seen a lot of articles discussing EQ—some promoting, others challenging the value of training. In order to effectively incorporate emotional intelligence, it is crucial that training move beyond theoretical understanding into a broader, truly integrated awareness, one that combines cognitive EQ skills with the development of
interoceptive awareness—i.e., the perception of internal bodily sensations and signals, aka “mindfulness in the body.”
As employees begin to recognize and understand their own physical sensations around emotions, they learn to identify and ultimately allow the physical sensations that occur prior to or in conjunction with emotional reactivity. This ability to “sit with” what may be uncomfortable feelings can greatly enhance an employee’s capacity to implement cognitively learned EQ skills in challenging or stressful settings, such as a difficult conversation with a client.
It’s simply unrealistic to expect to dissociate completely from your emotions at work. That being the case, I have found there is great value in gaining better awareness of when emotions are arising and learning how to allow them to pass through. Ultimately this allows us to more quickly return to the task at hand.
I was thrilled to see this article by Daniel Goleman, “Emotional Intelligence, Why it Can Matter More Than IQ,” in which he discusses the neuroscience of interoception, describing the practice as key for emotional awareness. Noting that, it is time to enhance our understanding beyond a conceptual framework and integrate the knowledge that the neuroscientific research is supporting. Goleman writes that emotional self-awareness—including understanding our emotions on a sensory level—may actually determine our success.
Emotional Intelligence Enhanced into True Awareness through Interoceptive Tools.
Recognizing the physicality of emotions and not just the mental narrative is critical to strengthening our EQ. When we “check out” of the body, we may fail to recognize that an emotion has occurred. The more we can “check in” to our physiological responses, the more we can access the emotion that is stirring underneath and calm the attendant mental/emotional chatter.
How do we check in with the body? We might start with the breath - noticing the location within our body where the breath feels most prominent (perhaps it’s the nose, throat, chest or stomach). After following the breath for a minute, we might notice how it changes:
· Is it shallow or deep?
· Faster or slower?
· Does it feel more staccato, or has it become smoother?
While the breath is a brilliant place to start, refining awareness beyond the breath can improve our EQ, as emotions have physical correlates. (This is why it’s true that, unless we leave our bodies at the door, we simply can’t leave our emotions there!) While most of us are aware of surface-level emotions, we might not be aware of the deeper, subconscious emotional layers, layers that may even contradict our conscious beliefs or cognitive opinions. Interoceptive awareness can help us uncover the powerful, underground emotions that may be affecting our behavior and pulling our behavioral strings.
Think of a time when you surprised yourself by a reaction you had: perhaps you responded harshly to a co-worker for no good reason or snapped at your barista. Got it? Now close your eyes and envision the scenario. Do a brief scan of your body and notice if you are holding tension anywhere. It’s likely that a residual emotion at an unconscious level, left over from some past experience, drove you to an emotional reaction that seemed to come out of nowhere.
With practice, you can improve your emotional resilience by noticing sensations as they occur in the body. Bringing focused, non-judgmental attention to that area is key to finding the depth of what is arising physically and therefore impacting your thought processes. The more you are able to identify the arising of subtle sensations, the more likely you are to recognize if a thought pattern is based on memories and historical responses—allowing you to pause, breathe and respond in an emotionally intelligent manner in real time to the situation that is in front of you. Developing subtle awareness is a process that becomes more refined as you shift awareness from the thoughts in your head to the physical sensations within your body. At first you may only be able to notice the shallowness of your breath, but over time you might notice a feeling of tension in an area of your body, perhaps your midback. As you continue bringing awareness to the midback you may notice more specific details or movement of physical sensations in that area.
My editor offers, “Over time, checking in with the body can yield information about what lies beneath the surface for you, leading to insights about deeply seated emotions. In addition, you will begin to detect when such emotions are being triggered and help you to navigate back to the present, enabling you to respond to a situation in real time.”
Check in and find out. Share your thoughts: where are you with emotional awareness, and how do emotions impact your work life?
· Are you like one of my students, who expressed that he doesn’t even know if he has emotions?
· Are you aware of your emotions at a cognitive level, but not on a physical one?·
If you already practice mindfulness in the body, has it led to insights about your emotions, especially deeply seated ones? Has this helped you to implement your EQ training, or to respond more effectively to difficult situations in the workplace?
Thanks to Julia Ruth Dillon for her wonderful editorial input!
Slide from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America http://www.pnas.org/content/111/2/646.full