Go to a bookstore or local library and head toward the “psychology and self help” section.  You will likely find a plethora of books that speak to “emotional intelligence.”

Type in the words “emotional intelligence books” in a search engine and you’ll find articles like “26 emotional intelligence books.” Or “The Top 20 Emotional Intelligence Books.”

That’s right, folks. The number of books speaking to emotional intelligence is well into the double digits.

So what is emotional intelligence? If there are so many books about it, clearly there must be some consensus, right?

A cursory online search yields the following definition:

“The capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically”

Did you get all that?


Do you know what it means?


Could you please explain it to me? 

Kidding. Sort of.

Let’s try and tease this out, piece by piece, together,.

The capacity to be aware of one’s emotions

This is what psychologists and professional coaches might call “self-awareness.” One would think that having awareness of one’s self would be a sort of Human-101 skill. But it’s surprising just how many people seem to lack the ability to describe their emotional landscape.

In fact, some of the people you would suspect would be most capable of identifying their own emotions…ermmm…aren’t.

Several weeks ago, I attended a conference. One of the speakers titled his event “Permission to Feel” – (it was named after his book).

Just a little background – the conference was intended for coaches and therapists.

The audience in this breakout session was composed of well over 200 people. The facilitator (a Dr. Marc Brackett, Ph.D) presented his model for identifying emotions.

The Mood Meter Poster (Grades 3-12)

He briefly explained that our emotions are ever-changing. Minute by minute. Second by second. The key to developing emotional intelligence is to be able to identify just how we are feeling at any given moment with what he and Dr. Lisa Barrett, Ph.D (another researcher and prestigious speaker at this conference) call “emotional granularity.”

I’m going to grossly over-simplify this model (so it’s worth picking up his book to get a more nuanced and…dare I say….granular explanation). But this will give you a general idea.

On the X-Axis is a spectrum running from unpleasant to pleasant. The Y-Axis runs from low energy to high energy. Evidently, the scientific terms for it is “arousal”…but because he is interested in working with kids, you can understand why he may have steered clear of that particular word.

Anyway…The green quadrant represent emotions that include contentment, calm, and peace. The yellow quadrant represents emotions like jubilance, joy, and exuberance. The blue quadrant represents sadness, depression and apathy. The red quadrant represents anxiety, frustration, and anger.

He looked out at the room and asked “how many of you are in the….yellow…green…red…blue.”

Many hands shot up for yellow.

Many hands shot up for green.

Few hands shot up for blue (I think there might have been one or two)

No hands shot up for red (at least, none that I saw).

His response was simply to say “Statistically, these results are impossible. This means that some…probably many…of you are lying. Either to yourself or to others. And the kicker is…you are supposed to be the content EXPERTS on emotional intelligence. YOU FAIL!” (this, of course, was rewarded with nervous laughter. We were busted.

The thing is…to be aware of our emotions requires us to be honest with ourselves. And to be quite frank, our culture has not encouraged us to do that. Ever.

Marketing campaigns promise us that our natural state is happiness. Abundant energy. Satisfaction. If you are unhappy, lonely, sad, or frustrated…well something is wrong with you. But have no fear! Our product will fix it! All you need is our whosamawhats or thingamajig. Can’t afford it? Well then go out and make more money so that you can buy it. And since we are on that topic, make sure that the way you make your money provides you with a bottomless supply of happiness, too. In fact, everything you do should ultimately make you happy. Your children should make you happy. Your spouse should make you happy. Your job should make you happy. Your mattress should make you happy….

And if you’re not happy? Chase it down. Run after happiness like a coyote chasing a squirrel.

The “pursuit of happiness” is even written in the heart of our political constitution as an unalienable right. We were meant to be happy, damnit. So get on that!”

While no one (not even the most dry of researchers) would make a case that we should avoid happiness, the point that Dr. Brackett was trying to make is that emotional intelligence must include all of our emotions. We do not, as it turns out, improve our emotional health by simply turning our frown upside down. We do it by getting really clear about our emotional experience and being honest about what it is moment by moment.

And you know that if a room filled with over 200 psychologists and coaches were unable (or unwilling) to be honest about their experience, we have a LOT of work to do as a community at large.

The Ability to Control Our emotions

At first glance, this seems preposterous. Control our emotions? What the whaaa?!? Emotions can’t be controlled! They are primal! They are animalistic! We don’t control our emotions. We are controlled by them.

Except…that’s not…entirely…accurate.

True – when you are feeling a painful emotion, it’s rarely useful to force said emotion to shapeshift into joy. How many times have you felt a powerful emotion only to have someone around you say “oh calm down!”?

Did it work?

And how many times have you tried to force your emotions to shift because you didn’t like what you were feeling?

Did it work?

Somehow I doubt it. It’s certainly never worked for me. 

But before you slide away from the driver’s seat of your experience and hand over the keys to your emotions entirely, you might want to hear about what neuroscience has to say on the matter.

It turns out, while we may not be entirely in control of our emotions, we are to some extent in charge of them.

Let’s break this down.

We used to think that all emotions had a blueprint. Something universal. Sadness would affect the body in this way while anger would affect it in that way. That’s why so many of us think a person is mad when we see a “frownie-face” and happy when we see a “smiley-face.” But that’s simply not true.

Sometimes we cry when we are happy. Sometimes we laugh when we are frustrated or sad.

Our sense of what an emotion is…well…it’s culturally constructed.

We have been raised in a culture that has given us concepts for emotional experiences. Our brains, which are masters of creating and collecting concepts, then take sensory information from our bodies and try to assign it an emotion based on the context and the goal.

For example, let’s say my stomach hurts. My face is flushed. My heart is beating rapidly. My brain picks up these changes and quickly (we are talking milliseconds) makes an attempt at identifying what is happening.

What do you imagine was happening? What emotion was I feeling?

Well…if I told you that a young man I had a serious crush on had just walked into the room, you would say I am feeling smitten. If I told you I was in the middle of arguing with my long-time husband over dishes. Again. You would have said I was anger.

The sensory information is the same. But the concept is different. We, as a culture, made that concept up.

But does any of this mean that we can control our emotions?

I honestly don’t know. Here’s what I think based on the data I’ve collected (both from personal experience as well as through research). We can’t control the sensory information our bodies put out. We can, however, influence them.

If ever I am feeling like I’m getting strung about by a powerful emotion, the one thing that seems to help diffuse it is simply to get curious about it. I’ll say “I’m angry!” And then I’ll think…”wait…am I? What am I actually feeling? What is the sensory information I’m getting?” Often what I discover in the process of exploring what I’m feeling in more detail, is that the thing I think I’m feeling (sadness, anger, etc.) is actually just a jumble of sensations. In getting curious about those sensations, the emotion begins to shift.

I wouldn’t say this means I have control over my emotions. What I would say, instead, is that I have the ability to influence them by having a kind of internal conversation with them.

This is part of why having more granularity is helpful. It’s like pixels on a television screen. The more pixels there are, the clearer the picture. In the same way, the more specific we can get about how we describe our internal experience, the better we get at managing our needs. Sadness requires a different sort of self-care than does frustration. Melancholy is a very different experience than apathy or boredom. The answer isn’t to control our emotions. It’s about getting curious about them and improving our ability to communicate them to others.

Which brings me to…

Ability to express our emotions with others and handle our relationships judiciously and empathetically. 

If you’re able to identify your emotions for yourself, that will go miles toward emotional satisfaction. It’s much easier to navigate emotions when you have a map for what you’re feeling.

To get jedi-ninja status in the emotional department, you also need to learn how to communicate what you’re feeling to other people effectively.

Key word: effectively.

It’s lovely if you can say, outloud “I am angry.” I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily effective to throw things at the person who has inspired your anger, however. Unless your goal is to scare them off. In that case – be my guest

Communication, so far as I can tell, is where having emotional granularity becomes crucial. Your concept of anger may be different than the person in front of you. Things that make you angry might not make the person you’re speaking with angry. But if you can get really specific about your experience

For example, saying “My stomach is in knots. I can barely think straight. I am SOOO frustrated right now!”

is much better than

“I’m pissed.”

And saying “I’m so unbelievably nervous. I think I’m having trouble breathing!” is much better than

“I feel anxious.”

The more context you can provide to the person in front of you, the greater the likelihood that he/she will have a concept for your experience. And if you both can agree on what experience you are having, the likelihood that you will be able to solve whatever problems are arising from it, the better.

Why is this relevant to HSP’s in particular? 

Highly sensitive people have a number of challenges, but the one thing I find to be true is that they have a tremendous ability to express their experiences with nuance and specificity.

With all the badmouthing HSP’s get with regard to being “too sensitive,” it’s worth considering how many people in our culture are struggling with mental health complaints. If the research on emotions is now showing that the greatest tool we can have in our arsenal is granularity, it stands to reason that HSP’s may be uniquely qualified to take that on.

I’m not suggesting that all HSP’s are emotionally intelligent. What I am saying is that HSP’s may be equipped well to build emotional intelligence with relative ease.

In our overly stimulated world where thousands upon thousands of people feel isolated and alone, perhaps HSP’s have something of value to contribute.

So here’s my challenge to you: Consider the following questions:

  1. First: think of as many emotional words that you can. Write them on a post-it or on a journal entry. Wherever. How many were you able to think of?
  2. Next – try organizing them in the chart you see, above (green, blue, yellow and red).
  3. How capable are you of identifying your emotional experience at any given moment?
  4. To what extent are you able to communicate those emotions effectively to other people?
  5. If you are someone who has high sensory processing sensitivity…in what way do you think this helps you in developing this skill?