Improve your emotional intelligence with this simple journaling technique

Growing up, I somehow got the idea that emotions were something to hide.  That, except under very special circumstances (like while watching sports), they should never be expressed.  And I became quite adept hiding my emotions – so adept that I believed I didn’t have them.

I’m not alone in this habit.  In fact, I see something similar in most of my coaching clients.  Though I’m still a work in progress, I have begun to chip away at this emotional blindness and the problems it causes, and have developed some techniques to aid in this process.  So I’m writing this post to share one specific technique, which borrows heavily from the practice of Nonviolent Communication.

This technique can help with self-awareness, which, according to Daniel Goleman in the book Emotional Intelligence is the foundation for EQ.  We need to be self-aware in order to manage ourselves more effectively, as well as be more socially aware.

The journaling technique is very simple, and should be practiced regularly (eg every day for 10 minutes) until it can be internalized.  And even then, it’s useful to practice it again sporadically – sort of like a musician practicing the scales on their instrument.  You’ll never be ‘done’ practicing.

Here are the steps:

  1. The practice consists of bringing to mind a situation about which you still have strong feelings – you can practice with both positive feelings and negative feelings
    • I’ll focus in this article on negative emotions since those are typically the ones people want help with, but doing this exercise with positive emotions can be an effective technique for experiencing gratitude and improving overall well-being.
  2. Once you’ve identified the situation you want to process, sit with it for a second.  Steep yourself in the feelings that come up when you bring this situation to mind, without running away from them.  Just allow whatever is arising to arise.
    • If you are processing something painful and that becomes too uncomfortable, then sit with the discomfort.  Let your current situation become your focus of attention.
    • You might go through several layers of thoughts and thoughts about thoughts, feelings and feelings about feelings.  But try to pick one emotional stimulus and stick with that for the entire process.
    • Check out this post for a more in depth discussion of this process
  3. Next, take out your journal and identify the emotions you’re experiencing – it doesn’t need to be limited to one emotion.  For example, you can write, “I am feeling annoyed, conflicted, frustrated, hurt…”
    • At first you might have a hard time coming up with anything beyond “I feel bad” or “I feel good.”  Because we’re taught to suppress emotions, we typically don’t develop much fluency in the vocabulary of feelings.  To begin developing that lexicon, I’d recommend checking out this PDF developed by the Center for Nonviolent Communication
    • Take some time to read over the list of feelings and write out all the words that resonate with what you’re experiencing in that moment as you recall the situation.
  4. Read what you’ve written, and, as much as possible, allow those emotions to come forth.  Sit with them.
    • Note – I am not suggesting we ‘wallow’ in our painful emotions.  Wallowing isn’t simply feeling bad – wallowing is feeling bad ABOUT feeling bad.  This is a very important distinction.
    • am suggesting directly experiencing whatever emotions are arising, without judging them as good, bad, useful or otherwise.  Just observing.
  5. As you’re observing your emotions, they will probably shift in one way or another.  Sometimes they become stronger, sometimes they dissipate.  Your job is not to know WHY this is happening.  Your job is to observe WHAT is happening (check out this NYT post for more on that).
    • The purpose of this exercise is to build the muscle of sustained, nonjudgmental, present moment emotional awareness.  The purpose is NOT to change your emotions or ‘get over them.’

One important point – this technique is less about learning and more about unlearning.  Emotions are a natural human process which we’ve learned to downplay, ignore, or judge.  You were born with the skills necessary to practice effectively.  Get out of your own way and let it happen.

TLDR:

To make yourself more emotionally intelligent, write down your emotions and create time to experience them nonjudgmentally.

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