Emotional Intelligence and its Role in Addiction Recovery
Consider the number of times in a typical day that you automatically perceive the emotions of someone around you, based on their body language, facial expression, words, or energy. For most people this is intuitive, but many believe that you can learn to strengthen the ability. When you combine this with your own control over your emotions, and the way you express them, it is called emotional intelligence (EI). I’ve found that you can develop and use your EI to build long-lasting relationships with friends, family, and romantic interests, in addition to finding success in your studies, and creating a fulfilling work life as well as enhancing your recovery. Taking your recovery journey to another level!!!
What Makes up Emotional Intelligence?
In order to best understand EI, we must first consider the four components that researchers believe make up this characteristic. The first two of these four levels are the rudimentary components, and the last two involve a more conscious approach to being involved in your EI. These levels include the following:
- Perception of emotions. It is vital to accurately perceive emotions if you want to develop EI. I believe that learning to keenly interpret the facial expressions, gestures, and other non-verbal signals of the individuals around you is the best way to hone in on the emotions others are experiencing.
- Ability to reason with your emotions. Once you are able to accurately perceive the emotional signals that others are expressing, the next step is to use those signs in your thinking, regarding the way you approach situations. Emotions will help you establish what you focus your attention on and react to, and then prioritize your responses to these markers.
- Comprehension of emotions. It is sometimes easy to misinterpret the emotional markers that an individual is expressing, so it is essential to learn to understand the emotions you observe, and accurately interpret their intent. For instance, a friend may seem to be uninterested in your conversation and perhaps even appear to be mad at you, when in reality they are stressed out about a family situation and their mind is simply wandering due to their anxiety.
- Learning to manage emotions. At the top level of EI is the ability to effectively manage your emotions. This includes not only responding to the emotional markers we perceive from others, but also regulating our own emotions and responding the way we should to others.
The History of Emotional Intelligence
The concept of emotional intelligence gets its roots from the term “social intelligence,” coined by psychologist Edward Thorndike in the 1930s. This was the term he used to describe our ability to get along with other individuals. This was expanded on by psychologist David Wechsler in the 40s, as he believed that various components of our intelligence played a vital role in our success in life.
Ideas about the ways that individuals can build emotional strength were developed in the 1950s in the practice of humanistic psychology, and the idea continued to grow for the next few decades, until the concept of multiple intelligences emerged in the 1970s. Howard Gardner introduced this hypothesis, describing the way that intelligence is composed of more than simply a single, general skill.
The term “emotional intelligence,” however, was not used until 1985, when Wayne Payne employed it in a doctoral dissertation. A similar term, “emotional quotient” was used by Keith Beasley in an article in Mensa Magazine. This concept really saw its first emergence a few years later, in 1990 when psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey published an article in the journal Imagination, Cognition, and Personality. In this publication, they defined EI as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” The concept was further popularized in 1995 when Daniel Goleman published his book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.” Since then, the idea has become a staple in addiction recovery, as well as other areas, such as business and education.
I’m personally a big fan of Alan Berger and his contributions to this topic. Allen is a PhD, a popular public speaker and nationally recognized expert on the science of recovery. He is also the author of 12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery, 12 More Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery, 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs Are Gone, 12 Hidden Rewards of Making Amends and Love Secrets Revealed: What Happy Couples Know About Having Great Sex, Deep Intimacy, and a Lasting Connection.
His much anticipated 5th book in the 12 Series, 12 Essential Insights for Emotional Sobriety, was released on Amazon June 3, 2021. In this new book Dr. Berger combines wisdom from long-accepted 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous with emotional sobriety – a concept first introduced 70 years ago by Bill Wilson, the founder of AA.
The concept of emotional sobriety is essentially the practice of learning not to try to control your emotions but rather to understand and moderate your reactions to them.
How Do Mindfulness and Self-Awareness Affect Emotional Intelligence?
You may wonder how to advance your self-awareness. The key to this practice is understanding mindfulness, as one of the benefits of practicing mindfulness is increased self-awareness. Mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a focus on the here and now, while being open to accept things as they are, without judgement.
Practicing self-awareness in a way that places your focus on emotions is best achieved by this exercise:
- Step one. Get into a comfortable seated position in a quiet place, and close your eyes.
- Step two. Allow something to enter your mind that is sad, but not so sad that it overwhelms you.
- Step three. Be aware of exactly where you feel that sadness in your body.
- Step four. Lay your hands on that area of your body in a way that comforts and soothes you.
- Step five. Continue the exercise by repeating these steps, but substituting various other emotions, such as joy, anger, and fear.
Becoming more keenly adept in your EI can be reached through this exercise as your awareness of these bodily sensations increases. As you delve into this practice, you realize that the bodily sensations you experience due to specific emotions are often paired with thoughts and mental images. As you learn to accurately identify these emotions within your body, you become more aware of feelings as they begin to arise.
This is important, because it gives you more control over your automatic response to negative emotions, before you act out. This gives you time to gather your thoughts and proceed with clarity before you respond to stressors. In addition to this practice, talking about your emotions with individuals whom you trust, and keeping a journal of personal interactions and specific events are also beneficial exercises in mindfulness.
What Are the Five Characteristics of Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional intelligence and addiction recovery are intimately related, whereas cognitive intelligence can sometimes be related to addiction itself. For example, many individuals who experience drug or alcohol dependency are quite intelligent, but learn to use their high IQ to obtain more drugs and alcohol. Because of this, it is crucial to gain full understanding of the five primary components of EI, and how they may contribute to maintaining sobriety.
This component is the basis of all EI. It involves developing an awareness of all of your specific triggers, biases, blind spots, strengths, and weaknesses. This contributes to your ability to understand your own core values, and know what it is that you enjoy in life, and what you don’t. Developing a strong sense of self-awareness creates a metaphoric map of the inner workings of your mind. By following this map, you are able to accomplish your goals in life.
Self-awareness, however, is not always easily achieved. Those blind spots and biases that you must become aware of can often be powerful factors in blocking self-awareness. Even though you likely feel that you know yourself inside and out, that can be a grand illusion. So, what is the best way to overcome these obstacles? I have found that individual and group therapy are some of the most powerful tools an individual can use.
When you engage in therapy, it gives you the opportunity to hear objective feedback regarding your thinking patterns, beliefs, and personal history. In addition to group and individual therapy, you can also ask the people you trust; such as close co-workers, family, and friends, for feedback to improve your self-awareness. Be cautious, though, as these individuals may have difficulty in being completely honest. It is important to make them aware that you are asking because you are trying to improve your understanding of yourself, and knowing your weaknesses is vital to that process.
Once you have gained some insight into yourself, the next step is to put that knowledge to use through self-regulation. This means being able to calm yourself when you are experiencing anxiety, and to cope with feeling overwhelmed at times. Developing this tool can help prevent you from turning to a drink to relieve stress, or from reacting to a situation with a fit of anger.
Using the self-discover from the first step to improve your behavior in real-life scenarios is the point of self-regulation in addiction recovery. Knowing yourself, the situations that are likely to trigger you, and the individuals that you have difficulty saying “no” to is the start to putting your knowledge into practice.
Both self-awareness and self-regulation are ongoing processes, and they create a symbiotic relationship, as one is dependent upon the other. In therapy, you can learn behavioral and cognitive methods to make better decisions and handle emotional challenges. Depending on the specific therapeutic method you practice, you can often practice the skills you learn there, before you need them in your daily routine. One of the best examples of this is learning to hear constructive feedback from your therapist or peers without becoming defensive, or reacting with anger.
Being able to motivate yourself and others to accomplish the task at hand is the next step in EI. Self-motivation is particularly important in addiction recovery, as it provides a means of support for your group members, and for mentoring others when the time arises. The motivation that many individuals feel as they enter recovery is often a result of desperation, and that motivation often diminishes once complacency sets in or challenges arise. When you have the tools to stay motivated, it can prevent you from facing relapse, and help you maintain your recovery plan.
The three main factors that influence motivation include overcoming doubts about your ability to succeed in recovery, remembering how bad things were when you were in active addiction, and maintaining a strong sense of why your sobriety matters. These factors combine to create a “why” that can get you through rough patches. Connecting your highest values with your sobriety is a great starting point.
The concept of empathy involves being able to place yourself in another individual’s shoes, and garnering an idea of what they are thinking and feeling. Combining empathy with an active interest in helping someone through their suffering is the foundation for compassion. This is important in addiction recovery, because it plays a vital role in strengthening your relationships in your sober network, as well as those with your friends and family. When you feel more connected with others, it facilitates your ability to maintain your sobriety. This is due to the fact that social connectedness relieves stress, helps to keep you accountable, and makes you feel more accepted and less lonely.
The key to improving your empathy lies in making a constant effort to understand the perspective of those around you. It can be difficult to engage in this practice with individuals that you don’t get along with or don’t like, but as I see it, having empathy for those people is a crucial element to your recovery. It forces you to find a common ground with those individuals, and recognize the universal needs that you share, such as feeling like you matter, not wanting to be in pain, and wanting to be happy. Through this practice, you begin to understand the trials that others are facing.
5. Social Skills.
The last component involves building on your empathy by developing social skills. It is likely that much of the stress that you feel arises from poor communication and interpersonal conflict. When you work to improve your conflict resolution methods and communication skills, much of the irritation and stress that you experience falls by the wayside.
The start of improving social skills lies in becoming a good listener. To do this, you must give the individual you are having a conversation with your undivided attention. As you do this, it is important to employ “reflection” to show the person you are listening to them, and understanding what they are saying. Reflection involves responding with phrases that validate what they are saying and eliminate confusion, such as, “I think I understand. What you are saying is…”
Using Emotional Intelligence as a Recovery Tool
The road to recovery is often a long one, in which we face many challenges. The more tools you have under your belt, however, to deal with stressors and avoid slippery slopes, the more likely you are to stay on your path to recovery.
I have been through the same struggles, and emotional intelligence has helped me greatly along the way. No matter how you feel about developing empathy and compassion for others, you can accomplish this goal if you approach things with an open mind.
As always, I wish you the best. Stay strong.