Emotional intelligence has been touted in recent years as the key to success in career, relationships, and life. Many experts now believe that emotional intelligence is more important to success than cognitive intelligence. Emotional intelligence is also the key to success in recovering from addiction. Emotional intelligence is what enables you to regulate your emotions when you feel overwhelmed, sort out interpersonal conflict, and motivate yourself when things get tough. There are five main components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. They are all interdependent to some degree and each one takes some practice to master. You will learn to improve most of these skills during addiction treatment, especially during individual, group, and family therapy, but developing emotional intelligence is an ongoing endeavor. Here are some tips for increasing your emotional intelligence in each of the five areas.
Self-awareness may be the hardest aspect of emotional intelligence. We are privy to our own thoughts and emotions but our true motivations, patterns, and blind spots are often elusive. Self-awareness is a crucial skill for recovery because it alerts you to potential trouble. For example, if you know you are most vulnerable to relapse while on vacation or right after arguing with your spouse, you can be on guard when those situations arise.
There are primarily two ways to improve your self-awareness. One is to examine your own behavior. Journaling is an especially good way to do this systematically. For example, at the end of each day, you might write about a few things that went well or badly and ask yourself why they went well or badly. Don’t stop at superficial explanations but keep asking why. The other main way to improve self-awareness is to ask for feedback. This is tricky because we don’t want to hear negative things about ourselves and our friends don’t want to tell us negative things but sometimes we need to hear those things. Solicit specific feedback from people whose judgment you trust. Try to get a few perspectives. Even though it can be difficult to hear, it will help you in the long run.
Self-regulation is basically the ability to not be overwhelmed by your emotions. Emotions are useful guides in life but they’re far from infallible. Substance use often begins as a way of coping with painful emotions so it’s crucial to find healthy ways of regulating your emotions. There are many different strategies for regulating emotions. One way is to recognize that emotions are not the result of what happens but rather what you think about what happens. So for example, if you’re late for a meeting and think something like, “Everyone is going to think I’m totally incompetent; I’ll probably get fired and end up homeless,” and so on, you will feel much more stressed than if you think, “Well, this happens sometimes; I’ll try to leave a few minutes earlier next time.” Watch out for cognitive distortions such as catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, and discounting the positive.
You can also regulate your emotions by changing your behavior. For example, if you feel anxious, you can feel calmer quickly by taking a few slow, deep breaths. This stimulates the vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system–sometimes called the “rest and digest” system. On the other hand, if you feel sluggish or a bit depressed, some physical activity such as exercise or taking a walk can boost your energy.
Mastering motivation is also tricky because in a way you have to be motivated to motivate yourself. Motivation is especially important after a few months of recovery when your rate of improvement starts to slow down and you feel like you don’t need to work so hard anymore. Part of maintaining a strong recovery is building systems that help keep you motivated when you don’t feel like doing the work of recovery. One element is to have a strong sober network of people who support your recovery, some of whom will be in recovery themselves. These could be friends, family, or members of your 12-step group. They will help keep you focused.
Another way to motivate yourself is to be in touch with your highest values. Motivation is often a matter of choosing the big rewards–having a happy family, having a fulfilling career, and so on–over the little rewards, like having a drink.
Empathy is an aspect of emotional intelligence that is good in itself but it’s also good for people in recovery because it helps build stronger relationships. As noted above, relationships are especially important because they keep you on track in recovery, even when your own motivation is lacking. Empathy comes more naturally to some people than others but recent studies have shown that even people with antisocial personality disorder, people who are clinically lacking in empathy, can become more empathetic if they make a deliberate effort. If you want to be more empathetic, the key is to make a consistent effort to understand what others are feeling. If you have no idea, then ask. Even if you have a hard time understanding, people will appreciate that you care enough to ask.
Social skills may be the most expansive aspect of emotional intelligence. This is because most of what humans do depends on social interaction and the rules are always evolving and changing. Developing good social skills depends on understanding others’ perspectives, understanding your own state of mind, communicating clearly, being able to resolve or avoid conflict, knowing how to motivate others, and many other skills. Perhaps the best way to improve your social skills is to identify the people in your life who already have good social skills and pay attention to what they do. Which of your friends brightens a room? Who do people go to with their problems? Who do you trust? Who seems to inspire people? Watch what those people do and see if you can adopt some of their habits.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction, Hired Power and our team of dynamic, experienced recovery professionals are here to guide you every step of the way. We offer many services, including helping you choose the best treatment program and transitional services, including interventions, sober monitoring, and personal recovery assistants. Call us today for information on our recovery services:800.910.9299.