Emotional Intelligence: Understanding Emotions

Understanding emotions and everything related to emotion is often confused for "overly emotional" or even weakness. I invite you to learn why knowledge of emotions is a powerful success- and happiness skill.


Understanding Emotions

People with a high EQ can understand their emotions, the sources of their emotions (and those of others) and they are in control of their actions and reactions.

Let's look at the fascinating topic "emotions" a little closer.

Many people find it hard to share their emotions with others, express or even feel them.

Most of us still have the idea that emotions are hindering an effective decision-making process and rational thinking. If rational thinking is even possible could be an interesting topic for a separate article.

It is changing but as of today women and children are still seen as more emotional creatures than men. Men stand for rationality. Both genders share this bias.

Fact is: People make emotional decisions for rational reasons. All people.

Three unique components involved in the complex psychological states (emotions) are:

  • subjective experience
  • behavioral (expressive) response
  • physiological response

Additional complication

Besides bias that still exists, the amount of information we exchange and have to process is thriving. Our ability to feel, experience and exchange emotions (emotional competence) cannot cope with that.

The typical social media user might "like" and "share" information about a mass shooting, funny joke, a dead dog, and animal cruelty during two minutes.

We get sick if we do not pay enough attention to the emotional aspects of our existence. That's simple to understand if you consider the tight relation between emotions and the 4 proven basic needs:

Or ... I should say psychological needs as I am not talking about air, food, shelter, and water.

The need for

  • love and belonging
  • freedom and autonomy
  • power
  • fun (well-being)

Every psychosomatic problem can be interpreted as an emotional problem.

Examples are depression, anxiety, stress, chronic pain, addiction ...

If we want to satisfy our need for love and closeness - or isolate ourselves and deny the need - this is accompanied by emotions.

We experience emotional reactions when others are interested in us or aggressive towards us.

When we are self-aware and assess our strengths and weaknesses it triggers emotions.

Various types of Emotions

Psychologist Paul Ekman suggested in 1972 that there are 6 universal basic emotions. In 1999, he expanded the list (after happiness):

  • anger
  • fear
  • disgust
  • surprise
  • sadness
  • happiness (my favorite one)
  • excitement
  • embarrassment
  • contempt
  • pride
  • shame
  • amusement
  • satisfaction

Robert Plutchik introduced another kind of classification system, the wheel emotions. This model shows how various emotions can be combined or mixed. Example: anticipation and happiness combined = excitement.


"Emotion" (as opposed to feeling) includes a blueprint for action (i.e. "I won't put up with that). Experience, evaluation, and readiness for action are one.

Experiencing emotions consciously

If we experience emotions consciously we lessen it. That means that the duration of emotions is limited. Strong emotions decrease faster.

Self-awareness (and feeling alive) requires that you allow emotions and experience them consciously.

We must accept that we cannot conserve positive emotions and can at the same time hope we will overcome negative emotions:

  • anger fades
  • fear vanishes
  • emotional pain lessens

Suppressing emotions "conserves" them. Even centuries later, they can break out with unabated force.

Past emotions leave marks (what I refer to as "brain scars"). They leave engrams in our brain. The younger we were when we experienced a situation that triggered a strong emotional reaction the less we remember the precise content.

We will remember the affective part of the situation.

Emotional Intelligence and your emotions

When we suffer painful experiences and hurtful emotions, the brain will try to make sure that a similar situation cannot repeat itself. The goal of our brain is to make sure of our survival. It is not essential to our survival that we have a flourishing career or a luxurious life.

It will form a neural pathway to the so-called lizard brain, the part that controls the "fight or flight" reaction. In consequence, we cannot make an intellectual decision as soon as something reminds our brain of a past situation.

Imagine you are looking at a cage with a tiger and the tiger jumps towards you. You would back off and you would not have the chance to decide how you want to react.

If you could think about it you would stay still as you know the cage holds the tiger or you would be yogurt already.

This fabulous survival instinct and the brain's ability to form neural pathways that allow us to flee (or fight) a dangerous situation without wasting time is at the same time what makes our lives most difficult.

Because it is not limited to physical danger. A tiger who jumps you because he wants to eat you will probably make for a bad day every time.

That one of your projects failed, the person you had to fire created a horrible scene (or you've been fired or cheated on) will not necessarily repeat itself. Each situation is new and individual.

By reacting to past negative events, our behavior will subconsciously change and in consequence likely lead to the same negative outcome as before. We create self-fulfilling prophecies.

Intellectual decisions (higher thinking) take place in the rational brain (creative brain.)

neocortex reptilian brain

You might know of people who repeat painful experiences several times. Whenever someone says "I didn't mean it", you know what happened. Or when you hear: "Why does this or that always happen to me?"

The only way to gain back control over your actions once the brain has formed a neural pathway to the lizard brain is to retrain it. It's a process that takes a few months but comes with a lifelong reward.

Just imagine: The old saying we are our biggest problem will not apply to you any longer.

Emotion and communication

By expressing our emotions we send communicative signals to our surroundings. Our emotional expression is the basis for the perception of our conversation partners and the surrounding people.

They form their beliefs about us not just based on our spoken words.

We express our emotion by the tone of our voice, facial expression, body language, and gestures.

Those signals will inform others about our intentions and desires.

Effective communication of emotions is the prerequisite for being able to understand and be understood.

To do that, we have to understand and be in control of them and have the ability to understand those of others (empathy.)

If we are not, it will lead to conflicts, misunderstandings, lack of ability to persuade and ultimately stress and self-limiting behavior.

In social contacts, business meetings and relationships we constantly navigate the right amount of closeness and distance. Activity and passivity. This happens on a subconscious level in which "mini signals" play a huge part.

We subconsciously pick up "mini signals". If we sense, for instance, anger from the ancient past about something that went wrong back then, we will react to it.

It could look like that: You propose a project. Something your prospect says or does reminds you of that time when you've been rejected. Without being aware of it, for the instance of a second, you send mini-signals that your prospect picks up.

Based on the old emotion your conversation partner picks up he turns you down. He will argue his emotional decision with rational arguments.

Perhaps you will think that once more your instinct was right.

People should never listen to what they believe to be their instinct unless they have had emotional intelligence training. It is hard to tell instinct from protective signals the brain sends.

Allowing emotions

If we allow ourselves to feel emotions, it provides a certain feeling of liveliness that enables us to enjoy positive emotions to their fullest and endure negative ones.

As you have learned before, we cannot run away from negative emotions. They will hunt us down at some point and potentially limit our success and level of happiness.

For some reason (and I could not scientifically explain that) it seems possible to avoid positive emotions - but not negative ones.

Suppressing emotions takes away from the feeling of liveliness and will lead to compensatory or extreme behavior in some form. Or depression.

We also cannot suppress our basic needs. If we deny them, it will lead to problems.

And that also applies to the inability of self-reflection. We lose ourselves a bit if we cannot understand ourselves.

The ability to express yourself emotionally is the prerequisite for positive social contacts. When you lack the ability, you will have less constructive arguments and less positive relationships.

You will also get less of what you want because you will not send a congruent message of what it is you want.

Positive social interaction

If you cannot express your emotions effectively, the other person will not share theirs - robbing you of the ability to understand them.

You are less likely to create trust and and connection and the other person might even keep their distance and decide that they don't like you.

One way emotional intelligence training can support you is helping you to

  • understand your own emotions
  • be in control of your emotions and therefore actions and reactions
  • effectively communicate your emotions
  • understand the emotions and agenda of others
  • be able to influence others

Isn't that fabulous? With a little bit of effort, we can learn how to deal more effectively with all of the tigers we meet in business and in life.