How Well Do You Understand Your Emotions?

Why improving your emotional competence will improve your life

People vary in their ability to identify their emotions. Some of us are more ‘tuned-in’ to how we’re feeling on a regular basis, while others pay less attention and might even minimize the importance of ‘feelings’ in general. Our Emotional Competence (or Emotional Intelligence) tends to depend on three main factors:

1. Knowledge: Do you understand your emotions, their causes, and consequences? Can you identify the triggers that elicited certain emotions and understand what about the situation or context caused the reaction it did? Do you give thought to how others are likely to react to you when you express your emotions and are your assessments accurate?

2. Ability: Can you apply the knowledge you have to express your emotions constructively? For example, you might realize it would be unwise to openly express you anger and frustration when talking to your boss about a raise, but are you able to control your emotions in that moment and express yourself constructively? Can you take a deep breath and try to respond un-defensively when someone is upset with you for good reason?

3. Traits: How often do you actually apply your knowledge and ability to express your emotions constructively? Do you typically take the time to think through emotional situations and figure out how best to respond? Do you do so only when someone demands it of you, or perhaps not at all?

Emotional Competence has been shown to have a significant effect on our general well-being, the satisfaction we derive from our relationships, our academic achievement and job performance, our ability to avoid burnout, our ability to manage stress, and other critical and meaningful aspects that contribute to our overall quality of life.

Now a new study demonstrates that understanding our emotions also has major implications for our physical health and how we utilize health services. The study, published in the journal Emotion using data collected over 11 years, found that people high in Emotional Competence were healthier, spent fewer days in the hospital, visited fewer doctors, used fewer medications, and racked up significantly fewer health and mental-health costs than those lower in Emotional Competence.

The good news is that despite the significant variation in our ability to identify and understand our emotions, these kinds of skills can be improved.

For example, in my recent Ted Talk Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid, I provided numerous illustrations (some quite personal) about why people should pay more attention to their emotions and learn how to tend to emotional wounds when they sustain them. Since the talk was posted, I’ve received hundreds of messages from people thanking me for a very simple thing–helping them become more mindful of their emotions.

In other words, merely realizing how and why our emotions require thought and attention was sufficient to motivate people to become more knowledgeable, consider their abilities and develop better habits, as far as understanding and managing their emotions is concerned.

Paying more attention to your emotions and learning how to understand and express them more constructively will pay dividends not just for your happiness and life-satisfaction but for your physical health as well. The larger message here is that increasing people’s Emotional Competence and teaching Emotional First Aid could also save individuals and municipalities millions if not billions of dollars in health care costs and social benefits. The return on investment could be huge.

-Guy Winch, PhD