The decisions you make as you’re in the early phases of adulthood can affect your path. You probably know this.
But what you may not know is the extent to which emotions play a role in every decision you make. For example, how you feel can affect your dinner choices: If you’re distressed, you might reach for comfort food, but if you’re happy and energized, you may take the time make a nice meal for yourself. Feelings may affect whom you choose to spend time with: She makes you feel good, but he brings you down. Or feelings may affect the job you pursue: The people in one company seem inspiring and supportive, and the other job climate feels depressing.
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Emotions are constantly pulsing through our brains and bodies, though many of us are unaware of our feelings most of the time. But the rising field of emotional intelligence is showing us that when we choose to engage with that emotional current and become more aware of it, we can actually use it to make better decisions.
Now, we’re not talking about just indulging a feeling because it makes you feel good, nor would we recommend clamping down on unpleasant feelings. Being intelligent about feelings means running that feeling through your best reasoning in order to achieve the important goals you have in mind. For example, when your boss gives you negative feedback and you feel hurt and defensive, you might first pause before reacting (it takes a minute for the thinking part of the brain to kick in). Then, rather than crumbling, you would have a chance to consider the kind of employee that you want to be—e.g., one who takes feedback in a professional way. So then you would likely thank your boss for her feedback, tell her you’ll think seriously about what she said and later schedule a meeting to discuss it all in a cooler frame of mind.
Granted, emotional intelligence begins by simply recognizing what you are feeling—which can be easier said than done. Here are five strategies we recommend to help you recognize and tune into your emotions:
- For a quick check, simply ask yourself if the situation brings you pleasant feelings: Do you like it or not like it?
- Try to make a connection between what you are experiencing in your body and the feeling you are naming. When you are angry, do you feel your heart beating faster or your jaw clenching? Do you get a headache when you are stressed? When you become familiar with how your body says “stress,” you will form a quicker path later to identifying the feeling—and a direction for how to attend to it.
- Notice the “story” you tell yourself about the feeling. For example, you might choose a different feeling to describe the effect of your friend’s chronic tardiness if you believe she’s just being disrespectful than if you know she is delayed because of work.
- Expand your emotion vocabulary. Try to become aware of as many pleasant as unpleasant feelings. Choose more nuanced words. The more specific you can be in naming your feeling, the more accurately you can communicate your feelings to someone else and the more refined your decision-making will be.
- Watch for patterns. These might be linked to the time of day, a recurring situation you find yourself in or who else is present. Patterns may offer you some surprise awareness.
Check in with yourself right now. Can you name the feeling you have in this exact moment? Are you excited, contented, optimistic? Are you sad or worried? Are you feeling fulfilled or grateful? Identifying the feeling can help you figure out how to manage it.
Robin Stern, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and associate director at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Diana Divecha, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and research affiliate at Yale.