So often when working with couples in therapy, I hear one partner describe themself as “more emotional,” while the other describes themself as “more logical.” Left-brained, right-brained, rational, empathic…there are many descriptors for how we might view ourselves and our partner. There are definitely advantages to a little yin and yang in a couple—one partner’s natural gifts or strengths tend to complement the other’s, and vice versa. There can be disadvantages, too, though.
A common disadvantage of an emotional mismatch is a feeling of disconnect in a relationship. The “more emotional” partner is often the one who describes feeling a lack of connection, although the “more logical” partner may certainly echo the sentiment. With further exploration, couples typically find that the lack of connection has a lot to do with emotion, and how they experience and express emotion to each other. If one (or both) partners struggle to communicate about their inner emotional world, the result is a sense of distance and not really knowing one another deeply, – a disconnect.
This sense of relational disconnect is often a motivator for a “less emotional” partner to get in touch with their inner world. But it is not unusual for this partner to feel unconfident in the process. There are a number of reasons why they might feel intimidated at the thought of getting in touch with their feelings. Firstly, from a societal perspective, we are taught to avoid our feelings from a young age. Women tend to be shamed for feeling and expressing anger, while men tend to be shamed for their more vulnerable feelings, like sadness and fear. Additionally, the family that we grow up in has its own set of spoken and unspoken rules that govern the expression of emotion. We tend to internalize these rules based on what our parents model to us in our early childhood. For instance, if we rarely saw our parents express sadness or fear, we are likely to turn the volume down on our own vulnerability, too. Because of how we were raised, we often have to learn the skills of emotional intelligence as adults.
If you struggle to identify, label, and express your feelings, below are some practical steps to increase your emotional intelligence (EQ).
- Reframe your beliefs about emotions – Many people see emotions as a hindrance rather than a strength. We tend to view emotion and logic as opposites, when they are actually intertwined. Read more about the “emotion versus logic” myth here (Karnaze, 2010). Remind yourself that emotions offer valuable information and insight for how we engage with and process what’s happening around us.
- Elicit your emotion intentionally – If you struggle to bring emotion forward, try the following exercises. Lie down somewhere and listen to music, particularly songs that you associate with memories or meaningful experiences. Without trying to make anything happen, simply observe whatever emotions or thoughts arise. You might also choose to watch a movie, particularly one that resonates with you in a meaningful way, and notice any emotion that arises as you watch.
- Pay attention to your body – Emotion manifests in the body, sometimes subtly, and sometimes overtly. Start paying attention to sensations in your body that might clue you into the emotion you are feeling. For example, many people carry stress in their trapezius muscles, or shoulders. The greater the stress, the tighter the muscles, causing discomfort or the feeling of restlessness. This is a body signal that there is some emotion that needs to be addressed. In this case, tight shoulders indicate stress, which indicates a need for something like rest, or a solution to a problem.
- Practice labeling your feelings – Try to identify the specific emotions you notice—whether that be anger, sadness, fear, shame, or something else. This may come easily to some, while for others it can be the trickiest part of the process. If you struggle to identify or label which emotion you are experiencing, check out the Mood Meter. Marc Brackett, of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, developed this tool which helps us get more specific about what we feel. As his article suggests, the Mood Meter can help to locate the emotion we are feeling, based on how pleasant and energetic we feel.
- Find expression – Once you are aware of the emotion, it helps to find some form of expression. Notice your tendency—do you experience a natural expression through tears, smiling, or some other physical movement? Perhaps you feel the urge to verbalize your feelings by describing them aloud, either to yourself or your partner. You might also keep your expression private, acknowledging your emotions only to yourself. Whatever avenue you choose, notice whether or not that form of expression is helpful. In the context of a relationship, our partner is often hoping to see some emotional expression, because it helps them to get a sense of connection on a more intimate level.
If you are embarking on the journey of befriending your inner emotional world, remember to be patient with yourself. There are many valid reasons that we might have avoided looking inward over time, but the good news is that everyone has emotions, everyone possesses some level of EQ, and everyone has the capacity to expand their skills.
Need more help from a therapist?
Sometimes the need for support extends beyond self-help. Particularly if you feel blocked from your emotion, or are afraid to allow your emotions to come forth, it may be time to speak with a professional therapist. If you are ready to schedule an appointment and live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas, we can help. Contact us to get started. We offer virtual and in-person sessions.