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The Prize We Get for Knowing Ourselves


I once quit a job because every day after work I felt frustrated—as if I’d made no traction whatsoever in helping anyone with anything. Situations that were problematic remained that way, and new ones arose almost automatically, like weeds in a summer garden. When someone asked me why I was leaving, I said it was because I was tired of working with “emotionally irresponsible grownups.” At the time, that phrase resonated with me as a way to describe people who couldn’t seem to tell the truth about who they were and what they wanted. If someone were asking me for something a little far-fetched, I feel like I would have been able to serve them better if they had just admitted the implausibility of the request.

That description stuck with me for a long time because it was the only way I could think of to describe the difficulty I was having connecting with people sometimes. It was perplexing because it just always seemed like we both knew what was going on, but one or both of us was pretending it was something else. Recently, though, I found myself in an interesting conversation with a co-worker about emotional intelligence, and I realized that this might be what I was searching for the whole time. There has been lots written about the topic, but it boils down to this: knowing and understanding your emotions and being able to regulate them.

We have brains and hearts full of stories, to-do lists, and

self-criticisms.

I love this idea, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since that chat with my colleague. It is occurring to me that I could develop much stronger and clearer relationships—and feel less anxiety—if I practiced this basic version of emotional intelligence in all of my interactions. What makes the most sense to me is that it shifts the responsibility from what had previously felt like “difficult people” to me. At first glance, that sounds like I’m going to just start focusing on myself and then everything will be great, but obviously it’s harder than that. I’m also not aiming to identify one more thing I could do better.

It’s just that seeing my connection with other people in terms of what I bring to it makes me realize how much power I have in helping to keep it honest and authentic. I’ve been practicing this in my head ever since I started thinking about this. I’ll think about how I’m feeling and what’s going on with me. If I feel nervous or angry or even embarrassed, I take a minute to think about why. It’s usually pretty obvious that something has been triggered in me and that it probably has little or nothing to do with this actual situation. Even if it does, the second part—about managing and regulating my emotions—comes in very handy. I’ve been trying to just take a minute to respond. Even a deep breath gives me another 15 seconds to let it roll around in my head to decide how, or if, I want to react.

I am extremely lucky that I have mostly enjoyable and interesting relationships with people in my life. But I also have some bad days and some trying conversations. My own narrative is responsible for most of that. Still, knowing that story and accepting it turns out to provide a much softer cushion than just trying to control my thoughts and reactions. There are a million reasons I might feel out of sorts, and being comfortable with those reasons lets me put down my dukes and forgive myself. It also helps with that second part where I can regulate what I say next and how I say it.

We’re all under a lot of stress a great deal of the time. We have brains and hearts full of stories, to-do lists, and self-criticisms. Given that, sometimes it’s amazing to me that we understand and get along with each other as well as we do. I guess all of this is really just about owning who we are and feeling at home enough with ourselves that we don’t have to be difficult and defensive. It’s a basic life lesson, I know, but it’s not nearly as easy as it might look. The prize, on the other hand, is greater than you can imagine.

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