The Most Important Kind of Intelligence
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what parents owe their children. When we become parents there is no covenant that exists expressing what parents should impart on their children through the course of their childhood and even into adulthood. I’m often astonished that there is no training we go through to become parents as if life itself is the best preparation for becoming a parent and having the immense responsibility of shaping and guiding a young life. I think of this question both as a parent and as a child. As a parent, I try to impart to my child all of the lessons that I learned, and for better or worse, fall into guiding my child toward the skills and experiences that I wished I’d had as a child. As an adult with the benefit of several decades of hindsight, I believe that emotional intelligence was one of the greatest missing pieces of my childhood.
I left childhood completely unprepared to handle failure, difficult emotions and navigate relationships in any meaningful way. I don’t fault my parents for this because they weren’t given the tools to gain emotional intelligence either. In my strict German Catholic family, showing emotions and expressions of love were considered a sign of weakness and suffering in silence was an unspoken virtue. In retrospect, I can see the lineage of pain and suffering these beliefs and practices had on multiple generations of my family. It’s taken me years to educate myself about my own emotions and learn how I respond.
Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to negotiate, with patience and insight, the main problems in our relationships with others and ourselves. Having never learned how to express my emotions in a healthy way, I instead shoved them down and never dealt with them. This response to painful emotions left me anxious, depressed, without compassion for myself and meant that I struggled to have deep, meaningful relationships with others because I was unable to be vulnerable or to communicate my feelings. Had I been given tools for expressing myself and solid communication skills that enabled me to interact in a truthful and authentic manner, I would have been a much healthier person. Instead, I bottled up my pain, shoved it down and unleashed it on others as I was taught to do in my family of origin.
Now that I’m an adult, I know better so I can do better. I’ve worked hard to teach myself how to express emotions, be vulnerable and create boundaries. These are skills I want to pass on to my daughter so that she doesn’t struggle through her emotions and relationships as I have. I believe emotional intelligence skills are vital to being a healthy human being. If we aren’t able to effectively communicate our feelings, be vulnerable and trust ourselves and the people closest to us we become isolated. I know from experience that isolation is very deep hole to dig yourself out of.
It’s astonishing to me that we don’t teach emotional intelligence in our schools. That our society believes that learning grammar and math are so much more important than emotional intelligence that it never even need be discussed in schools, is an indicator of how much we avoid these important skills. The core components of emotional intelligence are communication, trust and vulnerability. We can’t have one without the other two. There is no trust without communication and vulnerability, and there isn’t vulnerability without communication and trust. The key is finding the people you can safely have emotional intimacy with. This is a delicate dance between people, I’ve found, built by taking small steps of communicating truths about yourself to another person and taking in how they respond to you. When you have communication, trust and vulnerability with another person, then your world opens up in remarkable ways. It took me far too long to learn this valuable lesson. Finding people who are not only gentle with your heart when you share your vulnerability, but who will actually take a step toward you when you’re vulnerable is one of life’s greatest blessings.
It’s for these reasons that I hope to instill emotional intelligence in my daughter. To be left to fend for oneself emotionally in adulthood is to live a life of struggle and suffering. I want more for her and for all of us. I believe our world would be a far kinder and gentler place if we all learned emotional intelligence at a young age and if our culture prioritized these skills in everyone’s development.