Emotional Intelligence in the Heart of Relationships

Photo by Thibault van der Stichel

Wanting to change a habit that doesn’t serve us well takes courage, especially since such work usually arises due to the suffering that follows the erosion of relationships. But change is what enlarges our personality and improve our lives. Where do our needs come from? How do we liberate ourselves —and therefore, our relationships— from our unconscious needs? We have the capacity and the means to do everything we want and change whatever we need in our lives, we just need to know how.

How do we develop our needs?

Everything about us —our behaviors, beliefs and preferences— come from our DNA (genetics), educational experiences and environment. What we are taught and experience as a child shapes how our brain grows and develops, creating neuropaths that make up our personalities. For this reason, each of us have different temperaments and socio-emotional needs that drive our lives and impact our relationship with others.

Psychologists like Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung agreed that unpleasant past experiences create a set of negative feelings and thoughts that are outside of our conscious awareness and influence our behavior. These cause us to develop different defense mechanisms that prevent us from being aware of unpleasant thoughts. Those unconscious defense mechanisms are the main source of people’s repetitive patterns, which cause self-limiting beliefs and unhappiness.

Simply stated, people’s needs come from two places: First, from having repetitively experienced something that develops a habit as a response to a need to repeat those experiences or feelings over again. Second, from being denied something that lead us to want to live them out. This plays out in the conflict that occurs with others when we experience feelings of anger, sadness or fear, without knowing the reason why we feel that way or where those emotions come from. We call these unconscious needs.

From our early years, we learn how to meet our needs in order to survive in the world. Our parents are the first people who see, through crying and kicking, our needs being addressed. Children who have caregiver’s or parents who provide a loving and economically stable environment, will have different needs in their relationships later in life than those who learn from an early age that the people who are supposed to be the source of their well-being do not fulfill their need to be cared for. Every child’s personality —shaped by genes, life experiences and education— is determined by a mix of unconscious needs and therefore build strategies to fulfill those needs.

Children grow up and become aware of many of their unconscious needs. Unfortunately, the fact that we see each other suffering from mood swings from time to time, find ourselves unable to solve conflicts with others and keep on having self-destructive thoughts, brings enough evidence to think that some of us still have unconscious needs that lack of strategies to meet them. The consequence of those unconscious needs that don’t have strategies to be fulfilled, can be seen in relationships.

Taking responsibility for our needs

Since our unconscious needs are always active and projecting towards others —especially to those who we love the most, we can hardly have a conscious and healthy relationship with others when we have deeply wounded relationship with ourselves. When we are triggered by something or somebody, our negative feelings are reflected in our interactions, our moods affect our actions and thoughts shape our brains. By this rule of thumb, if we are not empathic towards ourselves, we will never be emphatic towards others. If we are not happy with our current state, we will never be happy with someone else’s. And if we do not love ourselves, we will never love anybody else. The quality of all our relationships is a reflection of the quality of our relationship with ourselves.

To bring awareness to our unconsciousness, we must take full responsibility for our needs—our thoughts and actions. By being accountable for our needs, we are conscious of our projected needs and we stop seeing our friends, family members and couples as sources of our well-being or happiness, but as who they really are, and vice versa. Letting our needs rule our relationships doesn’t allow us to see the other person at their best, repressing others from their freedom of being who they want to be and preventing the other person to live the life they want to live. We may not be entirely responsible for our past, but we are responsible only for what we can control, that is, our current thoughts and actions, as well as our own happiness. No one else is.

We must replace questions like “Why is he hurting me?” or “Why doesn’t she do what I want?”, for “What am I asking him to do for me that I need to be doing for myself?” or “Why don’t I “fix” myself so that I don’t get triggered by this kind of situations anymore?” It is easy to blame others and hard to ask ourselves. At the same time, as a paradox, relationships are our vehicle to help us realize our unconscious needs, freeing us from them and allowing ourselves to thrive, grow, and improve the relationships with ourselves and, ultimately, with others. Relationships are, therefore, absolutely essential for developing emotional intelligence.

How to activate our “inner coach”

As a participant in the Goleman Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification Program, I learned that we make the unconscious conscious by examining our patterns in our whole history of relationships and analyzing our day-to-day triggers. Each triggered emotion —feeling sad, angry or afraid— represents a self-limiting belief, which creates psychological and behavioral responses that build negative habits. Charged moments are times when complexes most commonly surface, which make great opportunities to, as we say in coaching, activate our “inner coach.”

Whether you know a frustrated parent who stops talking to his/her son for choosing to study an undesirable degree, an angry friend who tries to influence those who do things that he/she doesn’t approve, a jealous love partner who controls his/her couple, or somebody who just wishes to be happier, they can always follow these steps in order to activate their “inner coach” and become conscious of their needs;

  • Step 1 – Become self-aware; Growth happens when we discover our triggers, our complexes, or our unconscious needs. We need to realize when and how those triggers play into our day-to-day life. Three ways to increase our self-awareness are the following:
      1. Practice mindfulness meditation —which let us realize negative thoughts and enable us to recover more quickly from amygdala hijacks.
      2. Go through new experiences —which allow us to realize what we feel and how we act in new situations.
      3. Receive feedback from our loved ones —which, however unpleasant or painful, is the catalyst for bringing consciousness to the unconscious.
  • Step 2 – Examine past experiences; Once our needs are not unconscious anymore, it may be helpful to understand where do these needs come from. We look at the past to bring growth to our present, never staying too much time in places that are not in our control anymore. Understanding why our needs exist creates empathy towards ourselves and, especially during conflict, towards others. To understand our (now) conscious needs better, we must ask ourselves “Where is this triggering emotion coming from?”, “What happened during our past/childhood that created this need?”
  • Step 3 – Think about the outcome; When we realize our needs, we need to think about the consequences of the habits our needs have created, to decide if our habits must be changed and how to do so. We must ask ourselves “What is the outcome of letting my needs drive my thoughts, my actions and my feelings?”, “How are my needs affecting myself and the rest of my relationships?”, “How would my life be if I was in control of my needs?”
  • Step 4 – Define the “why”; If we decide to change a habit because it doesn’t serve us well, we need to make sure that change will happen despite difficulties. Growth will never happen without realizing our motivation to change, and therefore, without asking ourselves “Why is this important to me?” or “Why do I care about this?.” The answer to these questions help us find the roots of our needs (of any kind) and our motivational drivers to help us achieve any goal and change any habit that we want.
  • Step 5 – Build the strategy; Once we decide to have control of our needs, we must design a final strategy to “lift” our needs from our relationships when negative emotions arise. We need to come up with something to say, think, or do, that calm us during triggering moments. We may choose to go for a run, breathe deeply three times, think about the other person’s needs, consider other possibilities in a given situation, or remember the nature of our unconscious needs as well as our motivational drivers. Every strategy works as long as it free us from transferring our unconscious needs to our relationships.

After some time activating our “inner coach”, we strengthen the neural connections between regions of the brain, including the ones that play critical roles in developing the different skills of Emotional and Social Intelligence, modifying our behaviors, and freeing us from our unconscious needs.

We will never achieve a better relationship with anyone else than the one we can achieve with ourselves. To do so, we must be accountable for our thoughts, feelings, and actions in order to liberate ourselves from our unconscious needs, from our wounds, and from our past, and therefore, liberate our relationships from external suffering. This way, we will not need our friends, our family members and our couples to fulfill our needs, because we will be already doing that. We will love them because they make our lives even better, healthier, and happier than they already are. And they must do the same for themselves. We are then free to truly love ourselves and others.

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