Quite a few times we are surprised when some obviously intelligent people make mess in their own or other people’s lives with their lack of emotional awareness, lack of empathy or by surrendering to unhealthy emotions. It feels natural to expect intelligent people to also be able to understand the complexity of human emotions and relationships, but this is not always true.
Well-used rational intelligence usually includes love for learning, questioning things and ideas, long-term and global thinking, and seeing different perspectives. Ideally, all of that also contributes to increased understanding of human psychology and relationships. In that sense, rational and emotional intelligence are somewhat correlated and can be developed simultaneously. But it doesn’t always happen.
Empathy and upbringing
Empathy, the ability to easily imagine how other people might feel, is in the core of emotional intelligence; through empathy we can learn how our words and actions influence other people and how to find balance between ourselves and others. However, human ability to empathize varies from one individual to another; just like other human abilities, our genetic potential and our environments combine to create vast differences.
Some people have less genetic potential for empathy, but sometimes ethical upbringing can make up for it; or some such people can also lack aggressive and dominant urges; or their intellectual development may enable them to rationally understand complex, long-term consequences of their behavior. Therefore even less empathetic people can be ethical in their actions. Ethics does not always mean they would be able to deal with their own emotions in healthy ways, or to anticipate what other people expect of them, but at least good intentions are there. Some of those people find an external set of moral rules – such as religion – and may stick to it in a rather rigid way. The worst situation is innate low potential for emotional intelligence combined with toxic environment.
Some children might be born with more potential for empathy, but their environment can discourage its development; children can have toxic, violent role models, or they can experience so much violence and manipulation that their natural empathy gives way to defensive anger, spite or bitterness. Based on their experience, they might feel that empathy is dangerous; it can make them vulnerable, manipulable, more likely to feel guilt or experience disappointment. They might react to their pasts rather than their present.
Empathy by itself is not enough to warrant emotional intelligence; without certain internal modifiers, empathy can easily turn into lack of personal boundaries and sometimes lack of forethought and understanding long-term causes and consequences. Something more is needed; perhaps a healthy self-image which resists manipulation, observational abilities, seeing under the surface, experience and perhaps some intuition. While empathy is focused on others, emotional intelligence is also based on self-awareness; being able to understand our own complex emotions.
For children to learn about their own emotions, they first have to accept and embrace them. This is not difficult in a supportive, balanced environment. However, if a family is unhealthy or abusive, children can experience more pain than they can handle. If those children have strong potential for rational intelligence, or if they experience that rational approach helps them diminish or avoid pain, they might learn to use rational thinking as a refuge from painful emotions. While this is certainly not the worst defense they might choose, avoiding emotions means less skill in understanding them; whether their own emotions or somebody else’s.
All is not lost in such a case; getting in touch with one’s emotions is a skill that can be learned. Just like many other skills, it’s easier to learn it in childhood than later in life. Still, it can be done and it can greatly improve your life.
“What does this mean for me?”
In practice, you might want to pay conscious attention to notice expressions of emotional intelligence (or lack of it) independently of expressions of logical intelligence. Be aware that emotional intelligence will be much more significant in your relationship with someone than high IQ. You probably don’t want your partner, friend or coworker to be stupid and irrational – but make sure that they are not emotionally stunted, either.