Therapy for Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence

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Emotional intelligence is a relatively new area of study that focuses on the ability to feel, recognize, communicate, respond to, and understand emotions. Emotional intelligence can be approximated by various types of tests, and those who wish to learn more about their level of emotional intelligence and ways to develop it further might consider speaking to a mental health professional.

Understanding Emotional Intelligence

Howard Gardner first presented the idea of multiple intelligences in 1983, but the psychological theory of emotional intelligence was developed by Peter Salovey and John Mayer. The concept was popularized by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 publication Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Today, emotional intelligence is known to be an important quality, and emotional intelligence skills are beginning to be taught in school, so that greater emotional intelligence can be developed from a young age.

Emotional intelligence describes one's ability to use and understand emotions (both one's own emotions and those of others) in order to better improve mental and physical health as well as interpersonal skills. An emotionally intelligent person will generally have the ability to, for example, recognize anger as it begins to develop and, as a result of this awareness, may decide that it is best to calm down before speaking. This ability also applies to the emotions of others: An emotionally intelligent person may also recognize when a coworker is feeling stressed, for example, and can take measures to assist that person, perhaps by offering help with a demanding task list or by urging him or her to take a break.

Five Components of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence, as described by Goleman, has five parts:

  1. Self-awareness: Recognizing one's moods and emotions and their effect on others
  2. Self-regulation: Using emotional knowledge to prevent moods or emotions from causing impulsive reactions or behavior.
  3. Internal motivation: Taking action or making decisions as a result of an inner drive based on optimism, curiosity, a desire to achieve, or personal ideals rather than for immediate rewards such as monetary gain.
  4. Empathy: Understanding the emotions of others and using this knowledge to respond to people based on their emotional state.
  5. Social skills: Using one's emotional intelligence to establish strong relationships and facilitate successful emotional interactions with peers, coworkers, and others.

Emotional Intelligence and Mental Health

Research has shown that certain mental health conditions are associated with lower levels of emotional intelligence. Asperger's syndrome is partially characterized by challenged emotional intelligence. Those experiencing depression appear to have more difficulty understanding emotions and managing negative emotions, and they may experience an increased sensitivity to positive emotions. Borderline personality may indicate a sensitivity to the expression of emotion, but less skill in the identification of emotions and their meanings. Substance abuse issues can also lead to a deficit in emotional intelligence.

A lack of emotional intelligence has also been shown to relate to the likelihood of engaging in destructive or self-destructive acts. Higher levels of emotional intelligence can help decrease the likelihood of developing mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, help reduce tendencies toward aggression, and may also help speed recovery from traumatic or stressful events.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

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Everyone has some degree of emotional intelligence; it is not an either/or quality. Some people are naturally very emotionally intelligent, while others may find that at least some of the time, emotions become overwhelming, interfere with communication and relationships, lead to speech or actions that are later regretted, or otherwise cause difficulties. For some people, these difficulties can be persistent and cause major problems at work, at home, or at school. Many studies have found that higher emotional intelligence, more than academic ability, has been shown to improve lifelong physical and mental health and may also make it more likely that a person will succeed in the workplace.

Research suggests that greater emotional intelligence can be developed, especially early in life, and programs that teach "social and emotional learning" (SEL) have begun to appear in schools, in the United States and many other countries. These programs, which were developed to reflect the idea that students with stronger emotional awareness will experience greater academic success, aim to give students a greater understanding of their emotions and how to manage them. These lessons in empathic behavior have helped reduce incidences of bullying, violence, and other misbehavior in the schools they were implemented in, and students in these schools are often better equipped to work through conflicts, both on their own and in a group, and are more likely to take responsibility for their actions. What's more, the higher levels of student achievement in these schools show that higher emotional intelligence has a positive influence on academic achievement.

Therapy to Improve Emotional Intelligence

Therapy can be helpful when a person wishes to better understand and further develop emotional intelligence. In therapy, a person can become better aware of their emotional strengths and flaws and improve on the ability to recognize, understand, and cope with emotions. Some people who enter therapy seeking treatment for conditions such depression or social anxiety may discover that they also experience diminished emotional intelligence. With the help of a therapist, they may become more aware of their own emotions and begin to build emotional intelligence, and some may find that increased emotional awareness leads to an improvement in mental health.

Self-awareness can play a major role in emotional intelligence, but being aware of the emotions of others is also important. Some therapists provide training designed to help individuals become better aware of what others around them are feeling, in order to better relate to other people. A therapist may use emotional intelligence training to teach a person specific social skills such as reading body language, empathizing with the feelings of others, and providing appropriate feedback. This training is often helpful to those with Asperger's syndrome.

Case Example

  • Lack of emotional intelligence in the workplace: Keiran, 27, is referred by his employer for eight sessions with an Employee Assistance Program consultant because he is not getting along with his coworkers. Keiran speaks impulsively, takes criticism poorly, argues with his peers and supervisors, and fails to complete tasks he begins. The therapist provides him with an emotional intelligence self-test, which reveals to Keiran that he is not in touch with his own emotions and does not know how to manage his feelings. Keiran is able to begin learning these skills in therapy, and gradually he becomes more self-aware. After eight sessions, Keiran is referred for on-going treatment with another therapist to more deeply explore the origins of his emotional challenges.


  1. Ferraro, J. (2010, September 8). Developing emotional intelligence. Psychotherapist NYC. Retrieved from
  2. Goleman, D. (n.d.). Emotional Intelligence. Retrieved from
  3. Kahn, J. (2013, September 14). Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught? Retrieved May 28, 2015, from
  4. Schütz, A., & Nizielski, S. (2012). Emotional Intelligence as a Factor in Mental Health. Retrieved from
  5. Swijtink, Z. (2009, February 1). Daniel Goleman's five components of emotional intelligence. Retrieved from


Last updated: 07-28-2015

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