3 Downsides of Emotional Intelligence

Over the past decade “emotional intelligence” has become a big buzz word. Managers thrive when they have it. Marriages end when they don’t. And if you aren’t in touch with your cat’s emotions, you don’t deserve to call yourself a cat person.

That’s all fine and good.

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But what about the downsides of emotional intelligence? Isn’t it time these got some attention?

I think so. And here are the big three:

1. The Downside of Compassion

Compassion asks a lot of us. People confuse it with sympathy or empathy, but they’re very different. Sympathy means being concerned about someone else. Empathy involves this and feeling their emotions. Yes, I know, that’s a lot to ask, but compassion provides an even greater challenge. When you feel compassion, you are concerned about someone and you feel their emotions and you want to do something about it. The origin is Latin: to “suffer with.”

The big problem with compassion is that it interferes with a behavior that people depend on for success and happiness. Comedian John Oliver, best known for his role on The Daily Show, says it best:

As a comedian, you should not be in rooms where people you’ve made fun of also are, because you will realize at the end of the day that they’re just people. You can’t risk having that kind of compassion infect your mission to attack.

—John Oliver on Fresh Air, June 19, 2014

2. The Downside of Regulating Your Emotions

Emotional self-regulation is a fancy way of saying “don’t blow up” when you’re angry. This is generally a good practice. Although some people need to learn to express their emotions more, most of us have mini-volcanoes inside of us ready to erupt. Regulating these is wise.

Except for one problem. When you want to explode and don’t, then you miss an opportunity to harm another person. This means you can’t go back and apologize. And they cannot forgive you. We all know the power of apologies and forgiveness to enhance relationships. Do we really want to put a damper on them?

3. The Downside of Self-awareness

One of my pet phrases goes like this: “Become a great student of your experience.” Translation: pay attention to what you’re thinking, feeling, and doing during the day. If I had a dollar for every time I said this, I’d be rich—nearly as rich as the people who have followed my advice.

However, self-awareness isn’t all peaches and cream. In fact, it poses a major threat to our economic well being. People with self-awareness tend to get into fewer car accidents, eat healthier food, exercise more effectively, commit fewer violent crimes and, as previously noted, get fewer divorces. It’s lucky that there are so few people like this. Otherwise, what would lawyers, doctors, and nurses do for a living? And how would hospitals pay their bills?

Let’s give emotional intelligence it’s due. But let’s not forgot that it has real costs.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Michael Dolan

    Oh you sneaky devil you! Let’s have a fight soon so that we can make-up and deepen our friendship even more….

  • Amiel Handelsman

    Michael, you’re on.

  • beingjackbutler

    Seems to me that with greater self-awareness, the things you can be forgiven for (for example not noticing something) can be much more nuanced and we’re not only stuck in the ‘I did X wrong, will you forgive me for it?’ but there can be mutual apologies and forgiveness in one conversation. #integralconversation ?

  • Amiel Handelsman

    Jack, it seems like you are saying something important, and I’d like to understand it better. Does your example assume that both people in a conversation are self-aware and therefore both take responsibility for whatever went awry, rather than a one-way apology? Or would you say this differently?

  • arustgi

    Such Sarcasm!. It might as well been said on the Colbert Show.

    • Amiel Handelsman

      I admire Colbert and take that as the highest compliment!