Dan Goleman’s program for emotional awareness is presented in five parts.
- Emotional self-awareness: knowing what one is feeling at any given time and understanding the impact those moods have on others.
- Self-regulation: controlling or redirecting one’s emotions; anticipating consequences before acting on impulse.
- Motivation: utilizing emotional factors to achieve goals, enjoy the learning process and persevere in the face of obstacles.
- Empathy: sensing the emotions of others.
- Social skills: managing relationships, inspiring others and inducing desired responses from them.
In this list, only empathy qualifies as an emotion. The other items concern the management of emotions, not their refinement. So, whereas improving one’s I.Q. relates to improving one’s thinking ability, in this program E.Q. relates to managing relations.
This is a subtle distinction. The self-awareness and self-regulation in the Goleman program have the goal of better applying the skills you have, not improving your emotions. Aside from the focus on empathy, the idea that emotions can be improved is not implied.
Consider a traumatized person. Their emotions cause them problems. Learning to be aware of and deal with their emotions is a behavioral strategy, but it does not address their problem, which is that their emotions are at a reflex and hysterical level. Behavioral strategies do little to improve the quality of life for a person with PTSD.
As a therapist, most of my work is in trying to get people to make a deeper connection with their emotions. Few people are willing to go there right away, but conditions improve when they do. You can change your emotions with serious work, but you’re not going to do it by talking about them. Aside from building empathy, the Goleman program is behavioral. As such, it makes the existing paradigms more efficient. It does not change people.
The hope that’s implicit in the program is that changing behavior will, indirectly, change how people think and feel. This is very much a question of need, engagement, feedback, and awareness. Weak long-term changes wrought by cognitive behavioral therapy show that it does not work that well.
“The positive effects of CBT found in the original trials were eroded over longer time periods. No evidence was found for an association between more intensive therapy and more enduring effects of CBT.” — R.C. Durham, et al., (2005). Long-term outcome of cognitive behaviour therapy clinical trials in central Scotland. Health Technol Assess. Nov; 9(42):1-174.
This kind of emotion training is a hard sell, and this describes my therapy practice. I must sell my art, and if a client is not moved by it, they won’t buy it. That’s usually for the best as far as I’m concerned, but it’s a missed opportunity for them. It’s their choice.
Storytelling is the selling of emotion: books, movies, music, poetry, performance, and fashion. Therapy is an emotional form of storytelling. Coaching is a less emotional form but, when it works, it treads on the same territory.
For storytelling to work, it must move you. I don’t know you. You are my imaginary reader built from people I’ve known and an image of myself. If what I do here does not move you, it’s because I don’t know you.
We need to distinguish emotions from statements, ideas, moods, and actions. An emotion is not an idea. An emotion is not exactly a feeling, either, but it is close. An emotion is the experience before the memories and associations appear. It is the guiding mental part of a whole-body feeling.
Consider sadness. We have a heavy, depressed feeling; an experience of disconnection before the ideas of sadness color our thoughts. The emotion, feelings, and thoughts resonate. Sad thoughts beget more sad feelings. It’s as if the emotion is the pigmented surface and our thoughts are the light that bounces off it.
Consider pain, which is not exactly an emotion but can serve as an example. Pain is partly a sensation and partly an interpretation of a sensation. Pain is a mind-state that is triggered by a body sensation, but you can interrupt the connection. You can have the body sensation and not generate the mind-state. Hypnosis can achieve this disconnection of sensation from experience, or it can create the experience in the absence of the sensation.
We cannot be sure everyone has the same emotion or feels an emotion the same way. I don’t know of anyone who’s tried to evoke an emotion by itself for the purpose of to helping foster better control of that emotion. What follows here is a guided visualization, a form of self-hypnosis, that I have made up.
Empathy is feeling what it’s like to be there, either to experience what someone else experiences, or to see what someone else sees in the way they see it. Empathy can elicit any emotion, or various emotions. It could leave you feeling overwhelmed or it could leave you feeling blank. Empathy is the ability to feel what others feel, and it’s something that you have to want to do.
For this exercise you should lie down, and sink far down out of everyday awareness. We’re going to explore empathy; but emotions are deeply associative, so don’t be surprised or disturbed if other feelings come to you. Just focus on the empathy.
Relax and take a slow breath. Get out of your thinking mind and settle into the feelings of your body. This is why you need to be reclining. Replace your everyday mind with the experience of deeply comfortable sensations. If this is not the time or place for letting go, then don’t push it, just wait for a time when you have space and quiet, and you feel supported and everything is all right.
We’ll count our way down to this feeling. Starting at five, with each number we go down you feel more comfortable. Focus on the feeling of comfort. It’s just a feeling and you find it in your body; it’s like a treasure, or an Easter Egg hunt.
Five. Relax and let your focus surround your head and neck. Relax the muscles.
Four. Release your shoulders and allow yourself to feel warm.
Three. Move your awareness around your back, chest, and stomach and step back from your body.
Two. Consider everything in your lower body, lower back, pelvis, hips, and thighs. Relax.
One. All the way down your legs, paying no further attention to your knees, shins, ankles, and feet.
As you inhale, gather all your thoughts in a bag as if you were a vacuum cleaner, and as you exhale, toss this bag into the air and let it float away. Settle down into a sense of warmth, comfort, and acceptance.
Think of the best thoughts you can remember about your mother or father—a time when they were the happiest with you, and you were happy. And if someone else comes to mind, go with that. Go with whatever thought, memory, vision, or sensation takes you to a time when all was well, and all was well, and if you could feel it then, feel all is well now.
Imagine yourself as a child. Maybe you can remember it, and even if you can’t, you’ve seen pictures of yourself, pudgy and doe-eyed. You didn’t feel that way, but you can imagine something in between: how you appeared to others in your smallness, and how others appeared to you in their bigness.
Let yourself drift back in memory or imagination to a childhood event you vaguely remember. Maybe it was being outside in the snow or the rain; maybe it was inside by a fire, or outside by a fire. What are you doing with your hands? What are you wearing? Who is around you and what can you hear?
Remember or imagine what the world felt like to you, at a time when you had so little past to remember and might not even have known how to record events. Days just went by. And the future was not a thing that had an end, it just disappeared into the distance, into a jiggling haze of someone else’s calendar that existed beyond tomorrow. What even was a calendar?
Days of the week were measured by routine, people who came to care for you, or places you went to be cared for. And who did you know? Did you have friends? Did they just appear and disappear at random? And when did you learn to ask for them? When did you learn to say “I want” in a way that someone would actually listen to?
Maybe you can remember these as times and places. Maybe you recall events, something someone said, or a picture like a still life. There is an imprint of the way things went way back before you had any say in how they went, and you can remember that as a feeling, a kind of hesitation.
It comes back to you now as something that grounds you in uncertainty. It’s the rudiment of your lack of control, and when things seem to be taking their own course, you look for this same kind of security you had when you were young.
When you’re confused, when you feel like other people are making your plans, you’re childlike again, because that’s how you felt then, and it’s been pressed into your character like a cookie cutter, like a snowman sugar cookie, like the biscuits you gummed before you had teeth.
Now let those memories go and turn your thoughts to a pet. Let’s say you had a puppy or a kitten, or someone in your family did, or your parents got one, or you had a friend that did. Or maybe you had a mouse, or a hamster. Call up in your imagination the adorable, present, and clueless look in its eyes.
Can you remember how you felt? Were you curious, were you connected? Was this love? What was that feeling you had? If it was a cat or a dog, how did it greet you, and how did you talk to it? If it lived in a cage, did you take it out? Did you make places where it could run around, and what did you think as you watched it?
Animals don’t live that long, but the bigger ones can outlive our childhood. If you had a small animal, do you remember how it died? Do you remember how you felt about it? What did you do with its body? Did you bury it?
Imagine you’re walking through the country along a dirt highway. It’s summertime, the sky is clear, and the air is brusque. A young golden retriever comes out of the bushes and, as is typical of golden retrievers, it bounds up to you with enthusiasm. You speak to it and it jumps on you and tries to lick you. It’s small, lean, and it bounces like a spring.
You keep walking and the dog snuffles around in the bushes, running to you and then away, crossing the road and then doubling back. You shout at it to be careful and to go home, but your conversation just makes it excited and it continues sniffing in the leaves and racing from one spot to another.
You hear a truck coming down the hill and yell at it to be aware. It’s busy exploring something. The truck barrels around the corner with dust hanging in its wake and you yell “Hey!” The dog looks up, spins around, and bounds toward you.
The pickup hits the dog head-on, right between the front wheels, and the dog goes under, rolled like a sausage between the gravel and the truck bed. It’s spun all the way down the driveshaft and all its legs broken. There must have been a sound, but all you remember is the sound of the spitting gravel, watching it happen, and the lump left behind.
The truck slows briefly, then speeds up again and disappears around the corner. It’s quiet. It’s summertime. The sky is clear and the air is brusque. You turn around and start home. You glance back but nothing’s changed, nothing’s moved. That’s all you remember. What sort of feeling do you have in the pit of your stomach?
You have or have had grandparents. Do you remember times you spent with them? Mine were well-meaning but never quite at or on my level. They seemed fragile, and they had a distinct smell. The smell of skin oil, dust, mothballs, and detergent. We never want to smell like that. You will remember, and you won’t leave that memory of you to your grandkids!
They would come to visit. It was an occasion, one of the few in which our parents would make room to include someone else in family affairs. They rarely did that for our friends, or never. It was like going to the beach, having the grandparents over, except there was no beach. Or maybe you went to the beach with your grandparents. I didn’t. They were too old.
Recall how your grandparents looked and spoke to you. Was it your grandmother or grandfather? What were they trying to say to you, and do you think they were really trying to communicate or were they just treating you like the child in their imagination? Imagine what their life was like.
Your parents probably worked. They certainly fussed and fretted about something most of the time. They were always preoccupied. Your siblings and friends went to school. Life was an endless affair of chores and tasks and homework. Schedules and appointments, lunch, recess, and coming home from school.
What did your grandparents do? Can you imagine what the days were like for them? Get up, have breakfast, read the paper, read a book, go for a walk, read some more, have some conversation, do something unimportant, eat some more, take a rest, maybe a nap, watch the day end, watch television, do something in the evening. Have a snack. Use the bathroom. Get ready for bed. Take medicines. Get undressed. Go to sleep.
What a strange life! How different it was from ours. Can you imagine it? Did you imagine it? Had you ever thought about it?
What did you feel about your grandparents—did you love them? What did you love about them, or were you just amused by them?
And you grew up, life got faster, there was more to do, and more people in it, and more issues on the horizon, and you may have felt you were hurtling into the future. What happened to your grandparents—did they fall behind? Did they seem interested? Were they involved? Could they understand your life?
Where are your grandparents today, and what is your memory of them? Did those memories end like a woolly mammoth frozen into the prehistoric past, frozen in time, intact in mind but gone in body? What would you do if you could contact them again—what would you say? Would they be any more interested now than they were then? Probably not.
These are feelings around life and death, companionship, connection and separation. I find these kinds of emotions the easiest to hold apart from other things. They had a time and place of their own, like old photos, souvenirs, memories that are no longer attached to anything. You can draw a circle around them, paste them in a scrapbook, and maybe never look at them again.
You will be one of those memories too, someday, you know. How do you feel about that? How do you feel about yourself? Does it make you sorry or sad? Does it motivate you to make deeper connections or have a greater impact? What‘s meaningful to you when you think about a world from which you’ve long since disappeared?
Maybe you don’t have an answer to that, and that’s all right. Maybe it’s a question that doesn’t make sense. The point is how you feel about the question, not the answer. How do you feel about having feelings and playing a role in other people’s feelings?
Can you amplify your feelings so that they’re loud and full? Can you shrink them so that they’re quiet and small? Can you find a knob in yourself labeled “feeling”? What would it look like? Would it click as you turned it? Maybe it would be a slider, or maybe it would be a virtual control, like something on the screen of your cell phone that you could move with your finger.
Slide it up now. Slide it to the max and imagine what the world would be like if you were overwhelmed with the feelings that you have now. So overwhelmed that you couldn’t talk or move.
Slide it down to zero, to the bottom, to the “no feeling” level. Imagine that no scene or memory or experience you ever had could cause any feeling. You’re just vacant. Not empty, just nonplused and unmoved. You’re still here; you just don’t feel… anything.
Move this emotion control back to normal, where you keep it most of the time. Maybe that’s in the middle, or slightly to the left, or to the right. Just feel comfortable about it, feeling things the way you normally do. And that’s where we’ll leave it, because we’re finished now and we’ll count ourselves back to normal space and time.
One. Putting everything away, like putting games back on the shelf.
Two. Picking up our things, standing up and brushing off our memories.
Three. Looking around the room of memories and fabrications, knowing that no memory is set in stone.
Four. Passing through the doors, the room of memories dissolves behind us, like a time gate.
And five. Back in the present, the undeniable present that blows like a thin wind. Now, feeling relaxed and comfortable, open your eyes.