Is there such a thing as “emotional intelligence”? Some psychologists maintain that emotional intelligence can be measured, along the lines of traditional intelligence tests. Emotional intelligence (sometimes called EQ or EI) indicates a person’s ability to perceive, express, understand and manage emotion. Unlike traditional intelligence tests, which use verbal and mathematical ability to measure intelligence, how does one measure “emotional intelligence?”
Is there a “correct” answer to a question about one’s feelings? It is debated whether this is a true “intelligence” in the traditionally accepted sense and whether there can be objective measures of it—but
it is an interesting concept nonetheless.
Human beings have feelings and emotions, because we are physical beings. Angels do not have feelings, because they are purely spiritual beings. Christ, the Word become flesh, had feelings: he became quite angry with the Pharisees (“Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart…” Mark 3:5) and with the money changers outside the temple. Jesus cried when Lazarus died, and as he approached Jerusalem prior to the crucifixion, “he saw the city and wept over it” (Luke 19:41). He was in agony and distress in the Garden of Gesthemane the night before he was crucified. He experienced the utmost desolation and abandonment on the Cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Christ’s emotions were always perfectly appropriate for the situation. His anger at the Pharisees was justified and his sorrow about Lazarus’s death was entirely real. Sometimes we think that, if we are truly good Christians, we shouldn’t be sad if something bad happens, nor should we ever become angry: after all,
don’t we have the joy of the risen Christ in our hearts? But this is somewhat weird.
I know a woman whose baby died during labor. She insisted that she was “happy” because her child was in heaven and this was God’s will. It is good and noble to trust in God. But, it is entirely appropriate to be devastatingly sad at such a time. As Jesus said in the Garden of Gesthemane, “”My soul is sorrowful even to death” (Matthew 26:38).
Feelings are not in themselves wrong or evil. But because of Original Sin, our emotions and feelings are not always under control. Not that we should be like Vulcans, expressing no emotion, but we should not let our emotions lead us to sin. For example, out of anger, we might say something unkind or hurtful. Or, we refrain from doing what is right or good, out of fear. The emotion itself is not wrong, but what we do with it—through our willful action—may be sinful.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
“In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will” (CCC 1767).
It all goes back to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were created to be in perfect harmony with God, with each other, and with all of creation. God walked with them in the Garden, in the breezy time of the day (Genesis 3:8). They were intelligent, immortal, lords of the world. Their emotions were in perfect harmony with their minds and wills. There was no jealousy, no arguments, no suspicions, no domination or servile
fear. They were perfectly suited to each other, best friends and perfect partners.
But the Devil sowed suspicion in their hearts, and they turned away from God as their loving Father. When they disobeyed God, a rift was created between them and God, and between each other as well. It is always so with sin. They became suspicious of each other. Adam blamed Eve, and they both became ashamed. Enmity between men and women entered the world, along with sickness and death.
Not only do we feel distant from God, but we also feel distant from other people. And, we no longer have that harmonious balance within our own psyche. Our intellect is darkened, our wills weakened. Our passions can get out of control. Even though we are baptized, we still experience the effects of Original Sin. “I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want,” writes Saint Paul to the Romans (Romans 7:19).
The interesting thing about feelings is that we have a cultural bias that men are less emotional than women. I think that what actually is the case is that women are more comfortable expressing their feelings than men are. Men are also emotional; in fact, they can be dangerously so, because they do not always recognize the role their emotions are playing in their thoughts and actions. They might assume (because of the cultural bias) that they are more logical, less emotional. It is wise for each of us to evaluate our own
“emotional intelligence” as it were.
In his book Nervousness, Temperament and the Soul, Fr. Joseph Massman tells us that emotions affect our thinking and our actions much more than we realize. “The word ‘temperament’ signifies an unvarying disposition of the moods of the mind. The mind is influenced and tempered by the secret emotions…One thinks, judges, and acts under the influence of this emotional bias.”
Depending on one’s temperament, one may be inclined to a certain imbalance in our emotional life. For example, a choleric might be more prone to anger. A phlegmatic might give in to fear. A sanguine might begin and quit projects depending on his mood, and a melancholic might give in to despondency. But our emotions can also lead to much good: the zeal of the choleric may accomplish great works for Christ, the calm of the phlegmatic soothes the most irritable, the enthusiasm of the sanguine brings joy to those around him, and the melancholic can respond with deep sensitivity.
We are human beings, and so we have feelings; our emotions can move us toward love of God and neighbor. But we can also be victims of our emotions and moods. We have all had the experience of waking up on top of the world, only to come crashing down as our mood changes, like a thundercloud rolling in to sweep the sun out of our life.
We don’t want to be as fickle as a weather-vane, spinning and turning with every gust of wind. Rather, we would like our actions to be based on principles; we do the right thing, no matter what our mood is, or how we feel about it. When we examine ourselves and our own emotional tendencies, we can then take the next
step to gain equilibrium and control over our emotions and moods.
So long as there is no serious handicap (whether physical or psychological) that would require professional guidance, we can gradually improve ourselves and grow in emotional stability and maturity through a deep, interior life. We will become more and more detached from our own mood swings or emotional biases, as we draw closer to Christ, through prayer and meditation.
There is no drawing closer to God, or growing in holiness, without a corresponding increase in our charity toward others. “If anyone says ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a
brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1John 4:20).
Real love is willing the good of the other. False love is using others to increase my pleasure, which is ultimately nothing but self-love. And, as Jesus told St. Catherine of Siena in the Dialogues, “[S]elf-love, which destroys charity and affection towards the neighbor, is the principle and foundation of every evil.”
When our emotions prompt us toward greater love of God and our neighbor, they aid our moral perfection. But when our moods are changing like the weather-vane in the wind, or our emotions are flying out of control, we can become a trial for our neighbor, a cross for our friends and family, and we may fail to respond to God’s will. It is wise to take a personal inventory of our emotional well-being.
- Do I over-react when someone says a slightly hurtful comment?
- Do I tend to be anxious, moody, fretful?
- Do I easily fly off the handle and become angry?
- Do I give up when my mood changes?
- Do I indulge myself in my passions?
- Can I laugh at myself?
Wise spiritual directors, saints, and other spiritual writers over the centuries have offered many insights into ways of rightly controlling our emotions so that they work harmoniously in our lives for the purpose of drawing us closer to God.