Having empathy to understand how other people are feeling is a key component of emotional intelligence. The idea is that it enables an individual to respond appropriately to other people based on recognizing their emotions.
However, it raises some questions.
First, there’s the assumption that it’s possible to detect the emotions of other people accurately. The skill of being able to take another’s perspective is useful. Assuming you can reliably know what others are feeling is debatable.
Take the belief that people can dependably infer emotional states from facial expressions and that emotional expressions are universal. Researchers have been revisiting the data. They’ve concluded that the picture is a lot more complicated, and that facial expressions vary widely between contexts and cultures.
The Psychological Science in the Public Interest journal assembled a panel of authors with opposing views to conduct a literature review. After examining over 1,000 papers over 2 ½ years they concluded that there was little to no evidence that people can reliably infer someone else’s emotional state from facial movements.
People can fake emotions. They smile when they don’t feel happy. Or present a bland expression when they’re struggling inside.
EQ makes it easier to hide emotions. You become aware of a negative feeling and then are able to mask or ‘manage’ it.
Even if you can accurately infer someone’s emotions, you can’t know their thoughts behind the emotion, their motivations, intentions, the heart and mind of a person. Thinking that you can is a central cause of misunderstandings and conflict. You may be able to see someone is upset or angry, but that doesn’t mean you know why. Assuming that you do is dangerous territory.
The second issue with empathy under the EQ model is that it doesn’t include empathy or compassion for the self.
A model that emphasizes compassion for others without starting with self-compassion is likely to lead to poor boundaries and imbalance. To less emotional and mental health rather than more.
It leads to martyring: tilting the balance to the needs of others at the expense of your own. That’s not a recipe for emotional health. It’s a recipe for overwhelm, stifled relationship and resentment.
There’s also the issue of boundaries. Most people struggle with boundaries in one or more areas of their lives. Too much empathy can lead to absorbing or taking on other people’s emotions.
For many leaders, the issue of over-responsibility is something they’re already juggling. The EQ model can make that worse. It’s easy to become congested, lose the sense of self, of boundaries and ultimately your deeper sense of knowing.
These are usual places where people get stuck around emotions and in their lives. A good emotional model has to make people aware of potholes they’re likely to hit while driving the road of life – and give them good tools and strategies for mental health and inner peace.
Catherine Sherlock, Founder of Higher Mindfulness, plays on the edge of human potential elevating lives and leadership. Through insights and paradigm shifts, upending the norms of our times and expanding and transforming minds, she helps people change inner struggle to peace, move from overwhelm to empowerment and connect with their capacities and potential. That opens the door to profound transformations in the way we look at and live in the world.