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Why Your High Emotional Intelligence Hurts You


I’ve always been keenly aware of what other people are thinking and feeling.

I sharpened this skill growing up as the youngest in my family, taking cues from my older siblings so I could stay under the radar from my parents. Then, in middle school, I had even more opportunity to practice reading the room and accessing situations.

At some point most young girls experience the day when they show up to lunch and notice that everyone is treating them ever so slightly cooler than the day before for no apparent reason.

Being aware of those social undertones is how one navigates the choppy waters of adolescence and keeps from being treated like an outcast, but many women carry this sensitivity to subtext into adulthood and rely on it heavily to relate to other people in their professional and personal lives.

One way we see this is how women subtly communicate when they don’t like someone or feel upset, and even though it is glaringly obvious among other women, as if someone just walked into the room and slapped you across the face, it’s often lost on men.

Studies actually show that this is because women have an easier time than men reading body language and facial expressions.

There’s an episode of New Girl that highlights this. The main character, Jess, and her friends try to explain to the roommate, Nick, about a problem with his girlfriend because of the “way” she said something.

Jess remembers it was like this time when a girl told her “you rock a lot of polka dots” and it ruined their friendship.

It’s comical how closely that hits to reality, but this ability women have to read between the lines is actually an indicator of high emotional intelligence, or the capacity to be aware of and manage one’s emotions and empathetically relate to others.

Researchers have found that 90 percent of leadership success is related to emotional intelligence. It makes sense that the more people know how to tune into what is going on for others, the more effectively they can build rapport, manage conflict, and develop strong relationships.

Indeed I’ve definitely seen this in my own life where my ability to understand interpersonal communication and effortlessly relate to others has helped me both personally and professionally.

But in my experience, having these “soft skills” has also gotten in the way of my success because, until recently, I didn’t always know how to effectively harness them.

If you are someone who is highly sensitive to picking up on the emotions of others, here are a few things to be aware of so you can strategically tap into your E.Q. without letting it drain you:

The Chameleon Effect

If you’re good at reading social cues, then you’re probably pretty good at changing yourself depending on the situation.

This can be a positive thing, for example, when you’re new to a group or a job, and you can quickly assess who might be the best people to align yourself with, who to avoid, and how to appropriately fit to the culture.

Also, research shows that “like attracts like” so if you can subtly mirror body language and tone in a meeting or interview, you’ll make a better impression.

As someone who grew up approaching new situations this way, I got ahead a lot because I knew how to work whatever system I was thrown into, but eventually I felt really disconnected from who I was because I was spending all my time adapting to the environment instead of being myself.

If you think of the leaders you most admire, they probably haven’t always made choices that are in line with the majority. If you really want to make an impact, you have to blaze some trails now and again.

High Level of Compassionate Energy

Many women tend to be service-oriented and they genuinely care about helping others. On the up side, this allows them to get along well with people, foster nurturing relationships, and find ways to meaningfully contribute in their lives and work.

But the other side to this coin is that people who have a lot of this energy, can get so focused on being liked and preserving harmony that they lose that connection to their own personal truth, and don’t always pursue what really matters to them or feel like their own needs are being met.

Under stress this looks like yo-yoing between helping others and dipping down into resentment or overwhelm. Think burnout.

If you recognize that you lead from this compassionate place and have a hard time telling people no and setting boundaries in your personal and work life, make sure to check in with yourself to ensure you aren’t prioritizing being liked over speaking up.

Not Everything Intuitive is Meaningful

Not all the information we’re picking up is actually credible or relevant. A study conducted by social psychologists at Harvard found that individuals with high emotional intelligence have a tendency to read hidden negative expressions on the faces of their colleagues, even when they may be unintentional.

Sometimes this is helpful because you can adjust accordingly, but many times this information is easy to misinterpret and take personally so that it becomes a distraction.

I pick up on intuitive hits a lot, but I never knew how to process them until I went through my coaching program. Now, when I walk into a room and I’m bombarded by other people’s energy, I’m not as quick to read into it.

If I’m speaking with someone and tapping into something that’s not being said, I now ask myself “Is this my energy? Is this the other person? Is this something else altogether?”

I don’t just assume I’m correct in whatever interpretation I initially make, especially if it’s negative. I remember things like “resting bitch face”, and determine whether I need to dig deeper for more information or just talk to a friendlier looking person.

Overall, if you are someone who naturally leads with a high degree of emotional intelligence, you’ve got a leg up in a world where relationships are key.

It’s just a matter of using all that crazy self-awareness you possess to gauge how effectively you are capitalizing on this ability. That way, while you’re picking up on others’ cues you don’t lose touch with your own.



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  • Lizanne Flynn March 31, 2015, 4:44 pm

    It’s not the trait of high sensitivity that hurts one it’s our learning curve in living with it and working within those physical parameters.

    • rneelis March 31, 2015, 4:51 pm

      I absolutely agree Lizanne! It’s so important to recognize this ability in ourselves and learn how to use it effectively so it doesn’t drain us.