A number of people expressed interest in learning more about Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, after my last column. So I will be exploring each of the four skills of EQ individually in separate columns.

To review, emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, and use emotions effectively. People who know and manage their own feelings well, and who comprehend and deal effectively with other peoples’ feelings are at an advantage in any sphere of life. The four skills of EQ are Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Social Awareness, and Social Management. The skill we’ll explore today is self-awareness.

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and identify what we’re feeling, while we’re feeling it. This is the core of emotional intelligence, and all the other EQ skills rest on this foundation. When we are adept at this skill, we are familiar with our own emotions and are able to express or name what we are feeling.

Recognizing our emotions means having part of our attention focused on what it is we’re feeling, even as emotion floods our mind and body. This involves monitoring our thoughts and body for reactions. Being unable to notice our true feelings in the moment leaves us at their mercy and we’re pulled this way and that as our emotions shift.

And flooding is an appropriate image – we can all remember times when unbridled emotions swamped our ability to think rationally or creatively until we calmed down. When emotions highjack us, all of our brain power goes toward emotional response and we literally have no immediate access to our higher brain functions. That’s what’s going on when we think of the perfect thing we wish we had said during the heated argument that ended half an hour ago!

It’s important to remember that humans are emotional beings – emotions are important signals to us about our environment. Strong emotions signal that something important is going on in our lives, so we need to pay attention. In general, blocked goals or unmet needs create negative or unpleasant emotions. Likewise, goals we attain or needs that are being met create positive, pleasant emotions. For example, anger tells us that someone or some behavior has crossed our personal boundaries for appropriateness. Joy alerts us to a situation that is giving us something we really need to have in our lives.

Intriguingly, studies of those with serious damage to the emotional centers of the brain are not able to make decisions – they can list all the pros and cons of different courses of action, but are absolutely unable to choose between them, even for the simplest of decisions. While it’s important to consider rationally the consequences of different sides of an issue, we make the final choice, consciously or unconsciously, based on emotion.

Understanding our emotional responses helps us to understand our own behavioral patterns – how we act when we’re feeling a certain way. This skill gives us the ability to realistically assess our strengths and weaknesses, and those of others, which leads to a strong sense of our self-worth and capabilities, fostering self-confidence. With a healthy sense of our abilities and limits, we can be more receptive to feedback about how our behavior affects others, or “constructive criticism”.

When we can acknowledge our emotions openly and straightforwardly, it helps us to avoid being manipulated by our emotions. Others will be less able to use our own emotions to take advantage of us, whether to sell us the latest widget or to extort money for dubious charitable causes.

The skill of self-awareness is the foundation on which our level of emotional intelligence (EQ) rests. Once we can tell what we’re feeling in response to what’s happening around us, we are able to build the other skills of self-regulation, social awareness, and social management on that knowledge, to be more successful in our relationships.