Woman leaning on window frame

Cultivating Emotional Intelligence When Emotional Expression Is Politicized

Cultivating Emotional Intelligence When Emotional Expression Is Politicized

As ambitious women, it is not uncommon for us to be encouraged to suppress our emotions for the sake of furthering our careers. Whether that’s holding our tongues in important meetings, not allowing ourselves to feel sad after a test or presentation doesn’t go as expected, or allowing offensive affronts to go unmentioned, we often subconsciously present ourselves as submissive so as to not be perceived as abrasive. Of course, young women around the world are unlearning these behaviors—fair expression is being normalized. However, these mentalities may likely still be maintained in the collective female subconscious. While we may be able to quickly modify our outward behavior, changing our internal mental processes will take much more effort.

This is where emotional intelligence comes in. Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, monitor, and accurately distinguish between your own emotions. Furthermore, with the development of emotional intelligence comes the ability to better understand and identify the emotions of others as well. A strong sense of emotional intelligence cultivates empathy, improves relationships, and most of all strengthens one’s sense of self.

It may be easy for some to say that they already have a high emotional intelligence. But ask yourself this: when people ask you, “How are you?” how do you respond? At least for me, most of the time I just say “I’m okay.” This kind of response isn’t indicative of emotional intelligence. And while the aforementioned scenario is an example of being dishonest with others, the true heart of emotional intelligence begins when you are honest with yourself.

The Mood Meter

Dr. Marc Brackett, psychologist and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, includes this graph, called the “Mood Meter” in his book, Permission to Feel. Each quadrant houses a different subset of emotions with varying intensity. The top left quadrant includes less pleasurable, yet high energy emotions. At the more mild end of the spectrum are emotions like uneasiness and restlessness. As the spectrum grows in intensity, we reach rage and panic. In the top right quadrant, we find the more pleasurable, high energy emotions. The spectrum begins with amusement and satisfaction, intensifying to euphoria and exhilaration as we continue through the spectrum. In the bottom left quadrant, the emotions listed are low in energy and pleasurability. Here we find mild emotions like complacency and boredom, which intensify to feelings like despair and alienation. Finally, in the bottom right quadrant, the emotions are high in pleasurability, yet low in energy, beginning with relaxation and ending with serenity.

Notice how “okay” or “alright” are nowhere on this list? Not even just “good” or “bad”? This is because the true human experience is much more complex. Dr. Brackett’s diagram presents the opportunity for a much more honest and realistic conversation about our emotions. Feeling “bad” is different from feeling guilty, and feeling guilt is completely different from feeling despair. Similarly, feeling pleased and feeling elated are two completely different things. Being specific and descriptive when describing your emotions allows you to better understand that you may need in that moment. Approach caring for yourself and your emotions as if you were caring for your dearest friend or family member. If they told you they were feeling bored, you would likely not respond the way you would if they told you that they were feeling depressed. If they told you they were just feeling “bad,” or if they were even more vague and just said they were “okay,” you would likely be completely unable to respond appropriately. Transparency is important, with both yourself and others. Just as you’re able to be more compassionate with your loved ones when they are honest and vulnerable, you’ll be able to be more compassionate with yourself when you do the same.

The Larger Repercussions of Emotional Ignorance

Furthermore, emotional vulnerability becomes crucial when examining our own implicit biases, and how society polices the emotions of certain people. Dr. Brackett describes society’s guidelines for emotional expression as “Display Rules,” which are “the unwritten but widely agreed upon guidelines for how, where, when, and in whose presence we may express our feelings”. Display rules are the reason we say we’re feeling “okay” when someone asks how we’re feeling, or the reason why we lie and tell our parents we’re doing well when in reality, we’re exhausted. For people of color, display rules are intensified by systemic injustice and historical prejudice. Dr. Brackett explains this in his book, stating that many display rules stem from damaging stereotypes, specifically causing minorities to fear that their displays of their various emotions may trigger reactions or backlash from others.

Media-driven stereotypes like the “angry/sassy Black woman” or the “fiery Latina” are rooted in racism. At their base, they are stereotypes created with the intention of villainizing and othering women of color. Despite this, they have remained pervasive in our society, and have influenced our collective subconscious – completely altering both our thoughts and our actions. By improving our sense of emotional intelligence, we can begin to counteract the negative impact that these display rules have had on our thought processes. For the women directly target by these stereotypes, we can begin to unlearn them by radically accepting any and all emotions we feel. It is okay to be angry, and express that anger- it doesn’t make you any less of a human. For those who feel themselves subscribing to these stereotypes, establishing your own emotional intelligence will allow you to better understand those of others- rather than reducing someone’s emotional expression down to just irrational anger, take a step back and attempt to address what it really is: Restlessness? Frustration? Panic? Disgust? Rage? Once you are able to understand exactly what this person is feeling, you will be able to better understand what they need, rather than treating them as if their feelings are irrational or letting them suffer in silence.


While the development of emotional intelligence may initially sound like typical middle school guidance counselor material, it is incredibly important, especially in the age we currently live in. As women, our emotions are too often weaponized against us, leading us to suppress ourselves both in private and in public. Emotional intelligence is just one piece of the puzzle that will lead us all to success and self acceptance. Not only will it better our abilities to understand ourselves and our needs, but it will also improve our communication skills and our understanding of others’ needs. All of this is crucial as we begin to navigate the professional world as powerful leaders.

Reese Terry is a sophomore majoring in Psychology and French on the Pre-Med track, originally hailing from Charleston, South Carolina. A passionate writer and storyteller, she uses her words to give readers a deeper understanding of how mental health, politics, culture, and art impact people and their communities.