For many young people, the COVID virus outbreak will bring their first experience of fear and anxiety as a pervasive mood. As a society we are afraid of fear, and most of the time we can turn our backs on it. But this kind of denial is unworkable in a crisis. As bad news mounts daily and society becomes ever more anxious, countless people become enmeshed in the matrix of fear without knowing how to escape.
Social forces can drive you to participate in the matrix of fear, but society cannot get you out of it. Escape is something each person must confront on their own. I believe that freeing yourself from fear and anxiety is possible. More than that, you can learn how to be free of fear long after the COVID crisis has passed.
The key is to cultivate emotional intelligence. The term had a burst of attention some years ago, but the value of emotional intelligence never changes, and when you focus on it, you will achieve something worthwhile for life. Here are six principles to guide you through the process.
- Commit to never complaining, criticizing, or playing the victim.
- Imagine a creative, positive future for yourself.
- Don’t regret the past. It no longer exists.
- Be present in every situation as it occurs.
- Be independent of other people’s criticism or approval.
- Be responsive to feedback.
It is fair to say that hardly anyone hits upon these principles by trial and error or through experience of life. A person can live a long time without paying attention to emotional intelligence, and among men, the word “emotion” too often connotes something undesirable, as if showing emotional sensitivity is a sign of weakness.
But emotional intelligence is gender neutral. The fact that humans can observe their emotions is a remarkable trait, and once you begin to observe UR own emotions, you can counter the power of an unwanted emotion like fear and anxiety. Whether we admit it or not, emotions fascinate us, as Hollywood well knows. Empathizing with emotions onscreen is easy and pleasurable, but we are too attached to our own emotions, and it takes very little experience of anxiety, humiliation, rejection, and failure to train us to avoid the mine field of emotions in general.
Resilience is the most important single aspect of emotional intelligence. You allow UR emotions to rise and fall naturally, without trying to stop or control them.
So it’s worth saying that developing emotional intelligence isn’t scary or difficult. All you need to do is notice and pay attention. By pausing and standing back a little, you can observe how you are reacting at any given moment. You can even turn the six principles into questions posed to yourself.
- Am I complaining, criticizing, or playing the victim?
- Do I see my future in a creative, positive way?
- Am I pointlessly reliving the past?
- Do I see what’s going on right now?
- Am I afraid of someone else’s criticism or craving their approval?
- Am I listening to what other people are trying to tell me?
These are not mysterious or metaphysical questions. We can pause to ask them any time we want, and we should. But we are blocked by old conditioning and the habit of feeling uneasy about our emotions. There is a great deal of social pressure to behave with very low emotional intelligence, a kind of dumbing down on the feeling level. As a result we act in self-defeating ways. To give a few examples,
- We repeat the same reactions in most situations.
- We imitate how others behave, starting with our family.
- We act on impulse without a second thought.
- We don’t really see how others are reacting to us.
- We let negative emotions like fear, anger, envy, and resentment have their way.
- We easily go into denial and seek outside distractions.
A whole way of life is implied in these examples, and when collective fear mounts, as it is right now, people often have little or no idea how to escape. Denial and distraction simply become more intensified, and playing the victim is more tempting than usual. Alternatively, we tell ourselves that we need to stay in control more than ever. But what is needed isn’t emotional self-control but emotional resilience.
Resilience is the most important single aspect of emotional intelligence. You allow UR emotions to rise and fall naturally, without trying to stop or control them. Once an emotion has passed, you feel better, and you are able to return to a state of peace and calm. The opposite of emotional resilience is seen when people are stiff, reserved, bottled up inside, censorious, aloof, proud, or remote. In all of these cases past experience has made certain emotions unacceptable. The only way to deal with them is through avoidance. One is reminded of the adage that trees can be blown over by a storm while grasses bend without breaking.