Visualize yourself standing in a grove of lemon trees, thick branches lined with thorns and smooth, green, shiny leaves. Hanging from the branches are clusters of perfectly shaped lemons, yellow ovals filled with seeds, juice and pulp. Focus your attention on the most wonderful lemon of them all, grouped among the smaller, less developed ones.
Standing beneath the tree, you reach your hand up and pluck the lemon from its place on the branch. As you pull it free, the limb snaps back and regains its original position.
You gaze at the lemon, sitting in the palm of your hand and you can feel its weight. Toss it in the air and let it land back in your palm. Roll your hand over its skin and feel its texture, the way it slides over your fingers. Raise the lemon to your nose and inhale its aroma, its scent, its freshness.
Breathe in deeply. When you’re finished examining the shape, texture and smell of the lemon, place it on a nearby rock. Take your pocketknife from your pants pocket and slice the lemon in half. Notice as the juice rolls out, puddles beneath it and runs down the contour of the rock.
Cut the lemon into wedges and arrange them in the shape of a star on the moss-covered rock. Choose one of the moist wedges and raise it to your mouth. Bite into the lemon and suck the juice and the seeds from it.
The human brain is a remarkable organ, capable of extracting sensory information from thought, alone, allowing us to go well beyond the classical five senses, into another realm. This exercise depends on recall to replicate the sensory signals that simulate the actual corporeal event. Our potential for recalling tastes, odors, sensations and feelings lies within the strength of our imagination. We might recollect the taste of mint, bacon, Cheerios, a McDonald’s cheeseburger, even water.
In very much the same way as we imagine taste, we can imagine emotion and feeling. For example, a convincing actor must recreate fear, anger, sadness and any number of other emotions found among humans simply by recalling their own experiences with those emotions.
Like an actor playing in a scene on stage, emotion can be recalled and replicated, as if the event were actually taking place in the moment. So, if we imagine we are being treated intolerably, we will think in those terms and our body will respond chemically to our thoughts and perceptions, sending stress hormones throughout our body to help us fight what we believe to be intolerable, unbearable or insufferable.
Our mind and body work together not only to simulate the taste of a real or imagined lemon, but also to protect us from the real or perceived threat we imagine. If we tell ourselves that we about to suck a lemon, our body will prepare us for that event. Likewise, if we believe we are being treated intolerably, and that we cannot stand it unless it stops, our body will prepare us to fight back or escape that event.
Now imagine a bowl of brightly colored jellybeans; yellow, green, red. Let the colors and flavors flood your imagination. Which one will you choose? Dipping your fingers into the middle of the bowl, you feel their shiny surfaces pass over your fingernails. You study them, scanning the colors for flavors you don’t care for and those you prefer.
You pop a few jellybeans into your mouth. The sugarcoated beads begin to melt, as your saliva washes over them. You bite into the hard shells and allow the sweet tastes to run together. Cherry, tangerine, lemon, green apple, grape and licorice wash over your tongue and down your throat.
A suggestion of cinnamon begins to invade your mouth, first by nipping at the tip and sides of your tongue, distorting the taste of the other jellybeans. Your tongue sizzles as the flavor starts to overwhelm your senses, searing your tongue and cheeks with a bite only red hot cinnamon can induce.
The flavor is inescapable. The red bean is seemingly toxic, mouth–burning, incapacitating to your taste buds. You chew quickly, the sugar granules grating your teeth like particles of sand.
At a time in the distant past, humans depended on a nature–given, automatic response to help reconcile very real or potential menaces to life and limb. Nature allowed for the use of facts and the fictions of perception to maximize our response time to threat. We don’t actually make an agreement with our bodies to respond to real or imagined hostility. Our stressful thoughts were sufficient to initiate that fight-or-flight response.
Much like our imagination can conjure the taste and sensation of sucking the juice from a lemon or crunching into a cinnamon jellybean, our perception of imagined danger, e.g., disrespect, insult and verbal injury initiates a sequence of hormonal and neurochemical events that depend on thought to activate the very same protective response.
The fundamental use of emotion may be to help us avoid danger and maximize safety and reward. Our brain facilitates emotion often using perception (thinking) alone, regulating hormones, neurochemicals, the thalamus, the pituitary gland, body temperature, the adrenal glands and many other vital activities to accommodate accurate or faulty perception, equally.
Exchanging the taste of the lemon with the taste of cinnamon is similar to exchanging one emotional response for another. Getting our old beliefs to taste less like lemons and more like jellybeans will present us with a number of sensory challenges.
It is tough to imagine two independent tastes simultaneously. For example, we can experience the same event where we believed we were treated intolerably and perceive it differently. We may imagine, instead, that we are being treated differently from how we had expected, but the treatment is far from intolerable. In fact, we can tolerate the treatment quite well, if we believe we can, thereby exchanging the taste of the lemon for the taste of cinnamon.
Who’s In Control?
Emotional intelligence refers to our individual capacity to perceive, control, evaluate and monitor our own feelings and emotions and those of others. Improvement in emotional intelligence, therefore, must start with an assessment of those attributes that are believed to contribute to emotional intelligence.
Discovering our locus of control, or how strongly we believe we have control over how we view the situations and experiences in our lives, and how much control we have over them, can provide valuable insight.
People with an internal locus of control tend to be self–reliant and believe that they are responsible for outcomes, including the emotions they express in relation to the events they experience, both good and bad. People with an internal locus of control tend to view their emotions as a result of their own efforts.
People with an external locus of control tend to be more negative about others, themselves and their place in the world. Those with an external locus of control believe that forces outside of themselves affect their emotions and their ability to successfully manage emotion through improved thinking and perceiving. They tend to stake their futures on things such as fate, luck, god or society. People with an external locus of control (and those in most need of improvement in emotional intelligence) tend to view events and other people as the source of their emotional state:
Emotionally intelligent people traditionally express a clear and obvious internal locus of control in how they encounter others. Emotionally intelligent people seek to improve, even if they fail at achieving their goals; but they don’t seek to be perfect. They accept their fallibility and very–human potential for success and failure, strengths and weaknesses.
We can accept ourselves even if we are not accepted by others. Emotionally intelligent people do not seek to demonstrate their goodness by displaying their talents and skills, hoping for applause and approval. Emotionally intelligent people seek to build self–acceptance in place of approval from others. Self-acceptance is an individual’s satisfaction or happiness with oneself, and is thought to be necessary for good mental health. Self- and other-acceptance involves self-understanding, a realistic, albeit subjective, awareness of the imperfections inherent in ourselves and others. When we’re self– and other-accepting, we acknowledge all facets of ourselves and others, strengths and weakness, successes and failures, not just the positive, more esteem–able parts, but all of it.
We must seek to improve our emotional intelligence by strengthening our dependence on our own logic, reason and, above all, ourselves for a truer measure of the worth we place on ourselves and others. We can never forget that each of us holds intrinsic value, simply because we are human and will likely fail throughout our lives. We can, if we try, live contentedly with that knowledge.
The stories we were told and the customs we were trained to embrace each supplied us with what we believe is an emotional and behavioral norm. We are now left with having to preserve our current way of thinking, the way we’ve been trained, or to challenge some of things we were taught and to do something new.
It won’t be easy to change the way we think and behave, but it is possible.