This I Believe

Karen - Hartland, Wisconsin
Entered on June 11, 2007
Age Group: 65+
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I believe in emotional intelligence. I believed in it before Daniel Goleman’s engrossing book on the subject was published in 1995. When I initially heard the phrase, I had an “aha” moment. That’s what it’s called! That’s what my colleagues and I on the mental health units were trying to teach our patients.

Dr. Goleman defines emotional intelligence, a trait not measured by IQ tests, as a set of skills that include impulse control, self-motivation, empathy and social competence in interpersonal relationships. In my work as a mental health nurse for nearly thirty years, I helped patients identify and express their feelings, and deal with conflicts in interpersonal relationships.

My parents punished me verbally and physically when I expressed negative feelings like anger, fear or sadness as I was growing up. I learned early to stuff my feelings. “Smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone,” was our motto.

I married, raised a family and functioned in spite of a chronic low-grade depression that followed me around like a dark cloud. Therapy helped me to identify and appropriately express my long buried anger, rage, and hurt.

As a registered nurse, I was attracted to the mental health field because I wanted to help others who were struggling with depression and other mental illnesses. It was rewarding to see a patient recover from depression and be discharged with a new sense of hopefulness.

However, it was hard to hear that one of our former patients went to a secluded place by a river and killed himself by a gunshot to the head. Many patients were discharged, only to return in another crisis, most often suicidal thoughts or attempts.

I worked with angry depressed women whose behavior was to weep, withdraw, escape into a fog of alcohol or drugs, or attempt suicide. I worked with women with severe eating disorders who were using their behavior as a means of control and expression of anger.

Some of my patients were men who were outwardly angry as well as depressed but unable to cry. Years of conditioning by society taught them to stuff their fears and hurts into a place no one could find. Alcohol or drug use helped them cover up their painful feelings. It often took a crisis to get them into treatment.

It’s not been easy to learn and practice those skills. I learned the “how to” through psychology classes, work experience, and therapy. Practicing those skills is another matter. When I feel anger, fear, or hurt building up inside me, my impulse is to strike out at someone, or withdraw. I have found that it’s an ongoing process of putting what I know into practice, which is exactly what I tried to teach my patients.