Love is a battlefield as the song goes, and if you’re a caregiver, you know how true this is. You might often wonder how something as beautiful as the love you feel for a parent or friend can be at the same time so fraught with confusion, conflict and angst.
Yet, it’s important that caregivers learn to master the emotional terrain of caregiving. This skill, often referred to as emotional intelligence (EQ), can be especially beneficial if you’re a caregiver of a person with dementia. As dementia progresses, your loved one will become more reliant on their feelings, and their emotional response will become their true north, as opposed to their logic.
Research shows that increasing your emotional IQ can decrease your anxiety as a caregiver, and it can also reduce the burden you feel and enhance feelings of health and well-being.
What is emotional intelligence (EQ)?
Harvard theorist Howard Gardner defines EQ as: “the level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them, and how to work cooperatively with them.”
A caregiver with a high EQ is able to use certain skills to rise above reactionary responses; they can identify and regulate their own emotions, understand the emotions that drive their loved one’s behavior, and use techniques to curb conflict, intervening in time to cut negative reactions “off at the pass.” This is why caregivers with a higher EQ enjoy better relationships and less stress in their interactions with their loved one.
The four attributes of EQ
Scientists have divided EQ into four categories:
- Self-awareness – Your ability to recognize and identify an emotion for what it is in real time is the cornerstone of your EQ.
- Self-regulation – Once you’re aware of the emotion, you can regulate it and avoid a chain reaction of negative emotions and behaviors in your loved one.
- Social awareness – Social awareness is your ability to understand the emotions of others, and empathy is the central component of social awareness.
- Relationship management – This includes everything from conflict management, helping others build their skills, teamwork and collaboration.
In his book “The War for Kindness,” Stanford psychology professor Jamil Zaki breaks empathy into three sequential steps:
- Identifying what others feel
- Sharing this emotion on a physical or emotional level
- Wishing to improve their experience
While kindness is critical in caregiving, it can be challenging to find kindness within the debris of busy days, burnout and fatigue. However, if we can develop empathy, kindness comes naturally and more easily.
Social skills are the tools you use to manage and direct the moods, behaviors and emotions of others. These skills enable you to connect with others, interact in positive ways, and positively influence situations and the people in them.
How to test your EQ
Unlike IQ, which is a stable measure of your ability to solve problems and convey complex ideas, EQ is something that you can improve with dedication and practice.
The first step to improve your EQ is to determine your weak spots. Harvard University recommends these four free EQ assessment tools. Each offers a score analysis so you can learn your areas of strength and how to improve your areas of weakness.
- Psychology Today – 146 questions / free / 45 minutes
- Mind Tools – 15 questions / free / 10 minutes
- Institute for Health and Human Potential – 17 questions / free / 15 minutes
- Talent Smart – 28 questions / $49 / 30 minutes
How to build your EQ skills
Self-awareness – or the ability to identify and understand your own emotions and the impact you have on the emotions of others – is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence, so this is where you start. There are several effective ways to build self-awareness:
- Meditate: Research shows that meditation builds the type of self awareness you need for EQ. Try a guided meditation to label difficult emotions or these guided audio meditations specifically designed for self-awareness and EQ.
- Journaling: Get things off your chest by putting them onto paper. Research shows that journaling helps gain a sense of control through increasing self-efficacy (i.e., belief in our ability to cope).
- Talk it out: Therapy is a proven way to sort emotions and practice labeling them. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is one of the most effective forms of therapy for building emotional EQ.
Once you’ve identified the emotion, the next step is to regulate it with mental, physical and emotional techniques to harness control of your emotions.
- Calm the body: Focused breathing in the moment, progressive muscle relaxation, and regular full-body exercise modalities like yoga, dance and Pilates are excellent ways to use the body to calm the body and train the nervous system to better adapt to stress.
- Positive coping statements: Positive coping statements can buffer the negative effects of agitating behavior of others.
- Ask for help: If you become overwhelmed in the moment, don’t hesitate to use the Crisis Text Line, which offers free, 24/7 support via text. Simply text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor.
Strive for understanding
- Notice your surroundings: Make it a habit to observe your surroundings, especially the behaviors and expressions of other people.
- Use empathic body language: Express empathy through nonverbal communication, including facial expressions, posture, tone of voice and eye contact (or lack thereof).
- Explore imaginary worlds: Research has found that reading fiction can tune us into the emotions and intentions of others.
- Play music together: Recent studies have shown that playing music together will boost empathy among people.
- Play games: Neuroscience research finds that competition in games forces our brains to form “mental models” of the other person’s thoughts and intentions, which, in essence, is empathy.
- Meditate: Neuroscience research suggests that meditation – specifically loving-kindness meditation, which focuses attention on concern for others – increases the capacity for empathy.
Social skills are the final step in the EQ cycle. After you’ve mastered identifying and regulating your own emotions and understanding the emotions of others, you can use these primary EQ social skills to influence the behavior and emotions of others:
- Persuasion and influencing skills: The best way to get someone to do what you want is to get them to want what you want. Read more here.
- Communication skills: Communication is more than broadcasting your thoughts and feelings; it’s a two-way street. Learning to both speak and listen will go a long way in developing your EQ.
- Conflict management skills: Conflict resolution starts with tact and diplomacy, which can be used to diffuse almost any situation.
Bolstering physical care competencies, such as cleaning, showering and toileting, with EQ competency will decrease your anxiety and also ease your caregiving activities. Following the techniques and tips above will help you to improve your EQ and create a healthier, more productive and enjoyable relationship with your loved one.