We’ve all met that person who seems “unconscious.” You might think of them as socially clueless. Maybe they say things that are really insulting, prefaced with, “No offense, but…” Or they stay way too long at your party after all the guests have left, talking your ear off while you just want to go to bed.
They don’t seem to be aware of the effect their actions and words have on other people. They are unconscious. If you’re a psychologist, you might say they have low emotional intelligence.
In contrast, we all know that person who seems like they are on another level. They are gracious, seemingly perfect—but they never act superior. They aren’t groveling or over-solicitous, yet they make everyone around them feel like a million bucks. Psychologists might say these people have high levels of emotional intelligence. Or using Buddhist terminology, they are conscious or awakened.
You Can Change Your Emotional Intelligence
When I was younger, I was aware that I had a low emotional IQ. I knew I came across as selfish at times. Sometimes I was a know-it-all, and other times I would try too hard to get people to like me, which was a turn off. I really wanted to raise my emotional intelligence, but I couldn’t seem to control my reactions to people. I worried I was doomed to be stuck at a lower-tier of consciousness forever.
Instead of getting better with people as I got older, I actually got worse! As I worked in the corporate world and gained more life experience, I got more fearful. I became more distrustful following experiences where I was taken advantage of or treated poorly by others. This made me more reactionary and less conscious as the years went by.
One day it really hit me that I was moving in the wrong direction. This was back when I was often falling back on emotional eating or nursing a couple glasses of wine as a “stress reliever.” In my efforts to study willpower and to gain control over these unhealthy habits, I learned it was a whole host of mental mindsets and attitudes that control our happiness, our growth as humans, our resiliency—or ability to handle the tough stuff of life—and how to relate well to other people.
What I’ve learned is that the reason “conscious” people (these seemingly emotional-intelligence-gifted people) know how to make everyone around them feel so great is because they are conscious of how they impact other people, and they have done the inner work that gives them exquisite self-control or willpower. No matter how tempting, they never gossip or act in other ways that are unconscious or unflattering to themselves or others.
They are conscious. Awake. On a higher level of awareness than most people. You could even say they are on the path to enlightenment. (For the seriously “woo” of you out there, they are on the path to ascension.)
Being Unconscious Often Means Unhappiness
None of us are perfectly conscious. We all make mistakes. We all fall somewhere along the spectrum of unconscious to conscious. And we might fare better or worse than others when it comes to some hot button issues like money, relationships, or road rage.
But for the sake of definitions, I’ll give you an idea of unconscious vs. conscious thinking and behavior so you can become more aware of your own ways of thinking and being.
Let’s say something “bad” happens. Whether we maintain a general sense of wellbeing and happiness in the face of hardship, or we spin off the rails and feel like the sky is falling, often reflects our levels of consciousness.
Unconscious people focus on the catastrophic details and ruminate about how terrible and out of control everything seems. Unconscious people often look for someone to blame. They are complainers and they like to criticize and judge others. They are afraid to take responsibility. It’s often a subconscious feeling of being “not good enough” or “unworthy” that causes them to fear shouldering the blame.
Some unconscious people might seem like perfectionists, grandiose or even arrogant on the outside, but they are hiding a feeling of inadequacy and so they point fingers to protect themselves. They might even shout down others in an effort to make themselves feel better.
Conscious people, on the other hand, remain calm, zoom out, and gain a broader perspective in the face of difficulties. They figure how they can take responsibility (rather than complaining or pointing fingers at others) and work to solve the issue in a way that often brings about an even happier situation than the one that just fell apart.
Conscious people don’t lose their cool because they know that nothing is as bad as it seems, as long as they stay in the present moment. They don’t look to the past for evidence they’re doomed or that other people are awful; they leave the past where it belongs. They don’t stare ahead at a bleak future, trying to predict what more horror is coming their way. They stand in one place and simply fix what’s right in front of them.
Eckhart Tolle says in his book Practicing the Power of Now:
Break the old pattern of present moment denial and present-moment resistance. Make it your practice to withdraw attention from past and future whenever they are not needed. Step out of the time dimension as much as possible in everyday life.
When you step back from ruminating about the past or obsessing about the future, you get to luxuriate in the spaciousness of the present moment. Always—right here and now—there is nothing ever really wrong except for our thoughts about something. The good news is that we get to choose our thoughts in any given situation.
1. Meditate Regularly.
There’s a difference in the brains between conscious and unconscious people. When something “bad” happens, conscious people activate their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher thought processes. In order to do this, one must remain calm. The perfect tool for bringing about this calm state is regular meditation practice.
According to Scientific American:
MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.
As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex—associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making—becomes thicker.
When something stressful happens, or we think something is wrong, most people don’t stay calm. People are often reactionary. We wind up dealing with the unconscious fight, flight, or freeze response generated by our animal brains. We resist reality, whatever thing was given to us. We fall back into old patterns of blame, anxiety, confusion, addiction, distraction, or overwhelm.
When you’re unhappy, examine the beliefs that are fueling your misery. Stop the pattern of reaction you usually go into, whether it’s to blame others or eat a piece of cake (or both!) When you step back and get curious, you create choices. You can choose rather than reacting automatically.
2. Choose Your Focus, Your Thoughts, and Your Perspective
One helpful mindfulness practice is to become aware that you can choose what to focus on. Our thoughts often feel out of our control, but with practice—via meditation, for example—we can choose to focus our thoughts. We can only really focus on one thing at a time. So choose wisely: choose the thought that feels good.
Unfortunately for us humans, the tendency is to focus on THE ONE THING that we choose to perceive as bad or wrong, instead of something in our life that’s right. If you’ve got food, shelter, friends and loved ones, you’re winning the game of life! Yet we worry and we regret instead of focusing on the good that’s right here and now.
When you allow yourself to choose your perspective, you enable yourself to choose happiness. It can be hard to grasp that we have a choice when the conditions aren’t right, but happiness is always an option.
The other day I was walking the dog with my daughter and, in my limited perspective, it was murderously cold out. My daughter said, “There’s something fun about everything. As soon as you can figure out what the fun thing is, you can start having a good time.” Words to live by, from a seven-year-old.
Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach quoted one of her teachers as saying, “Every time I think I have a problem, I decide I don’t have one.” Tara says, “Even the big stuff: even divorce, custody, illness, death—can be non-problems based on how we frame it.”
It’s all about our perspective. If we are still upset about something, then we just haven’t found the right perspective yet.
When we’re upset about something…maybe it’s an ongoing situation…our unhappiness is usually due to falling into the daily microdramas. Let’s say you have a lover who isn’t loyal to you, and when he’s not with you, he’s off with other women. So you analyze every little thing, and before long, your happiness depends on your perception of this other person, which means your own center of gravity, your control over your emotions, your happiness is based on the behavior of someone else. That’s a miserable way to live.
So what do you do in that situation? You fix it. You either fix the relationship, if it can be fixed. (“Fixing” it might mean ending it.) Or you fix your perspective, if that could lead to happiness. Either way, you do it with an honest perspective of what’s real and what you require to be happy.
3. Ditch Inherited Belief Patterns
We all hold onto inherited belief patterns, whether we want to or not, and whether we realize it or not. These beliefs might be how our parents thought or how society as a whole thinks. Even if we disagree with these beliefs, we might unconsciously act in ways that reflect this ingrained conditioning.
Here are some common inherited beliefs:
It’s a dog-eat-dog world. There’s stiff competition for survival out there. You need to fight for what’s yours.
People just want to take advantage of you.
Stereotypes about men, women, different races…
These belief patterns are stress-based and based on a sense of fear and separation. How do they affect your thinking and your life? They make us feel scared. Greedy. Violent. Afraid of how vulnerable we are in the world.
The good news is that once you become conscious of this fear-based, old-school thinking, you get to choose instead what’s true for you. You can consciously choose new beliefs that run counter to inherited beliefs.
Here are examples of some new beliefs:
People are inherently good.
Bad behavior is nothing to get angry or upset about—it’s simply a result of emotional wounds that need healing.
Most people aren’t evil, they’re just unconscious. They don’t really know what they’re doing. They’re scared.
By choosing beliefs such as these, it doesn’t mean that you allow yourself to get taken advantage of. It just means you can avoid being reactionary, scared, and acting unconscious yourself. You don’t need to lash out and get angry at others reflexively, without the power of choice over your thinking and your actions.
As opposed to criticizing and blaming others, you can look at problems with a calm perspective and get to solving them.
With these three consciousness methods of meditation, choosing your focus, and choosing your beliefs, you can boost your emotional intelligence and your happiness levels.
Katie Morton is the author of inspirational fiction books Secrets of People With Extraordinary Willpower and Secrets of Successful People. Katie gives a talk about Peace, Happiness, and Fulfillment on the second Tuesday of each month at Nourishing Journey, 8975 Guilford Rd. Suite 170, Columbia, MD 21046. This blog post summarizes the December 12, 2017 talk.