Emotional Intelligence: Why There’s Not a Dark Side

In an article published by Scientific American titled “The Dark Side of the Brain: Too Much Emotional Intelligence Is a Bad Thing,” the author suggests that “profound empathy” sometimes comes “at a price.” The suggestion is made that people with too much empathy are likely to be sidelined by stress more than those who do not have as much empathy. The author points to a Frankfurt study where students who were rated as having higher emotional intelligence (as determined by an empathy measure) also had higher levels of stress during an experiment (as measured by the level of cortisol in their saliva). While the study itself may be perfectly valid as far as it goes, there is a notable problem with the magazine article’s conclusion: the author equates emotional intelligence (EI) with empathy. This is a rather common mistake.

When I facilitate leadership workshops on EI, I often invite participants to shout out what comes to mind when they hear the phrase “emotional intelligence.” Within the first few responses the word “empathy” will inevitably come up—and so it should. Empathy is one of the key ingredients of EI—but it is not the only ingredient. All too often we miss the other aspects of EI that make this crucial quality dynamic.

Goleman introduced the concept of EI to the general consumer—including the business world—with his groundbreaking and best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. In his subsequent works on the topic he boiled EI down to a simple matrix, which accounts for most categories within EI:

Definition of emotional intelligence

If you reduce EI to the single quality of empathy you address only the Social-Awareness aspects, leaving out the attributes of self-awareness, self-management and relationship management—without which, you do not have EI.

In the book, The Three Dimensions of Emotion: Finding the Balance of Power, Heart and Mindfulness, EI is depicted in three dimensions, which incorporate all four attributes in Goleman’s matrix. It comes at EI from an applied perspective, focusing on how to acquire or strengthen EI:

  • The Heart dimension with its focus on the “Other,” includes social awareness and empathy. (It also includes healthy dependency.) The other two dimensions complement and counterbalance this “Heart” dimension of EI.
  • The Power dimension is focused on the “Self” and has to do with personal power or agency (along with self protection). From the power dimensions we are able to manage our relationships. In this dimension we have self-confidence, take responsibility for ourselves, set good boundaries and are appropriately assertive.
  • The Knowing or Mindfulness dimension is focused on neither the Other nor the Self but on “what is as it is.” It involves both self-management and self-awareness. In this dimension the person is mindfully aware and observant, objective, and not easily affected by the emotions of another person.

Each dimension can be either positive or negative in its effect and affect. (To learn more, take the free assessment —The Interpersonal Triangle Inventory (ITI), after which you will receive a link to download the Relationship Circle—a graphic depicting the positive and negative aspects of each dimension.)

The premise of the 3D model is simple: EI is the dynamic balance (or synergy) of the positive aspects of all three dimensions. An emotionally intelligent person operates from the balance of power, heart and mindfulness. If even one dimension falters (is not positive), one or both of the remaining dimensions will get out of balance (rendering the person unable to employ emotional intelligence).

Practically speaking, empathy without positive aspects from the power dimension (e.g., self-confidence, healthy boundaries, candor) and from the Mindfulness dimension (e.g., knowing, self-awareness, objectivity, even-keel and self-control) manifests as a negative form of the Heart dimension (e.g. poor boundaries, hypersensitivity, and hyper empathy). So when a person is tuned in to other people’s feelings (has empathy) but does not have the boundaries that come from the other two dimensions, he or she will, like the students in the Frankfurt study cited above, be overly affected by their “empathy” and unduly disabled by it. They would be frozen like Tin Man in the forest. (See Follow the Yellow Brick Road: How to Change for the Better When Life Gives You Its Worst.)

Without a complete understanding of EI, it is easy for journalists to misinterpret research like the Frankfurt study. Subjects in the experiment who did not have enough knowing (mindfulness) and/or positive self-confidence (power) were more vulnerable to “profound empathy” and the stress that came with it. The problem is not that they had too much empathy but that they did not have enough of one or both of the other two dimensions of EI. The crucial point to keep in mind is that emotional intelligence draws on qualities far beyond empathy. It emanates from the dynamic intersection of healthy power, heart and mindfulness.




3 thoughts on “Emotional Intelligence: Why There’s Not a Dark Side

  1. Interesting article, Doc.
    There is only a dark side to negative emotions, and personality traits which can stem from those negative emotions. You take care of the N.E. and the rest returns and can improve. As per this article, there would be no EQ, EI with negative emotions, as one or two or all three Aspects would be out the window with over ruling emotion… Mindfulness or objectivity would be lost right there for one. But emotions are normal, and even the negative ones serve a natural purpose, it is when out of control, there is a problem, but then the consideration is…any negative emotion is out of control… but you suppress them and you really got troubles coming, like SHOOTERS….or PTSD, etc.
    I am a Mindful person, in that Respect is Mindfulness, Consideration, and Responsibility towards people, places and things across the board…Respect is the fist thing taught in a Martial Arts School. I am a M.A. instructor for 44 years now. First thing we teach? The greeting, a bow… out of Respect…when people don’t have that, they have nothing, I don’t care how good they can fight, or spar, or abuse their power….which I have seen. But I am also a very emotional person, subject to negative ones because of the sensitivity of my Grave’s Disease and no Thyroid situation. The chief symptom of which is “irritability”. Out hormone regulation even with TSH levels well within range… fortunately for me… I have a technique that stops the negative emotions, giving me back at least a modicum of my old self, as I often Twitter about.
    Since people, regardless of their thyroid, are subject TO negative emotions, and the problems, like Stress and other emotionally based conditions,… they would all lose EI/EQ at that point, losing their objectivity, or empathy, or even POWER… as Depression can contain…”powerless” as a state. That is why I concentrate on stopping the negative emotions, and that returns a level of Happiness, which then a person is less irritated, more willing to listen, less stress and anxiety, as the pressure has been released. So, more willing to work together, etc… more positive across the board. For the “depressed”…. more Hopeful. But it would not have helped that A-Hole of a Black Belt employee and his 3 foot diameter EGO…. he would never have listened. He respected nothing, for all he knew, so he had nothing in truth. And he never did learn. The only good thing I consider he did was put his martial arts training to good use for the community as a Prison Guard. For that I commend him.

    1. Anybody can become angry, that is easy, but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose that is not easy if we don’t learn how to master …..

    2. I agree that not all “negative emotions” are “bad.” I am not sure if any emotion is ever “bad” in fact. Emotions are emotions. Like you said, if they get out of control, cause us to act in a dysfunctional way, or stay around too long and become part of how we constantly feel or think, then we have a problem and need to find a mindful way through.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *