Highly Sensitive Refuge
How to Use Emotional Intelligence to Succeed at Life

How HSPs Can Use Emotional Intelligence to Succeed at Life

Highly sensitive people may be the “superstars” of emotional intelligence. Can that make us more successful, too?

One of the things I invariably notice when I spend time with a group of highly sensitive people (HSPs) is how skilled they are at picking up what on the group needs, what each person needs individually, and how to gently move the group in a direction that serves those needs. Groups of HSPs are nearly always compassionate, empathetic, and able to move forward toward goals that have been negotiated by everyone and mutually agreed upon.

As a psychologist, I recognize these behaviors as examples of emotional intelligence. Part of why HSPs have the capacity to succeed, and thrive, is this emotional intelligence and how it helps a person take care of themselves, relate well with others, and move effectively toward their goals.

What is Emotional Intelligence (EI)? 

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to notice, understand, manage, and use emotions to relate to others and communicate effectively. High emotional intelligence allows you to build connections between people, rally people to your side, and overcome conflicts. Low emotional intelligence can mean struggling with your own emotions and those of others or struggling to maintain close relationships. Because of this, some experts suggest that emotional intelligence is more important than cognitive intelligence for success in life.

The term emotional intelligence traces back to a 1990 research paper that examined how “intelligently” managing emotions helped people relate to others and supported their own mental health. EI was seen as something that filled in the gaps of traditional understandings of what helped people succeed in their work and personal lives.

The concept of EI came to widespread attention when Daniel Goleman published his book, Emotional Intelligence. Goleman suggested that a person’s EI can grow as they gain skills in the five domains of emotional intelligence: self-awareness; self-regulation; internal motivation; social skills; and empathy.

In general, higher emotional intelligence is associated with:

  • Better mental health
  • Happier, more fulfilling relationships
  • Being a better leader
  • Better performance at work
  • The ability to work together with people, compromise, and overcome challenges as a group

In other words, emotional intelligence can help unlock both career success and overall happiness.

Do highly sensitive people have higher emotional intelligence than other people? Not necessarily. HSPs tend to have very strong emotions, which is a challenge when learning how to manage our emotions rather than being overwhelmed by them. But, we are naturals at noticing emotions — and understanding them — and we have the capacity to develop very high emotional intelligence. In fact, our wiring as HSPs give us an advantage in all five domains of EI.

Let’s look at how HSPs are primed to be successful in life based on how we function in each of these domains of emotional intelligence.

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How HSPs Use the 5 Domains of Emotional Intelligence

1. Self-Awareness

The foundation of emotional intelligence is the ability to be emotionally self-aware. HSPs are gifted at introspection. Our innate tendency to think deeply and make connections between the many things we observe, feel, and believe makes HSPs naturally aware of our emotional lives.

We can enhance our emotional self-awareness by getting out of our heads, especially when we feel overwhelmed with emotion. Using body-focused approaches, known as somatics, can help us deepen our knowledge of how emotions show up in our bodies. Some have found that when we seek out opportunities to experience awe, wherein we’re in a state of wonder, like seeing a breathtaking view, as well as the sublime, they, too, will help us be more emotionally self-aware.

Emotional self-awareness helps us understand ourselves and our reactions to other people and circumstances in our lives. This awareness sets the foundation for the next domain of EI, self-regulation.

2. Self-Regulation

Studies show that the brains of highly sensitive people process emotional stimuli more quickly, but also can inhibit our responses more quickly. In other words, we quickly observe more, but can also quickly control our responses to emotions (our own or someone else’s). This ability to choose our response to what we feel is at the heart of self-regulation.

Self-regulation includes behaviors like actively managing our emotions and our outlook on life, staying flexible in the face of change, and working toward goals, even in the face of obstacles. I often tell my clients that self-regulation is about recognizing the ways that being an HSP can be difficult while choosing to develop skills to manage those challenges.

Strong self-regulation skills are the foundation for better mental and physical health. Managing ourselves allows us to make commitments to healthy living. We often use humor to manage stress and soothe relationship strains. At the same time, we don’t avoid pain and suffering since we have skills for coping with difficult emotions.

3. Internal Motivation

Another way that sensitive people are wired for emotional intelligence is that our brains are more active in areas related to attention and planning action, research has found. This activity fuels our intrinsic, or internal, motivation to accomplish goals. 

By contrast, some people are more externally motivated by things, like status and external rewards. As internally-motivated people, HSPs can create, and stick to, our own self-improvement plan, career path, or relationship direction. We have an intrinsic drive to find our purpose and identify the next steps necessary to fulfill it.

Internal motivation is also associated with better academic and job performance. I see our internal motivation as part of what drives HSPs to commit to engaging in meaningful activities, self-improvement, creative pursuits, social justice activities, and spiritual/religious practices. Although these activities often go unrewarded, or even unnoticed, by the outside world, HSPs excel in these areas and need little external reinforcement to stay engaged in them.

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4. Social Skills

Part of the impetus of early research into emotional intelligence, which I cited earlier, was to develop an understanding of why some bright and skilled people floundered in the workplace while others (who were seemingly less conventionally intelligent or from less skilled backgrounds) were able to excel. EI research shined the light on how social skills are the key to being effective in relationships and leadership roles. 

And HSPs have social skills in abundance. This is due, in part, to the fact that our brains are more reactive to people than non-HSP brains, studies have found. Our social skills are also fed by our emotional responses to others and our tendency to think deeply about relationships and connections within, and between, communities.

HSPs are social builders, able to bring people together for the sake of a common cause, like activism. We are gifted at making people feel heard and valued. We move naturally toward fairness and equity. By looking at ways to resolve conflicts through restorative justice, the inevitable conflicts that arise in relationships or groups end up moving people toward greater understanding, closeness, and shared purpose. These skills serve us in the workplace, and as volunteers, leaders, and participants in deep, meaningful relationships.

5. Empathy

The final domain of emotional intelligence, empathy, is a trademark characteristic of highly sensitive people. Research shows that HSPs’ empathy is related to the greater activity in the mirror neurons of an HSP’s brain in response to depictions of distressing emotions. 

Unfettered empathy can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue, or codependency. However, when HSPs develop skills in the other four domains of emotional intelligence — self-awareness, self-regulation, internal motivation, and social skills — they can dynamically balance how emotionally responsive they are to others with what they personally need to be well. As a result, empathy becomes a source of connection and empowerment, not a drain on the HSP’s resources. 

Empathy defines success for HSPs. We care, deeply and broadly. We are the ones moved to action when we witness suffering, injustice, isolation, and unmet needs. Our empathy is a key value around which we center our actions. 

As a highly sensitive friend told me, “I can’t not care about the world.” And, indeed, the world needs HSPs who have the emotional intelligence to care, to feel, and to manage themselves as they act for change and make a difference in the world.

Defining Your Own Success as an Emotionally Intelligent HSP

Maybe you are recognizing areas of emotional intelligence in which you would like to grow. The good news is that therapy (which is important for HSPs overall), leadership coaching, self-help, and practice can support you in developing greater competency in each of the five EI domains. (In fact, research suggests that highly sensitive people get an even bigger boost out of these types of activities than other people do.)  

In the meantime, you can use your skills to define your own version of success. Fortunately, no two HSPs are alike, so you can find your own roles, use your unique strengths, and have the impact on the world that only you can make. 

Be the next great politician with a true heart for your constituents. Raise loving, empathic, justice-oriented children. Volunteer. Start a nonprofit and transform your community. Touch the heart of an HSP who is suffering and guide them to greater self-compassion.

Your emotional intelligence is part of your superpowers as an HSP. Don’t let it go to waste.

If you’d like to learn how to use your emotional intelligence to grow as an HSP, please visit my website for free resources or to set up a consultation.

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