7 Ways to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence and Why it’s So Vital for Those in Recovery

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Getting physically sober is just the first step to addiction recovery

During this early abstinence stage, it’s important to work with an addiction specialist to begin learning the coping skills needed to live a sober life. For a sustainable recovery, you’ll need to build a robust toolkit that’s going to help you manage triggers, avoid relapse, and enjoy living a fulfilling, happy, substance-free life. 

Learning how to understand and manage your emotions in positive ways is an essential part of this process. 

Many addictions originate when people start using alcohol, drugs, or certain behaviours in an attempt to cope with painful or intense emotions. While this can deliver an immediate avoidance of pain and make us feel better, it is only ever a short-term relief and will inevitably lead to ever-increasing pain over time.

Once sober, challenging situations and uncomfortable emotions aren’t going to go away – they are an inescapable part of life. So, to avoid repeating old habits in an attempt to cope with them, you need to learn how to feel, identify and manage your emotions properly and express them in healthier ways. 

This is called emotional intelligence (EI) and greatly impacts your ability to get and stay sober. 

It will help you rely less on external things to deal with what’s going on for you inside because you have the skill set to do it yourself.

It takes time, practice, and persistence, but developing emotional intelligence will give you the long-term skills and strategies needed to maintain sobriety. It is an essential part of your recovery toolkit.

In this article, we take a closer look at emotional intelligence, its role in recovery, and how you can become more emotionally intelligent to support your sobriety.

The five components of emotional intelligence

The term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ was first introduced by two researchers, Peter Salavoy and John Mayer, in an article published in 1990 in the journal Imagination, Cognition, and Personality

It was later popularised by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, where he breaks emotional intelligence down into five components:

1. Self-awareness

This is the ability to recognise and understand our thoughts, emotions and moods, how they affect our behaviour/actions, and how they impact the people around us. Self-aware people recognise the relationship between how they think, feel, and behave.

2. Self-regulation

Regulating and managing our emotions means we can think before acting and choose to express ourselves appropriately. Self-regulation helps us to control impulsive behaviours, suspend judgment, adapt more easily to changing circumstances, follow through on commitments, and take full responsibility for our actions.  

3. Internal (intrinsic) motivation

Being motivated by things beyond external rewards means people with higher EI remain true to their goals, are action-oriented and take initiative – even during challenging times. They are not easily discouraged by obstacles and know the time and effort spent to reach their goals is worthwhile.

4. Empathy

Being able to tune into other people’s emotional states and why they are experiencing them is a critical EI skill that helps guide our interactions with everyone we meet. Being empathetic also allows us to pick up on emotional cues, anticipate the needs of others, and recognise power dynamics in group situations. 

5. Social skills

Through understanding our own emotions and those of others, EI helps us to hone our social skills so we can interact well with others, develop a strong rapport, and build and maintain meaningful connections. This applies to personal relationships as well as in professional settings.

The role of emotional intelligence in recovery

Ending a physical dependence on alcohol or drugs is one thing, but the only way to maintain sobriety in the long term is by treating a person’s emotional dependency on these substances. 

This can be achieved by building emotional intelligence.

Clients typically learn the skills needed to become more emotionally intelligent during a residential rehab program. They will then be able to use this skill set to develop relapse prevention strategies that should last a lifetime.

Multiple studies show that cultivating emotional intelligence offers many benefits. This is true for everyone, but it plays a significant role for those in recovery. 

Young woman in therapy

It helps to empower individuals with the necessary tools to navigate the challenging path of addiction recovery, with benefits including:

  • Better stress management
  • Improved management of triggers
  • Healthy self-esteem
  • Healthy self-expression 
  • Better decision making
  • Increased positivity
  • Emotional resilience
  • Stronger, more fulfilling relationships – including robust support systems
  • Fewer cravings and relapses
  • Overall physical and mental well-being

Six ways to build emotional intelligence to support your recovery

Research reveals that lower levels of emotional intelligence are associated with higher levels of drinking and substance abuse.

While addiction is a complex disease caused by multiple factors, when someone’s emotional intelligence is low, they are more likely to rely on substances to deal with complicated feelings than to reach out for the professional help and support they need.

The good news is that building emotional intelligence is possible regardless of where you are in your addiction recovery journey. Here are seven practical ways you can get started:

1. Clarify your intention for the day ahead

A daily practice that can help you build emotional intelligence over time is clarifying your intention. 

Sit silently for a few minutes each morning and ask yourself, “What is my intention for today?”

This isn’t about making a to-do list or creating a wish list! It’s about considering what you would like to be more intentional about, given what is on your schedule for the day ahead, and aligning your actions to it. Intention-setting is about waking up daily and saying, ‘How do I choose to be today?’ 

For example: 

  • Today, I will remain calm.
  • Today, I will listen more carefully before replying.
  • Today, I’m going to be more light-hearted.
  • Today, I will be present.
  • Today, I’m going to make conscious choices.
  • Today, I choose to open myself up to new possibilities.

2. Engage in mindfulness activities

Practising mindfulness through meditation, breathwork, or journaling not only helps with stress relief but also increases self-awareness (the foundation of emotional intelligence) and regulates emotions. 

Through regular mindfulness activities, you become a skilled observer of your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Over time, you will begin to better understand your emotional triggers, motivations, strengths and weaknesses – observing them without judgment. 

Set aside 15 minutes each day to focus on the present moment. Notice and accept any thoughts or feelings that come up for you. If you feel a difficult emotion arise, just try to label it accurately rather than pushing it away. Simply notice where you feel the emotion in your body – for example, quickening heartbeat, tingling in fingers, tension in the neck, churning stomach – without needing to react in any way. Just accept the discomfort and breathe through it. From here, you can begin to process the feeling and let it pass without needing to take any action.

With a consistent mindfulness practice, you’ll begin to see the thought-emotion-sensation-behaviour pattern that, if left unnoticed, will control you.

3. Practise emotion regulation strategies

People who are able to self-regulate typically don’t make careless, impulsive decisions – they pause and think before they act. This helps them manage their relationships, solve problems easily, and have better control over their mental health, even in times of stress.

an adult woman listens to music, a podcast in headphones against the backdrop of mountains, ocean

You can improve emotional regulation by practising various strategies, many of which revolve around self-care. Here are a few ideas to start adding to your weekly routine:

  • Journaling
  • Regular physical exercise 
  • Good sleep hygiene
  • Yoga and meditation
  • Self-soothing activities that promote relaxation, including listening to music, engaging in hobbies that bring you joy, and spending time with your pet
  • Talking through emotions with a trusted friend
  • Engaging in positive self-talk
  • Seeking therapy, for example, with a therapist who specialises in dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)

It’s important to note that some mental health disorders (like ADHD, anxiety, and bipolar disorder) can impact how the brain works and lead to problems with emotion regulation. In these cases, it’s important to seek professional help to identify and deal with any underlying issues first.

4. Learn to take a pause

When you’re presented with a stressful situation, practise pausing for just a few seconds before you respond.

Taking a deep breath and taking a step back will help you gain some control over your emotions and prevent you from saying or doing something you might later regret. 

This can be challenging to do in the heat of the moment, but practice makes perfect!

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response, and in our response lies our growth and our freedom”. Viktor Frankl

5. Reflect on your emotions

To improve our emotional intelligence, we need to regularly focus on our emotions – reflecting on them and seeking to understand their meaning and relevance in a particular context. 

At the end of each day, reflect on key emotions that you’ve experienced throughout the day, what the emotion was telling you, how you dealt with it, how it impacted others, what it led to, and how it helped or hindered you.

By doing this, you begin to gain a deeper understanding of your emotional patterns and can find ways to control and manage them for better, healthier outcomes. 

When reflecting on your emotions, it can be helpful to consider that they have three core components: 

  • Cognitive – what are my thoughts? 
  • Affective – what do those thoughts make me feel (including the physiological and bodily changes related to these feelings)? 
  • Conative – what does that feeling make me do (my actions and behaviours in the particular moment or situation)? 

6. Enhance empathy and strengthen your connections

Adult women, deciding who to call on their party, and inviting them.

Empathy is about understanding other people’s emotions, needs and concerns and taking their feelings into account when choosing how to respond to them. 

There are many ways to develop empathy and strengthen your relationships, including:

  • Give others the chance to fully express themselves without interrupting.
  • Use your own awareness to recognise how other people might be feeling.
  • Practise being more sensitive and understanding of other people and their needs.
  • Learn to accept differences in people without judging. 
  • Try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing things from their perspective.
  • Show kindness and compassion whenever you can.
  • Seek to understand others before being understood yourself.
  • Tune in to non-verbal communication signals, like hand gestures and facial expressions, to pick up on unspoken feelings or issues.

Developing empathy can take time, but with practice it will become automatic, and you will start to notice a significant improvement in your relationships with others.

7. Develop your listening skills 

Listening skills are an important aspect of improving our emotional intelligence and help us to be more effective communicators. Developing the art of active listening enables us to build genuine connections, which can be incredibly healing, especially during the recovery process, as it replaces the isolation often experienced with addiction.

In your daily interactions with friends, family members, and colleagues, begin by observing yourself consciously. Are you really listening, or are you thinking about what to say while they are talking? 

Practise paying attention to not only what the other person is saying (verbal language) but also their body language (non-verbal language). Notice their eye contact, body posture, facial expression, hand gestures, etc. It’s important to understand that what we hear may sometimes be different from what the other person is trying to express.

Learn how to listen first (and ask questions to gain clarity, if needed), then choose how you will respond rather than reacting impulsively or hijacking the conversation.

Therapies used to improve emotional intelligence 

There are several therapy types used to help people build emotional intelligence during recovery, giving them the tools needed to navigate a life of sobriety successfully. These include:

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a communication-based technique that helps those in recovery realise how their thinking patterns contribute to their emotional distress.

It explores harmful thought patterns, known as cognitive distortions, that are faulty beliefs we hold about ourselves, the world, and those around us. These can contribute to emotional suffering, which often leads to substance use as a means of escape.

Left unresolved, these feelings can easily lead to relapse or drive further substance use, which is an outcome the CBT toolkit aims to prevent.

A CBT therapist will work with you to challenge any negative thinking patterns and self-destructive beliefs to rewire your emotional response, increasing emotional intelligence and decreasing your risk of relapse.

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)

DBT is a specially adapted form of CBT for people who feel emotions intensely and is frequently used in addiction recovery programs to help clients emotionally regulate.

An entire DBT module is dedicated to emotional regulation and intelligence, teaching those in recovery how to manage complicated feelings. The main goals are to understand our emotions better, decrease emotional suffering, and become less emotionally vulnerable. 

To help you achieve these goals, a DBT therapist will teach acceptance skills through which you learn to allow feelings to pass through you without judgment – learning to let go.

DBT can be used in a one-to-one setting but also lends itself to group therapy sessions, which are another powerful tool for developing emotional intelligence.

Group Therapy

Diverse group of people sitting in circle in group therapy session.

As well as gaining a better understanding of yourself, group therapy allows participants to practise and improve a range of emotional intelligence skills like empathy and active listening.

Group members can also share and receive feedback and support during these times.

Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET)

Motivation is perhaps the most elusive component of emotional intelligence, and it can be lost by people going through recovery at any time, making relapse more likely. They may start with the best intentions to get clean and be highly motivated to change but lose this focus and drive further down the line.

Building intrinsic motivation is shown to be more effective for helping those in recovery overcome obstacles, stay on track, prioritise their self-improvement, and achieve the long-term healing they want. 

Motivation can also be positively influenced by supportive family, friends, and support groups, which is why family therapy and building a solid support network are both so crucial for a sustainable recovery.

MET (Motivational Enhancement Therapy) and MI (Motivational Interviewing) are often used as part of a treatment plan to help evoke change, rekindle motivation and give clients the tools they need to maintain their motivation for the long haul.

A therapist will collaborate with the client to reinforce what sobriety means to them, why it’s so important, and connecting sobriety to their highest values and personal goals – to produce rapid, internally motivated change.

Holistic therapies

Many rehab centres offer a holistic approach to treatment that integrates traditional techniques with complementary therapies to enhance the mind-body-spirit connection – treating the whole person and not just individual symptoms.

Many complementary therapies, including guided meditation, yoga, tai chi, art therapy, and mindfulness practices, can help clients access new levels of self-awareness and emotional regulation.

Breathwork is another tool that teaches those in addiction recovery how to better cope with stress and avoid relapse through heightened emotional intelligence skills.

How Centres for Health and Healing can help

Recovering in a healthy environment that encourages personal growth and provides the necessary support to process grief, trauma, and loss can help you develop into a more emotionally mature person in recovery. 

Through individual and group therapy sessions, you can learn the necessary skills to confront unhealthy patterns of behaviour and build your emotional intelligence. 

The Centres for Health and Healing team knows how important this is for a successful long-term recovery, so we work with you to develop a personalised treatment plan that will best meet your unique needs, preferences and goals in recovery.

We’re also committed to providing comprehensive aftercare plans to empower and encourage our clients to maintain lasting well-being and recovery after leaving our treatment centre.

Our goal is to guide and support you and your loved ones through your recovery transformation and provide the necessary tools for you to maintain a positive and fulfilling life of sobriety.

Please get in touch with us at our recovery centre in Ontario to learn more about our addiction recovery programs.

Contact our friendly team today for further information and resources.

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