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The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence

Most writers, researchers and consultants in the field of emotional intelligence (EI) typically promote only the "good" side of EI. They say it makes people better students, better employees, better managers, better soldiers etc. Or they say it makes everyone more "successful". In this article, though, I discuss what I call the dark side of EI.

I have long suspected that a person's innate emotional intelligence could be warped or damaged by an abusive environment. In my experience with abused youth and suicide prevention, I have found this to be exactly the case. The depressed, suicidal and self-harming young people I have worked with come from emotionally abusive or emotionally neglectful families. Often there has been sexual abuse and almost always some physical abuse. Among this group, I have found that those I would consider to be the most emotionally intelligent are also fast learners and have good memory and recall. Sadly, because they are so emotionally hurt and starved, they are learning, remembering, developing and using unhealthy, destructive, hurtful or dangerous survival mechanisms.

Here is an initial list of what I have found from these emotionally intelligent, yet emotionally abused and neglected youth:

- They learn to manipulate. They need to manipulate because their needs were not met by simply asking or expressing their needs directly.

- They learn to use their tone of voice, their words, their silence to manipulate.

- They learn how to threaten others with what will hurt or frighten the most.

- They remember things they can use to hurt others with when they feel hurt.

- They learn to use someone's own words against them.

- They learn how to lie. (See note on lying.)

- They learn to tell someone whatever that person wants to hear.

- They get hurt easily because they have been hurt so many times. This hurt causes them pain and they become desperate to stop it. It is this desperation which leads them to lie, manipulate, threaten etc.

- They become nearly constantly defensive and therefore lose their childhood ability to empathize. They may become bitter, cynical, sarcastic.

- They learn how to verbally attack. (See note on why we attack others.)

- They learn hurtful phrases and quickly recall and apply them.

- They can sense when someone is upset with them or is going to be, so if they are afraid of conflicts, as many are, they learn to do whatever it takes to avoid that person's disapproval or anger.

- They learn responses to defend themselves.

- They learn when to be evasive, for example, when to say "Maybe" or "I don't know" and "I don't remember".

- They learn how to lay guilt trips.

- They learn how to apologize when it serves them and how to beg for mercy and forgiveness.

These are just some of the things I have noticed, I expect there are several more.

What is most sad to me is that all these young people feel alone, unloved and unwanted. They are desperate to feel connected, cared about, understood, loved and wanted. They often hate themselves, so they look for love in relationships. But they don't have the necessary ingredients to make a relationship work. They don't have the needed self-love or even self-acceptance. They don't have the relationship skills or communication skills. These things are not often taught in schools, while at home what they primarily see are dysfunctional models. These emotionally needy young adults get into romantic relationships with other emotionally needy people. These relationships are unlikely to work, so they end up feeling more disillusioned, bitter, jaded and depressed.

It is a vicious cycle. Their high level of innate EI has given them an ability to both feel emotional pain and to hurt others emotionally. The survival instinct has programmed humans to attack what is hurting us and to defend ourselves from it. Because emotionally intelligent people are sensitive, they are easily hurt. They are also insecure from years of feeling disapproved of, disappointing, threatened, afraid, unworthy, inadequate, guilty, etc. Because of this insecurity, they take everything personally and are easily put on the defensive. Or they may go on the attack.

When the body is in attack mode, it doesn't feel its own pain. The energy is redirected. For some people, there may even be pleasure in hurting others. This brings to mind the lyrics in the song by Hall and Oates "It's so easy to hurt others when you can't feel pain." But these people did feel pain once. They felt it more intensely than their peers. They felt the pain of injustice and hypocrisy. They felt the pain of being invalidated and left alone or over-controlled and unfree. They felt the pain of crying in their rooms with no one to comfort them. They felt the pain of being mocked and ridiculed by those around them. They felt the pain of having no one to talk to who wouldn't judge or lecture them.

Eventually, out of survival, they learned ways to numb their pain. This does not make them any less emotionally intelligent, though they might score lower on any of the current tests which are supposed to measure EI. It is also possible that they would still be able to get a high score, but it doesn't mean they are people you would want to have as friends or partners. This is something no EI researchers have addressed as yet, to my knowledge. I continue to urge the people who are seriously into EI research to consider the effects of emotional abuse and neglect on emotionally intelligent children and teens.

I believe that when emotionally intelligent teens develop the above-listed survival techniques while living at home, then apply these to relationships outside of the family, they eventually push away all the people they once wanted to be close to. I have done this myself in the past and I have had it done to me. They tend to enter into emotionally intense, codependent relationships. By codependent I mean each person's moods strongly affect the other's to the point it becomes unhealthy.

It is well known, in fact, that people from abusive homes take their survival mechanisms along with them as adults where these mechanisms no longer work. These mechanisms didn't work very well in their families, but they were better than nothing. People from emotionally abusive and neglectful homes did not learn any better ways of surviving, and if they tried to use better ways, they found those ways did not work with the people they were dependent upon for food, money, clothing, shelter and acceptance. For example, if they tried to simply state their feelings with feeling words, their feelings were invalidated. So when they found that didn't work, they tried other ways to get their needs me. But as adults, these other ways became self-destructive since outside the home people choose their friendships and relationships voluntarily.

I believe emotionally intelligent people from emotionally abusive and neglectful homes can become some of the most hurtful, manipulative, greedy, controlling, arrogant people in society. Or they can become depressed and suicidal. Which direction they go depends on their personalities, genes, and life experiences. But chances are good that an emotionally intelligent teen from an emotionally dysfunctional family, or society, will develop many unhealthy thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviors as adults.

This is what I would call the dark side of emotional intelligence. I believe it is something that could be prevented if parents, first, and teachers, second, were more emotionally competent and skilled. I make a distinction here between emotionally intelligent and emotionally competent or skilled. A parent does not have to be especially emotionally intelligent to stop invalidating their children. Nor does a parent have to be an emotional genius to develop some basic listening skills. Some training in school or later on could provide a basic level of competency, just as most people have a basic competency in addition and subtraction without needing to be math geniuses.

The sooner we provide such training and education to all parents and prospective parents, the sooner we can begin to avoid the consequences of the dark side of EI.

S. Hein
June 28, 2003

Core Topics

Respect | Empathy
Caring | Listening

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In my own experience I have had several young people lie to me and then admit it later. I have known them to lie to their parents and school counselors. They lie for several reasons. Often they lie to avoid punishment. They typically come from very punitive homes and go to schools where punishment and the threat of it is used as a primary basis of behavior control. They may also lie because they want and need something so desperately. They may lie to get someone's approval, attention, love, acceptance, etc. since these emotional needs were not provided at home. I suspect the more emotionally intelligent they were at birth, the better liars they are.

Why We Attack Others

There are many reasons we attack others. One is to try to control them by weakening them, making them feel guilty etc. The other is to push someone away who has hurt us so we can't be hurt again. Often, though, we push away the very people we need, so we end up feeling more alone. Or we may stay with the person in a mutually hurtful and resentment filled relationship. The more emotionally intelligent someone is, the better they are at hurting others emotionally if they come from emotionally abusive or neglectful homes.