Sam Holstein

You Can’t Become Emotionally Intelligent By Reading Articles Online

You Can’t Become Emotionally Intelligent By Reading Articles Online

I don’t spend a lot of time reading online about emotional intelligence. I used to, but I don’t anymore. The internet is bursting at the seams with stories about how to build emotional maturity, but the vast majority of them all seem the same to me. They all seem to go like this:

Hello! I am Dave, a pretty normal person. I used to make a lot of mistakes and irritate my friends and coworkers, like most young foolish people, but I learned some lessons about emotional maturity and now my relationships are deeper. If you learn them, your relationships will be deeper too!

Obviously, I don’t know the people behind these stories, but they all seem to me like they are written by neurotypical people for neurotypical people. If you’ve already mastered the basic skills most neurotypical people have mastered, you can learn from these stories — but if you haven’t, you’re shit out of luck.

I’m decidedly not neurotypical. I have Borderline Personality Disorder and I am on the autism spectrum. It’s a bad combo. I’m frequently unable to perform basic life tasks and am frequently a toxic presence in the life of my boyfriend and my family.

To me, reading stories online about developing emotional intelligence feels like reading about how to invest. Sure, you can learn how to invest money if you have money, but if you don’t have any money, there’s nothing you can do.

Before I had any of these diagnoses, I used to read a lot of articles online about emotional intelligence. I still suffered from the symptoms of these disorders, even if I was unaware, and I was desperate to right the ship of my life. Online articles about emotional intelligence were the only resource I had at the time.

But the more I read these articles online, the more I read the self-help books they cited, the worse my life seemed to get.

An Example From My Own Dysfunctional Life

If you already have an intuitive grasp of how feelings work, more or less, and you just missed some lessons, online articles about emotional intelligence are a great resource to sharpen your skills in real life. But if you lack a basic ability to emotionally regulate yourself or empathize with others, all these articles do is give you new and more sophisticated tools with which you can fuck up your life, which is what happened to me.

Articles about emotional intelligence talk a lot about boundaries. They tell you boundaries are important, that you can identify toxic people because they won’t respect your boundaries, that people-pleasers are miserable because they don’t defend their own boundaries, so on and so forth. But applying these lessons in real life is not so simple.

My boundaries when I was younger were a total mess.¹ I didn’t defend my own boundaries in countless important ways and I trampled over the boundaries of others in countless offensive ways. I was quite good at it. I was the girlfriend who would verbally berate her boyfriend in a parking lot, and I was also was the one who would lay in bed at night feeling suicidal and not ask for any help.

After a few years of having my boundaries trampled on by toxic boyfriends, deep, immense anger started growing inside me. I was not having it anymore.

I got strict about my boundaries. I got angry about my boundaries. I started defending every new boundary I had with a zero-tolerance policy.

At first, this was a great decision. My life was the most peaceful it had ever been. Toxic boyfriends were not taking advantage of me anymore.

But it was a strained peace. Everything had to be constantly in order. If even one thing went wrong, I felt extremely tense. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was being controlling.

I didn’t realize anything was wrong. I just thought that’s the way boundaries worked. You have to defend them when people cross them, right? The online articles about emotional intelligence told me so.

I began to realize I had a problem when I met my current boyfriend. I started controlling him in the same way. Every time he said something that I even slightly didn’t like, I confronted him about it. I criticized the way he spoke to me instead of addressing his concerns. I refused to give him space when he asked and berated him until he inevitably popped his cork — and then criticized him for popping his cork.

Worse still, I never forgot a single thing that went wrong. I remembered every single thing I didn’t like, everything that raised questions for me, everything that seemed amiss, and used it all in my head as ammunition to worry constantly about whether we should break up or not. I worried compulsively, every day, for months, through the entire shutdown and the end of my heavy drinking period, and through another seven months of therapy. I’m still worrying right now.

I thought I was enforcing my boundaries and setting consequences, things we are told to do by articles about emotional intelligence. But I see now I was twisting the language of boundaries and emotional health to justify my violation of his boundaries. If I hadn’t quit reading articles online and started going to real therapy, I would have never realized this.

Articles About Emotional Intelligence Don’t Teach Real Lessons Like These

Articles about emotional intelligence online really promote the idea that we can trust ourselves; that our intuition is always correct, that we can trust ourselves to know when something is going wrong between us and another person.

I tend to think that’s correct. But what they don’t teach you is…

Online articles about emotional intelligence typically hold me back from having these sorts of realizations.

For one thing, they encourage me to look at the way others are treating me and not the way I’m treating others. It’s easy to read an article called “5 Toxic Behaviors of Narcissistic People” and think to oneself, hey, my dad did that! My shitty ex did that! My current boyfriend does that!!! And then spend the next four hours texting people and stressing out. And of course, at no point is the reader encouraged to ask themselves if they do things like that, too.

We are usually blind to our own issues. A big part of why therapists are so useful is that they are professionals trained to be expert issue-spotters and issue-revealers. They figure out what we need to grow emotionally and help us to accept things at the pace we’re able to handle. It’s difficult for internet articles about emotional intelligence to penetrate the many layers of self-defense most of us have built up, or for them to tell us what we need to hear when we need to hear it.

What to Do Instead of Reading About Emotional Intelligence Online

Therapy

The biggest things holding us back in life are the things we don’t know are holding us back. I’ve been carrying around some thoughts about “what relationships should be like” that have negatively affected every romantic relationship I’ve ever had. I would not have realized this if it weren’t for therapy. I would still be relentlessly enforcing my “standards” on my romantic partners (“standards” I learned from online articles about relationships, by the way).

Gratitude Journaling

What can I say? It works. It really, really does. I recommend 1–3x weekly. It doesn’t solve everything, but over time, it does make a substantial difference. I’m much better at appreciating my blessings than I was before, and I find myself being a good friend and partner (and feeling happier) when I’m regularly gratitude journaling.

Being Honest With Myself About What I Really Think

I resent it when people say “I am here for you! If you need help, come talk to me.” I think most people say these things because they want to be the kind of person who says them, but that if someone actually tried to reach out to them, they would do a crap job of being there. This is based on personal experiences I’ve had where people said that to me and then totally didn’t come through. It eviscerated me.

But I didn’t want to see myself as someone who has cynical thoughts, so for nearly a decade, I didn’t admit this to myself. I never thought about it and I never mentioned it. It was only when my anger started bubbling through the surface in every part of my life that I finally had to admit that yeah, I’m angry, and start asking myself why.

Going forward, I’m trying to develop the skill of being honest with myself. If I do or don’t like something, I try to be honest about it now, even if I think the feeling is stupid or makes no sense. It’s far better than pushing things down.

If you’re struggling through an emotional issue right now, stop reading online article after online article to soothe yourself.

Go look for what will heal you. Close the lid of your laptop, put your phone to sleep, and take a walk. Ask yourself what’s really bothering you. Ask yourself what you’d really like to do. These answers will help you more than any internet article will.