Why smart booking doesn't always translate into emotional intelligence

“He’s book smart, not street smart!”

Have you ever heard someone turn this phrase around? I know I have!

That’s because smart people (hard truth alert) aren’t always the best at reading people’s emotions.

If you’ve ever seen The Big Bang Theory, you know what I mean.

Sheldon Cooper is without a doubt the smartest person in the series. But if you tried to talk to him about how you felt, he would stare at you blankly, feel super uncomfortable, and probably tell you the harshest truth ever.

But just because you’re as smart as Sheldon, you don’t have to act like Sheldon when faced with emotions.

People like Sheldon (i.e. they are book smart) may have emotional intelligence. The same as people with emotional intelligence can be book smart.

It’s just that being book smart doesn’t always translate into emotional intelligence.

Why? Let’s find out…

Emotional Intelligence vs. Intellectual Intelligence (IQ)

First of all, emotional intelligence is not the same as intellectual intelligence (also called “book smart”). Emotional intelligence (EQ) means the ability to understand and express emotions.

In practice, this means you can tell when someone is nervous, sad or angry – without them having to tell you. You pick up subtle social cues for everything from the way someone sits to the tone of their voice.

For example, have you ever been at a party and just noticed that someone was nervous? Or that they absolutely don’t want to be there? Or even that they secretly hate the person they came to the party with?

Yes, that is emotional intelligence – also known as street smart.

Other examples of emotional intelligence in a person are:

  • The ability to apologize (and admit when you’re wrong)
  • Controlling your emotions
  • Have empathy and show sympathy for others
  • Getting along well with people (and being able to carry on a conversation easily)
  • Being curious about others
  • Letting go of grudges
  • Control your impulses

While book smart people can’t do these things – unless they also have emotional intelligence. Instead, they are more likely to:

  • Have a high/good education
  • Have a high level of general knowledge
  • Think logically and rationally (that is, they will tell you the hard truth)
  • Be very analytical and problem-solving (even when that is not desired)
  • Possesses excellent memory (again, even if it is not desired)
  • Easily understand facts (not opinions)
  • Understand complex data and information (and love to show it off)
  • Use a broad vocabulary (it doesn’t matter if they alienate people in the process)

How do you build emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence comes from different places. It can come from books and studying, just as smart booking does.

For example, someone who reads fictional stories every week, especially stories that delve deeply into people’s emotions and feelings, can build their EQ from this. I know I learned a lot of my emotional intelligence and empathy from reading Jacqueline Wilson’s books growing up (if you know, you know!).

You can also develop more EQ through practice (or study). It’s like keeping track of your emotions every night to understand how you felt. Or if you practice talking about your feelings with people you trust.

Kind of like how Sheldon learns to be sarcastic through practice…

Of course, your upbringing also helps. If you grew up in one emotionally supportive environmentyou are more likely to build EQ from a young age.

As if your parents or teachers would ask you, “How does that make you feel?” a lot of. Or if they encouraged you to talk about your feelings when you were emotional.

In summary, the most important ways to build your emotional intelligence are:

  • Read fictional stories, especially stories that deal with complex emotions
  • Express your emotions regularly to people you trust
  • Keep track of how you feel about different things that happen throughout the day
  • Question your own opinions and why you believe those things
  • Spend time alone with only your thoughts
  • Meditate regularly

What causes a lack of emotional intelligence?

There are several arguments for the cause of a lack of emotional intelligence.

Of a neurobiological perspectiveour brains are programmed to respond to empathy in different ways. Which kind of means being born with a certain level of empathy (the higher the empathy in a person, the more likely he or she is to be emotionally intelligent).

But at the same time, the environment in which you grew up is largely responsible for developing more or less empathy.

Like I had a friend growing up whose parents would sit her down every night and ask her what happened during the school day. No matter what she said, even things like “She had French homework” or “(person’s name) was sick,” they asked her how she felt about it.

There’s no way she didn’t grow up with more emotional intelligence than most of her parents who did that to her every night…

But anyway, I digress. The main causes of a lack of emotional intelligence in a person are:

1) Childhood trauma or an unemotional upbringing

The main thing that can hinder the development of EQ is trauma. Each traumatic experience can have a deep impact on someone, especially if it happens at a young age.

Typically, trauma helps a person develop greater emotional intelligence. Because they’ve been through more in their lives, they understand (and can empathize) with how other people feel. That’s partly what it means to be emotionally intelligent.

But sometimes it can also go the other way. It can lead to a kind of ‘language’ when it comes to the emotions of others and their own. Especially when the trauma involved some form of neglect or abuse for expressing their emotions. Like every time they cried…

2) A lack of real world experiences

Another thing that won’t help you build EQ is if you haven’t experienced much “life.” Especially if you haven’t experienced much pain, hurt, sadness or grief.

For example, an ex of mine lived a very sheltered life. Nothing ‘bad’ had ever happened to him in his entire life. He had never felt or experienced real pain or sorrow. He had never had a single argument with any of his friends. He had never even lost a grandparent or had a pet.

So when it came to talking about my mother passing away, or responding to his friend’s text to say he was suffering from depression, he was at a loss for words. He didn’t know how to empathize, express any emotion, or even respond in most cases!

In fact, he had difficulty understanding the emotions of others because he had never experienced half of them himself. This lack of real-world experiences hindered his ability to put himself in other people’s shoes and imagine how they must feel and what they would like to hear.

3) A negative view of expressing emotions

I don’t want to keep bringing up my exes, but the same one I mentioned above had a pretty toxic view of emotions. All his life he was told that it was ‘weak’ and ‘unmanly’ to show or express your feelings.

The main feelings were of course sadness, because anger didn’t really seem to be a problem…

This meant that whenever I shared something that upset me, he would say something dismissive or give me the silent treatment. Or worse, he told me I was weak for feeling these things!

This was because he had a negative view of expressing emotions – which over time caused him to become numb to them (known in psychology as Alexithymia).

Most often, a negative view of emotions comes from external sources. Just like my ex – his views came from his father, school, friends, work, etc.

4) Low self-awareness

Another thing that causes a lack of emotional intelligence is low self-awareness.

If you can’t identify your own emotions, you will have difficulty identifying someone else’s. And if you can’t identify other people’s emotions, you’ll have a hard time identifying your own. It’s actually a vicious circle.

Low self-awareness in a person can look something like this:

A man stands in a long line at the supermarket. While he waits, three different people run over his foot with their shopping carts.

When he finally gets to the front, the cashier tells him she’s out of bags and needs to get more. He explodes in a fit of anger. Why? Because he lacks the self-awareness to see that the physical pain he is experiencing is causing him to react so poorly to what the cashier said.

In general, the younger you are, the less self-consciousness you have. As you get older, you develop a better sense of self. Especially after you reach the age of 25 – like now when your brain is fully developing and adult.

5) Narcissistic personality traits or a lack of empathy

The last thing that causes a lack of emotional intelligence in a person is a lack of empathy. Empathy is largely considered something we are born with and can then be developed as we move through different stages of life.

So if you have the ‘brain structure’ to enable empathy from birth, you will likely develop more of it depending on your life experiences.

Therefore, as the series progresses, Sheldon Cooper develops more compassion for his friends. He has the “brain structure” for empathy, he just never practiced it until he met his current group of friends.

But empathy is also something you can be born without. And no matter what you experience in life, if you don’t have the “brain structure” for it, you won’t develop more of it. This is known as narcissism. And it can be the biggest hurdle to someone developing true emotional intelligence.

Final thoughts

Does it all make sense? I hope so! The gist of it is that just because you’re book smart doesn’t necessarily mean you’re emotionally intelligent.

Emotional intelligence requires greater empathy, self-awareness and even safety within yourself to manifest in everyday life. And there are many reasons why someone might not have much of it right now.

The good news is that emotional intelligence can be developed in most people. Just because you don’t have it now, and you spend most of your time annoying people with your hard truths and facts, doesn’t mean things have to stay that way forever.

You can build and grow your emotional intelligence over time. You just have to learn how (see above), commit to it and practice, practice, practice.

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