How physicians can develop their emotional intelligence

If you’ve browsed the internet recently, you probably have noticed the #10YearChallenge social media trend that has taken over our news feeds. The phenomena have individuals comparing a current photo of themselves, to their former self ten years ago. As I thought about how well (or not) I’ve aged over time, it got me thinking about the two most important advice I would give my younger self (knowing what I know now).

Ten years ago, I was two years post-residency and was hustling to establish myself as a family physician practicing full-scope medicine in a small military town. In the spirit of service to others, self-sacrifice was the cultural norm. I rearranged my plans to honor my promise to personally deliver all of my OB patients. In the days of pre-medical home and pre-RN care managers, so much of the acute and chronic care workload was placed on me. I handled it because that was my responsibility as a doctor.

If I was a mentor to my younger self, my first advice would be: “You must take care of yourself before you can give to others; you cannot give what you do not have” (R. G. Jerus). There is no doubt that effective care is about a meaningful relationship between a patient and a doctor who cares and is committed to doing everything possible to optimize the patient’s well-being. To that, if medicine is about science, skill and caring interaction, then the clinician’s well-being must be considered as well.

In the last few years, I’ve come to appreciate that setting boundaries and engaging in self-care activities are powerful choices to reduce stress and maintain individual short and long-term well-being. The self-awareness that evolves from self-care helps us to identify our own vulnerabilities and manage the general challenges — in essence, it fosters emotional intelligence.

I learned about emotional intelligence in a graduate-level leadership course that I took years after completing residency. Implicit in the concept of emotional intelligence is that having a good understanding of our inner workings helps us to recognize, understand and choose how we think, feel and act. It shapes our interactions with others and our understanding of ourselves. It defines how and what we learn; it allows us to set priorities; it determines the majority of our daily actions. Lack of self-awareness is what limits some people in their ability to manage themselves, manage others, or manage situations.

With this knowledge, the second advice to my mentee self would be: Self-awareness will help you to lead your tribe as well as take care of them. Boundary setting and self-care are very necessary for our effectiveness and success in honoring our professional and personal commitments. The more emotionally intelligent we are, the more we are able to empathize and connect with others and build relationships.

According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, most effective leaders are all similar in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of emotional intelligence: “It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but … they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. Emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”

Anyone in medicine should make it a point to be familiar with Goleman’s five components of emotional intelligence:

1. Self-awareness. The ability to recognize and understand personal moods and emotions and drives, as well as their effect on others. Self-awareness depends on one’s ability to monitor one’s emotional state and to correctly identify and name one’s emotions.

2. Self-regulation. The ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods, and the propensity to suspend judgment and to think before acting.

3. Internal motivation. A passion to work for internal reasons that go beyond money and status — such as an inner vision of what is important in life, a joy in doing something, curiosity in learning, a flow that comes with being immersed in an activity.

4. Empathy. The ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people. A skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions, and retaining talent, cross-cultural sensitivity, and service to clients and customers.

5. Social skills. Proficiency in managing relationships, building networks and an ability to find common ground and build rapport.

Here are a few daily self-care habits that can further develop your emotional intelligence:

1. Self-compassion. Be kind, compassionate and supportive to yourself. Use inner dialogue to direct and encourage quality performance and achievement. Limit negative thinking, feeling, and the negative communication that fuels it.

2. Self-reflection. Quieting the mind by thinking introspectively can reduce stress and boosts mental, emotional and physical effectiveness.

3. Have gratitude. Make an active decision to tap into joy. Take time to appreciate the simplicity in life.

4. Be present. Be fully focused (mindful) on the now (physically, emotionally, and mentally present).

Why is this all important? Self-awareness and self-care help us to slow down and pause. When we do, and we are guided by the principles of self-compassion, introspection, gratitude, and mindfulness, we learn to go at their own pace, recognize our limitations and appreciate our progress. When this happens, colleagues can be supportive to each other, and health care leaders can ensure that the tribe has the resources and the environment to balance demands with pleasures, work with play, and personal life with career.

Carina Cezar Hopen is a family physician who blogs at Thriving Mama MD.

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