Love & Loathing: Emotional Fluency as the Strength that Kills You

Howard Gardner proposed that there are eight types of intelligence. Two of those intelligences – mathematical/logical and linguistic/verbal – are the types of intelligence that you need in order to get good grades in school and make money in a capitalist society. The six other types of intelligences – interpersonal, intrapersonal, physical/kinesthetic, natural, musical, visual/spatial – will get you good grades in P.E. and art class.

The two types of intelligences that have pretty much no bearing on your grades (other than an ability to convince other people to do all the work in group projects) are interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence – namely, your internal emotional intelligence and your external social intelligence. Which is probably why so many people lack emotional intelligence – there’s no tangible reward for being able to express your emotions or being able to navigate complex group emotions.

Emotional intelligence is an intelligence just like anything else you can learn. There’s a basic set of emotional precepts that are common throughout humanity. There’s the language of emotion. There’s the expression of emotion. Emotional intelligence requires a fluency in the language and an ability to dance through the expressions. Emotions can be expressed and worked through like an art, both internally and in a social setting. Emotions are something that can be practiced and perfected. Some people have a knack for emotional intelligence. Others (like yours truly) had to learn it the hard way.

Often times conversations around emotional intelligence are coopted by emotional anomalies – people talk about sociopaths and clingy exes and anger management problems. Those are easy things to talk about. What people don’t tend to talk about is everything in the middle ground. People don’t talk about emotionally healthy expressions (probably because it’s not very glamorous and is never the basis for good TV). People don’t talk about emotional growth over years, decades, a lifetime. People don’t talk about emotional lessons – they tend to talk about emotional pitfalls like broken hearts, rejection, humiliation. They never talk about resiliency, perseverance and emotional endurance in the face of hardship.

As an emotionally fluent person, I’ve come to realize that I have an upper hand on most people in most emotional situations. I can easily work through feelings of rejection. I can use wrath when necessary to get what I want. I know how to love people and how to tailor that love to different people. I can take my anxiety and hold it and understand it and make it go away. I know how my sadness works, how long it will take, how much of it I need before I can feel okay again.

When you’re surrounded by people who are constantly overwhelmed with or embarrassed by or afraid of or confused by their own emotions, being emotionally fluent is…well, it’s threatening. People who lack emotional fluency see someone who is (what we commonly call) “mature” and have no idea how that person became mature or what it takes to be mature in an emotional sense. Probably because there’s no guidebook written that tells you about healthy ways to experience your emotions. In fact, if you want help with understanding your emotions from a professional, you wind up going to therapy, which is expensive, and which usually starts with a prescription for an antidepressant that makes you gain weight and stymies your sex drive. In our fast food, instant app gratification world, there is still no better solution for emotional growth than paying a therapist $200 a week for a one hour session to talk about your emotions.

Even as an emotionally fluent person, trying to explore emotional fluency with my peers is a daunting task. Emotions are just so…frightening, and they can tip into darkness at any given moment. As someone with a wildly vast depth of emotion, learning how to navigate those dark waters was and still is at times harrowing. Learning that lesson was difficult, and the person who took me there was just as frightening to be around. But I did it.

What’s strange is that emotional fluency isn’t valued at all in our society. Often times, people admire an emotional paralysis of sorts. To survive in a capitalist society, to wield power, one has to be inured to the pain of emotion. One cannot fall into emotion when making money. Greed is good. Sympathy is not. Stoic is the emotional of choice in a world of exploitation for survival. Sociopaths are the people with the best paychecks.

It’s also worth noting that emotional fluency isn’t necessarily all peaches and cream. When talking about emotional fluency, we tend to admire the positive emotions in people: the ability to love, kindness, forgiveness, tenderness. Emotional fluency certainly includes an ability to possess and enact those emotions, but emotional fluency (like all other aspects of human nature) has a dark side, too. As an emotionally fluent person, I am well versed in the emotions of hatred, revenge, bitterness, manipulation and scamming 101. I can shirk guilt. I can enjoy other people’s pain. That’s emotional fluency, too.

People tend to forget that. Which is why emotional fluency isn’t valued in our society – emotional fluency is only valued in good people. I’m a woman with demons and the knowledge of how to use them. Nobody likes that. Everybody likes me when I’m in a good mood, when I’m generous, when I’m funny, when I’m helpful, when I’m tender. I am the same person in my moments of darkness, when I inflict pain, when I insult, when I jeer. Both sides come from the same person, and I wield them with the same amount of emotional intelligence. However, my emotional intelligence is only valuable when it’s being used for other people’s benefit. When people no longer from my emotional intelligence or if they are scorned by it – then I am a bad person.

This is the catch 22 of emotional intelligence: it works both ways. Which is why we cannot value it as a society. Which is why it is easier to value emotionlessness and emotional ignorance. For some reason it is better to be hurt by someone who does not know what they’re doing than to be hurt by someone who does know what they’re doing. I disagree with that, but that’s just me. Emotional intelligence is about understanding the impact and the consequences of your emotions, and sometimes I understand the impact and the consequences of my wrath, and I am angry anyways. It is something that no one else can control – but I can control it. I am angry with purpose – not a wildly flailing bundle of ire that moves without cause or reason. For some reason I am more frightening than someone who doesn’t know what anger means or how to use it for ultimate gain.

This paradox is something that I have come to understand in my relationships. At first, I was confused: how can my friends vilify me or be angry at me for being the same person that they loved and adored just moments ago? Why are they mad at me for embodying the same very human emotions that they possess, too? Where is the forgiveness for my wanton wrecklesness? Why is there no mercy for my moment of darkness? I tried to understand them and stand by them when they were consumed by anger. When it happens to me, why am I shunned?

I came to understand what was happening. When I reached the outer limits of my joy, that was something they were comfortable with and wanted to be around. When I fell into darkness, it was something that they couldn’t understand and therefore ran away from. Even though I was there for them when times got tough, they didn’t know how to be there for me through the rough patches because they had no inkling of how that darkness worked, how bad it would get, or if I would ever bounce back. My display of darkness was terrifying for them – as I succumbed even further, they did not know how much pain they would have to shoulder, how bad it would be. They didn’t have the tools to dive into the darkness with me and know that they would be okay. They didn’t know how to resurface. They didn’t know how to ask for more air. They didn’t know how to save me if I drowned, or, worse, if I would save them if they started to drown.

So they left.

After years of good times, they left me in the darkness alone. After years of bad times, too. After years, when I held their hands while they cried in hospital beds after suicide attempts. After they sat in their kitchen with a bottle at noon and told me how bad things were, and I sat there and listened and tried to help. After their boyfriends beat them and I showed up at their house and took all his money and gave it to them. After they were accused of rape. After death. After near death experiences. After the party got shot up. After all our friends died in the fire. After being broke and jobless for months on end. After being hungry. I was there. I was not phased.

This isn’t to say that I am infallible. I make my mistakes with gusto and expect my friends to stick by my side because that’s how loyalty works. I have been careening through mutually abusive relationships for years. I thought that we were in this darkness together. But now I am here alone. I am not afraid – but I am sad. It was a lot more fun to do bad things when we were here together. Being bad is a lot less thrilling when there’s no one there to enjoy the spoils of sin.

I wonder if it’s just that they couldn’t take the constant darkness to which I have submitted myself. I’m comfortable here, but living in darkness for years on end – it’s not easy. I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to survive this. For wanting to get out. For running away. Some people have to come up for air eventually. I do that from time to time. I’m not sure if it’s weakness or strength that makes me want to leave, but I do. But I always find myself back here, in the darkness. I am comfortable here. I can navigate this. I can experience love in the shadows of society. I can be noble when no one is looking. This is fine for me.

I forgive them. I know they are not asking for forgiveness, but they have it if they want it. Of course, they will not be plunging into the darkness any time soon to pick up the forgiveness that I have waiting for them down here. I know they do not want to see me because they do not want to have to stop and look at me if I am in another depressive state, or if I am thinking about suicide, or if I am shacked up with some lover who is sucking my soul out my body, or if I am underemployed, or drinking too much, or on some weird drug, or on the verge of collapse, or going through a break up, or in need of some friendly company, or looking for someone who will come with me into dark bars late at night to do bad things. They wouldn’t dare see me, just on the off chance that things aren’t great for me right now. They can’t risk having to care about someone who needs a lot of love.

That’s fine, but things are fine. I’m not dancing through some moment of crisis right now. I’m wading through a calm period. Part of emotional intelligence includes knowing when to take a step back. So I’ve stepped back. And I think of all the people I used to be friends with. My god, every friendship was an emotional roller coaster from start to finish. I like emotional roller coasters. But I guess they didn’t. I wonder if they are coasting along with out any of the moral catastrophes that we used to plunge into head first. I wonder if they are happier now.

Me? Well, I realize that part of my emotional fluency includes the ability to admit defeat, to be vulnerable, to weather rejection, to take a hit but still keep going. So that’s what I’m doing: I am admitting to my sadness, I am holding my regrets, and I am moving on. I am mourning for an appropriate amount of time and then letting the future come at me. I am understanding myself now better than before. I am a dark person with dark impulses. I cannot expect the universal love that I would like to have. That’s okay.

I’m still in love with love. I probably always will be. The love that has gone is not the love that defines me. It’s the love that I have now that matters the most.