As psychology, neuroscience, and primatology leap forward in understanding, we’re finally remembering that empathy and emotions are essential to our intelligence. The old, tired idea that emotions are the opposite of rationality has been superseded by this: emotions and rationality are partners in cognition.
You can’t think clearly without your emotions, and you can’t emote skillfully without your verbal, rational intelligence. One aspect of your cognition doesn’t tower over the other, and one isn’t better than the other; they’re both necessary.
However, our everyday language, and much of our education is still trapped in the past, and we’re stuck with an emotional education that is unhelpful and even damaging. We’re told that emotions are bad, negative, or wrong, and we’re not given the tools we need to identify, listen to, or work with them. Luckily, we have areas in our lives where emotional education thrives, though we often don’t realize that we do.
I wrote above that we’re finally remembering the vital position of emotions and empathy, because some of our ancestors knew this long ago. In his poem, The Guest House (from The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks), the 13th-century Persian poet, Rumi, invited us to meet our emotions “at the door laughing, and invite them in” because all are guides from beyond. Poetry, as it turns out, is one of the areas where emotional awareness is allowed to thrive.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thoughts, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
It has taken us centuries to come back to this understanding, but we’re getting there. We’re tearing down the artificial walls that were erected between emotions and logic, and we’re becoming more intelligent about emotions and their actual purpose. We’re starting to realize that our emotions are not simply the moods we can identify. We’re discovering that emotions are the preverbal and nonverbal cognitive skills that help us make decisions, empathize with others, attach value to data, understand the social world, and communicate effectively with others.
Empathy is now being identified as a sort of overarching emotional skill. Empathy helps us interpret nuance, attitude, undercurrent, emotion, and hidden social rules so that we can interact successfully and gain valuable social skills. Without our emotions or our empathy, we could not function successfully in the social world. With them, we can more deeply understand, communicate with, connect to, collaborate with, and love others.
Empathy and emotional awareness are central to our lives and to our ability to think, learn, and function. Though we aren’t taught very much in school, we do have areas where empathic skills are necessary and valued, even though we don’t identify them properly. It’s almost as if empathy is a secret underground economy.
For instance, people who work well with animals and babies depend upon emotional awareness and empathy (because they can’t rely upon spoken language), but we don’t call their skills empathic or emotive. We say that they’re good with animals and babies. We may know that empathy and emotional skill are necessary for their work, but we don’t identify empathy as their central skill. But people who work well with animals and babies are professional empaths; they’re emotion professionals — as strange as that sounds.
Artists, musicians, writers, dancers, poets, actors, designers, and filmmakers also rely upon empathy and emotional awareness in everything they do, but we don’t call them empaths or “professional emotionologists.” We call them artistic, literary, or musical – even though we know that all artists utilize emotions, while great artists wield emotions masterfully.
To take a blank medium and create a series of brush strokes, movements, sounds, or images that can evoke specific emotional states in complete strangers … this is a clear sign of emotional expertise and empathic genius. But we don’t call it that.
We hide our empathy and our emotional skills in plain sight and tell ourselves that spirituality or rationality can trump or erase emotions, even though neither could exist without emotions – without that longing for the divine or passion for the truth that emotions bestow upon us. Luckily, our emotions and our empathic abilities ignore our ignorance and work continually to help us become better communicators, better partners, better thinkers, better mystics, better artists, and better empaths.
If you’re any sort of artist, you’re already working with empathy and emotion. If you’re good with babies or animals, you’re already a skilled empath. If you’re at all successful in your social world, you’ve already developed your empathic and emotional skills. Your empathy and your emotions are vital to everything you do, everything you think, and everything you learn and understand.
Empathy isn’t a magical, unattainable skill, and emotions aren’t mysterious. You’re already working with them every day, and you’ve already got the foundation you need to increase your emotional awareness and intelligence (see our Emotional Vocabulary List!).
The old, tired ideas about emotions are fading away, thank goodness. Emotions and empathy are everywhere, and skilled emotionologists walk among us. We just have to learn to recognize them.
Emotions and empathy are everywhere; meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.