According to the theory behind emotional intelligence, people use this type of intelligence to:

  • understand and regulate their own mood and emotions
  • recognize how other people feel and empathize with them
  • solve problems and get their needs met
  • influence others

Emotional intelligence, or emotional quotient (EQ), varies from person to person, just like general intelligence.

People with lower emotional intelligence might find it harder to accurately identify emotions, recognize how other people feel, or express and honor emotional needs.

It’s true that these tendencies could create problems within relationships. Having lower emotional intelligence doesn’t make you a bad person, though. And you can work to develop those emotional muscles.

Looking for signs of low emotional intelligence? Wondering why it matters? Need tips on expanding your emotional capabilities? You’ll find all that and more below.

In general terms, low emotional intelligence means you often find it tough to:

  • decipher and manage your own emotions
  • understand how other people feel

Low emotional intelligence can show up in various ways. Some of these manifestations affect the people around you, so you might notice some challenges with maintaining your relationships.

Other key signs include:

  • trouble understanding what causes certain feelings
  • frequent emotional outbursts or mood changes
  • difficulty asserting opinions or taking charge in a situation
  • little interest in finding new ways of solving problems
  • trouble accepting criticism, constructive or otherwise
  • difficulty expressing ideas clearly or getting a point across
  • a habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time
  • a certain obliviousness to emotional cues from others
  • a tendency to fixate on mistakes instead of learning from them and moving on
  • pessimism and loss of motivation after setbacks

Emotional intelligence offers a wide variety of personal and professional benefits.

When you can identify emotions accurately, you might find it easier to cope with distressing feelings that might affect your mood or performance.

Managing emotions successfully, in turn, can improve relationships and boost your chances of professional success.

In this example, emotional intelligence makes it easier for you to:

  • restrain impulses
  • practice self-control during conflict and tense situations
  • remain optimistic and motivated to pursue goals, even when facing setbacks

Emotional intelligence is also linked to empathy, or the ability to understand how other people feel.

Many experts consider empathy a valuable component of leadership. Some hiring managers specifically seek out emotional intelligence in new employees.

Emotional intelligence has also been associated with improved overall well-being, along with higher quality of life and job satisfaction.

Lower emotional intelligence, on the other hand, often results in difficulties relating to other people or working through your own feelings.

You might find conflict resolution challenging or have trouble communicating ideas to co-workers, friends, and loved ones.

When upset, you might ignore your feelings, but this avoidance can create more stress and potentially contribute to mental health symptoms, including anxiety or depression.

With all this in mind, you might begin to understand why many people view low emotional intelligence as a drawback.

Here’s another perspective to consider, though: Higher emotional intelligence makes it easier to influence others.

Sometimes there’s no harm in that.

If you realize your brother feels pretty down after losing his job, for example, you might embark on a mission to influence his mood by reassuring him that he’ll find work soon. You encourage him to pursue his dream job, or offer help with revamping his resume.

On the other hand, if you know your partner wants to see you happy, you might emphasize a minor disappointment or bad day to earn sympathy and get them to do something nice for you.

People who hold positions of power or simply want to exert control over others could, theoretically, misuse their emotional intelligence by toying with the emotions of others and manipulating them for personal reward.

To sum up, high emotional intelligence doesn’t automatically translate to “exemplary human being.” And someone with low emotional intelligence isn’t a “bad person.”

Several factors can affect how emotional intelligence develops.

Upbringing and parenting styles

Emotional awareness and empathy begin to develop in early life. Parents and other caregivers help shape these skills as you grow.

Children generally grow up to have higher levels of emotional intelligence when their primary caregivers:

  • respond to their needs quickly
  • offer love and warmth
  • demonstrate good emotional regulation skills themselves
  • encourage them to talk about their feelings and express them in appropriate ways

Low emotional intelligence can run in families, too. Children whose parents have lower emotional intelligence might struggle to manage their own emotions since they have less opportunity to learn healthy coping skills.

You might also have lower emotional intelligence if your parents offered inconsistent support and warmth, never encouraged you to express emotions, or punished you for showing your feelings.

Research also links lower emotional intelligence with parental negative demandingness, which might include:

  • attempts to exert control
  • overly harsh discipline
  • inconsistent discipline

Mental health conditions

Difficulty identifying and managing emotions can show up as a symptom of some mental health conditions, including depression and borderline personality disorder.

Low emotional intelligence might also play a part in social anxiety.

If you have trouble understanding how other people feel, you could begin to find interactions stressful and fear saying something that gets people mad at you.

Persistent social anxiety can eventually lead you to avoid social situations, and contribute to feelings of depression or hopelessness.

Research also links alcohol dependence and other substance use disorders to lower emotional intelligence. This link can go both ways: Addiction can cause changes in the brain that affect your ability to interpret and manage emotions and impulses.

If you already have trouble in these areas, though, you might drink or use other substances to cope with difficult feelings or navigate challenging social settings more easily.

Alexithymia

This condition involves difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions. People with alexithymia might also have a harder time empathizing with others. They may prioritize logic and concrete facts over imaginative or feeling-based thinking.

Alexithymia has a range of potential causes, including:

  • childhood trauma
  • brain injuries
  • stroke

This difficulty interpreting emotions can also show up temporarily with certain mental health conditions, such as depression, and fade along with other symptoms once you get treatment.

Research also links alexithymia to autism, suggesting as many as half of all autistic people have alexithymia.

Many people assume autism automatically indicates lower emotional intelligence, but it’s the presence of alexithymia along with autism that can make emotional expression and empathy challenging for some.

Dealing with someone you suspect has low emotional intelligence? They might find your feelings-based approach just as confusing as you find their difficulty with emotions.

These tips can help you meet in the middle for more successful interactions.

Offer acceptance

Remember, everyone brings something different to the table. Try to look for and respect their unique personality features and strengths instead of only focusing on their emotional skills.

You can’t change anyone, but you can encourage them to work on emotion regulation themselves.

When it comes to supporting someone as they work on change, gentle encouragement always wins out over criticism:

  • Ask how they’re feeling when they seem stressed.
  • Offer positive examples by staying calm and practicing compassion.
  • Encourage them to practice regulation strategies with you, like taking a walk or trying some deep breathing.

Make an effort to listen

It’s natural to become frustrated when you think no one’s picking up on what you want to say. Most people have been in this position at some point.

When you don’t have good coping strategies in place, however, it becomes more difficult to work through this distress.

Help them feel heard and understood by listening actively and really focusing on what they’re telling you:

  • Ask clarifying questions to avoid misunderstandings.
  • Summarize or reflect on what they’ve said (instead of simply repeating it back) to show them you’ve processed the meaning behind their words.

Stick to logic

When someone favors logical approaches over emotional ones, using logic yourself can help you communicate more productively.

Focus on facts rather than feelings. This means you might describe an event exactly as it happened instead of skipping over key details to emphasize its emotional impact.

Expressing your own thoughts clearly and saying exactly what you mean, instead of hoping they’ll pick up on your tone or body language, can also go a long way toward successful conversations.

Emotional intelligence isn’t fixed, so you can take steps to increase emotional awareness and get better at recognizing feelings in both yourself and others.

Developing emotional intelligence can help you build stronger friendships and relationships with others. It can also boost resilience in the face of setbacks and improve your ability to weather stress and other unwanted feelings.

Here’s how to get started.

Determine where you want to grow

Emotional intelligence has five main components:

  • self-awareness
  • emotional regulation
  • empathy
  • motivation
  • social and relationship skills

You might have stronger skills in certain areas already. Maybe you struggle to manage your own emotions but don’t have too much trouble recognizing when loved ones have something on their mind.

Or perhaps you have plenty of personal motivation but find it difficult to empathize others.

Recognizing the areas where you have room to grow can help you explore strategies that have the most impact.

For example, meditation helps many people improve self-awareness and get better at controlling emotions. Practice with taking others’ perspectives can help build empathy.

Remember: Practice means progress

Raising your emotional intelligence usually takes time. It can feel awkward and difficult to talk about feelings if you aren’t used to expressing yourself emotionally.

Still, the more you flex your emotional awareness, the easier it generally becomes to regulate emotions and use them for your benefit.

RULER, an acronym developed by psychologist Marc Brackett, offers a helpful tool for building emotional intelligence:

(R)ecognize your emotions

Instead of ignoring feelings that come up, acknowledge that you feel something, pleasant or otherwise, even if you don’t yet have a name for it.

(U)nderstand what causes them

Tracing specific emotions back to what you were just doing, your location, or the people you’re with can help you begin exploring why you might feel a certain way.

(L)abel them

Name your emotions as specifically as possible. Tend to get stuck on finding the right label? Try an emotion wheel to familiarize yourself with a wider range of feelings.

(E)xpress them

Talk about feelings instead of denying them or bottling them up. Different situations require different types of expression, of course — you probably wouldn’t express emotions to your best friend in the same way you would to a parent.

Journaling and art can help you practice expressing emotions privately until you feel ready to share them with others.

Don’t forget to ask others how they feel and invite them to share their emotions with you.

(R)egulate them

Learning to manage your emotions might sound difficult, but you actually have plenty of options.

Once you acknowledge an emotion, temporary distractions can help you set it aside until you have the chance to address it.

You might try:

  • a short walk or quick meditation
  • music or funny videos
  • texting a friend or loved one for emotional support
  • a favorite hobby

Grounding exercises can help you get better at coping with difficult emotions in the moment. Meditation can help improve overall emotional awareness and regulation skills, so it may offer more long-term benefits.

Everyone has feelings, but not everyone has an easy time accepting and understanding them.

Improving your emotional intelligence can take some effort, but it’s absolutely possible. Finding it tough to get started on your own? A therapist can always offer guidance and support.


Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.