The U.S. Army has its well-known catch phrase: “Be all you can be.” Those of us with multiple sclerosis (MS) have our own: “I may have MS, but MS doesn’t have me!”
To live up to either of these sayings, I think one has to be aware of the profound nature of their messages.
I wanted to find out what it really means to say, “but MS doesn’t have me,” so I dug into the concept of emotional intelligence (EI). Stated briefly, emotional intelligence is understanding and being able to manage one’s own emotions, as well as understanding the emotions of others.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman, PhD, is the author of several books on EI as well as other writings on the topic. I found his ideas easy to understand once I broke things down a bit.
One of the concepts that is central to EI is self-awareness, which Goleman breaks down further into realistic self-confidence and emotional insight. Both these terms are about being aware of oneself and knowing oneself.
When one is self-confident, one is aware of one’s needs and knows how to meet them or get them met.
Emotional insight has to do with knowing how your emotions work; for example, what angers me might not anger you. But to manage your emotions, you need to know what triggers them. Having insight helps you to keep your emotions in check.
Another part of EI is self-management. Goleman breaks this down further into resilience, self-motivation, and emotional balance. Last month I wrote about resilience and its importance for people with MS.
We all have upsets in life, and how resilient we are determines how well we bounce back from situations that affect us, such as an MS exacerbation.
Being emotionally balanced during an upset helps to keep wayward emotions in check, so you don’t blow up at people you love. Being balanced allows one to explain to others the reasons behind an outburst, and to work on solutions for what went wrong.
Being self-motivated helps to smooth out the picture for you and for others. Self-motivation is a healthy way for one to keep moving forward.
Applying EI to Living With MS
So how does EI affect one’s MS? Personally I find self-management to be key to managing my health in general.
To reach a point of self-management, I have to be self-aware, particularly regarding falls, which depend on my knowing where my limits are and what I need to do to remain safe. This, in turn, depends on my self-confidence and emotional insight.
When I fall, I tend to lash out at the world, as if someone else caused me to fall! It took me years to realize that I was lashing out and hurting people close to me. Emotional insight helps me channel my frustration and anger to make the situation better so I don’t fall.
That is moving forward and being self-motivated in an emotionally balanced way.
Empathy and Relationship Skills
The other part of emotional intelligence has to do with empathy and relationship skills. Just the other day, a lady watched me exit my car, and as I headed toward my trunk to get my rolling walker (also known as a rollator) out, she offered ever-so-kindly to take it out of my trunk for me. She said her husband also has a rollator, so this was nothing new for her.
But it was new for me! I could see her perspective and also her kindness, so I allowed her into my world, and she shared the bit about her husband. I was both cognitively and emotionally empathetic with a complete stranger: cognitively empathetic because I was able to read her body language; emotionally empathetic because I saw her wanting to help in the way she helps her husband.
This was a great exchange and building of relationship skills, and it all happened without our even exchanging names. And yes, it happened because I have MS, but at that moment, MS didn’t have me!
I could read her intentions, and she could see mine. I was going into our local supermarket just like her. My intentions were clear to her — to slowly make my way through the store, no matter what — and they showed her my self-motivation, dictated by an overwhelming sense of resilience!
Mona Sen is the author of The Shifting Creek — A Memoir, about her 31 years of living with MS. She is the cofacilitator of her MS support group in Oneonta, New York.