Improving Emotional Intelligence in the Field

by | Jul 3, 2019

Emotions are a vital dimension of the human experience. While they can be hard to describe at times, it is generally believed that there is a limited range of feelings that we can sense in our physical bodies, including anger, sadness, frustration, joy, surprise and fear. However, we do not experience them in the same way. Culture does shape emotions, as Liah Greenfield highlights: it guides how emotions and feelings are sensed and expressed.Travelling to foreign places and learning about other cultures offer us unique opportunities to see ourselves from a completely different perspective. These experiences can help us develop an awareness of beliefs and habits we have normalised as well as show us how others sense and interpret emotions. While living in a semi-remote community in Ancash, Peru, I discovered a whole new way of perceiving emotions: for this community, emotions were not simply something that lived inside of a person but existed through relationships between people and their environment. Considering their approach not only highlighted our differences but afforded me the opportunity to learn new ways to deal with difficult and intense emotions.

You and I Are Different

It was a fine winter’s morning and I was standing in the cattle yard thawing in the warm sun, watching Juan, my landlord, move his dairy cows. After finishing the task, he greeted me and we struck up a conversation. I enquired after Lisita, the calf born recently and named after me. Juan then asked how our fieldwork was going and I explained that it was going very well and briefly described some of our latest discoveries. He seemed very pleased; he was interested in history, but in particular, his heritage, as he believed that knowing about his community’s past was vital to understanding the present. Then, Juan changed the subject abruptly.

‘You are different, Lisa.’

His statement took me back and to be honest, it made me nervous. I knew was different. I was a foreigner, an outsider, but I didn’t like to bring attention to my status, as it made me feel vulnerable. I wanted to stay invisible. Since childhood, I had convinced myself that staying unseen kept me safe — from harm, shame, and embarrassment.

Juan looked at me with an eagle-like stare, studying my body language, and before I could respond, he continued, ‘you don’t express emotion as we do. We latinos are very emotional. We feel intensely and express what we are feeling, but you are very reserved.’

Once again, he was spot on; I was very reserved but I have never had anyone point it out bluntly and mark it as a point of difference. Upon reflection, I realised that I was raised to believe that exposing emotions left a person vulnerable to attack or criticism and I feared both. From my parents and friends, I learnt to avoid sharing particular feelings, especially intense ones, such as anger, so I masked them, pretending to be fine even when I wasn’t.

I fidgeted for a moment and then replied, ‘yes, Juan, you’re right, but in the end, we are all human, don’t you think?’

Juan nodded but I think he sensed that I was unwilling to explore our emotional differences further. So, he changed the subject again.

Our Bodies Are Like the Earth

While I felt uncomfortable at the time, my conversation with Juan stirred up my curiosity and I began to seriously ponder how we were different. In particular, I wanted to understand how Andean people perceived and experienced emotions and how their experience was different from mine. When I travelled back in time mentally, I realised that about a year earlier, a clue was offered to me in the bundle of a short story.

I was about to climb the rugged mountains that sat on the edge of the town, when Luis, an older gentleman, shared with me a sad tale about a local man, who had been struck down by severe misfortune. The man was driving his cattle from the town to the coast and decided to camp on the very mountains I was about to survey. He stayed just one night and woke in the morning to find that all of his cattle had disappeared. In one fell swoop, he had lost his main source of income. He was ruined! However, as Luis emphasised, it was the man’s fault because he had not performed una ofrenda (an offering) to the ancestors of the mountain before he ascended. Everyone knows that you must make an offering.

Now, you might be wondering, how does this sad tale relate to the topic of emotions? Well, it was a look inside the community’s cosmological kaleidoscope and what I could see was that the community believed that their health and wellbeing flowed from their relationship with their ancestors and the landscape, which was alive and sentient.

Now, you might be wondering, how does this sad tale relate to the topic of emotions? Well, it was a look inside the community’s cosmological kaleidoscope and what I could see was that the community believed that their health and wellbeing flowed from their relationship with their ancestors and the landscape, which was alive and sentient.

Researchers, such as Joseph Bastien (1985) and Catherine Allen (2002), observed and reported similar cosmological ideas and beliefs in other regions of the Andes, including Cusco. While living with the Kallawaya, who reside on the slopes of Mount Kaata in the midwestern part of Bolivia, Bastien made a number of important observations. First, he learnt that the group viewed the human body as a spiritual and physical ecosystem that was also part of a larger community, consisting of organisms and animated forces, spirits and deities. In particular, he was shown how Mount Kaata’s body was similar to our own: the highlands represented the uma (the head) of the mountain, while the central fields were the mountain’s internal organs that bestowed vitality (Bastien 1985, 45–48). The rivers flowing from the mountain’s summit were maki, the length from the hand to elbow, and the lower fields, chaqi, the length from the foot to the knee.

Second, Bastien (1985, 48) discovered that for the Kallawaya, wellness was more conceived as a ‘wholeness’, an ongoing process of fluids flowing between the human body and the mountain, circulating nutrients, emotions and thoughts. The heart, known as sonqo, played an essential role. This physical organ not only pumped blood, the life-sustaining liquid, around the body but also emotions, thoughts and plans. Guiding deities, ancestors and spirits could aid the circulation of forces and liquids too. As they provided for the Kallawaya, they, in turn, needed to respect them and feed them too.
When a person became sick, the illness was treated holistically. Disconnection in relationships between people and their surroundings was often a cause of illness and could be repaired through ritual and ceremony.

Returning to Luis’ tale about the poor gentlemen, his misfortune was not random. The man had not shown proper respect and had failed to fulfil his obligation to the ancestors and this caused an obstruction in his relationship with them and his access to abundance was severed as well.

Unearthing New Perspectives

Being an outsider in the Andean world gave me the opportunity to cultivate more self-awareness. Through the power of observation and reflection, I was able to pinpoint and trace patterns of behaviour, some very unhealthy, that I had normalised. One of the biggest transformations came when I realised how my emotions, or their lack of expression, had contributed to a sense of disconnect in my relationships with others, as I had felt at times that I couldn’t be my true self. Once I recognised this, I faced a choice: do I dig deeper to fully unearth insight and then make changes? I did. It was a long and challenging process, which required me to learn new ways of dealing with emotions, particularly anger, but I am now healthier for it. To support my growth, I adopted practices, such as daily journaling and mindfulness meditation. These days I also find myself utilising other languages, such as Quechua and Spanish, to help me bridge gaps where English offers no word that exactly articulates what I am feeling.

I believe to make the most of ‘outsider’ experiences, you need to stay curious and give yourself permission to be vulnerable. As Brené Brown has said, when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we make the choice to ‘experience connection.’ Yet, I have observed many times travellers pass through countries, such as Peru, and when confronted with the face of difference, they spiral into judgement, believing that their way of life is superior or more morally right. By doing this, they block the opportunity to dig deeper. Ultimately, it is healthy to question pre-conceived beliefs and long-established practices, particularly your own. Reflexive thinking helps us understand ourselves better and how we influence others.

So, returning home with a travel pack full of ideas and insights about how you experience life can be overwhelming and can also take a while to unpack, but is a truly rewarding process. It can help you do a backward bend and see yourself from a completely new angle and inspire you to make great changes in your life gradually with courage.

Notes on Sources

If you would like to learn more about the Andean perception of the human body and its relationship to landscape, I recommend you read Joseph Bastien’s (1985), Mountain and the Condor published by Waveland Press, and also The Hold Life Has by Catherine Allen (2002), published by Smithsonian Press.

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The names of my friends are fictional in order to protect their identity and privacy.

Photo Credit: Willian Justen de Vasconcellos

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