Saturday, September 03, 2005

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Coping with Hurricane Katrina


As we collectively process the events of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation in New Orleans and surrounding area, we notice a difference in people’s reactions and responses.

A reaction is knee-jerk and immediate. When we respond, instead of react, we take our time after feeling the stimulus or emotion, sort it out, and then choose what to do, if anything. We take a pause and apply thinking, using the neocortex as well as the limbic and the reptilian brains. Responding includes, when we care about the other person and the relationship, the demanding intellectual and emotional task of giving them what they need, not what they ask for.

A REACTION would be to hit someone who angers us, or to leave the room. A RESPONSE would be to ask for clarification of what was said; to say nothing but to stay, both physically and emotionally; or to speak to the fear that always lies beneath anger.

A REACTION would be to give in to our child’s tantrum and buy him the toy he’s screaming for. A RESPONSE would be to address the fatigue or hunger that’s making him decompensate; give him attention, which is more satisfying than a toy; or to tell him “no” and help him build the enormously important life skill of being able to tolerate frustration and delay gratification.

For something internal to ourselves, such as how a movie makes us feel, falling in love, losing a boyfriend, getting fired, failing an exam, or graduating with honors, our REACTION is a surge of emotions, sometimes overwhelming us. A RESPONSE would be to note the emotions for the information they provide, and work them through, sometimes sitting with the ambivalence, agony or joy, and sometimes discharging them appropriately or taking action.


Those with higher EQ are better able to withstand the onslaught of emotions around this devastating event. This includes feeling compassion for the victims (and rescuers and leaders) and taking some action to help, but not being rendered dysfunctional, neither succumbing to depression nor anger, nor projecting them on others; and not letting it effect you adversely.

As Doc Chidre said, “Compassion helps you feel what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes but to know when to stop so you don’t walk off the cliff with them.”

EQ competencies such as resilience, flexibility, and trust radius are involved. RESILIENCE enables the individual to feel the anger, compassion and fear within themselves, and in others, yet bounce back to a state of equilibrium, maintaining hope in the face of loss. Loss, in this case, includes loss of illusions, as we suffer temporary feelings of hopelessness and fear at the forces of nature we will never conquer, the poor decisions people make which sentence them to adversity, the randomness of luck and unfairness of life, the dark side of human nature which law and order can only keep at bay, the opportunists who prey on the vulnerable, including bacteria and viruses, always waiting to add plague and pestilence to the mix, and our limitations to be able to do anything about any of this. We live in an imperfect world, and we each spend our time on the wheel.

FLEXIBILITY allows us to consider options to our feelings, our actions, and our responses to others. Though we are disturbed, we can calm and collect ourselves in order to do the work we must, to comfort someone, or to protect our child from over-exposure. Though we can neither fix all the problems nor do it perfectly, we can fix some problems well enough to make a difference.

TRUST-RADIUS allows us to continue to trust until proven otherwise, and to resist the all-or-nothing, catastrophic position. Some people loot and resort to violence, but not all people. Some people panic and make a situation worse, but some rise to the occasion with courage and equanimity. Some will despair, but others will find something good in the worst of times; not that all things work out for the best, as they assuredly do not, but that there is always something there to be gotten and cherished.

We also use the EQ competency of BEING ADAMANTLY AND RELENTLESSLY SELF-FORGIVING. Because we can do this for ourselves, we can be forgiving of others who are failing to be perfect because they are human – FEMA, the governor of Louisiana, the looters, the police, the phone, insurance, gas and power companies, and the person sitting next to us at the office who failed, in our eyes, to be appropriate in some way regarding the tragedy.

“Wisdom comes by disillusionment,” said George Santayana, and EQ yields wisdom.

It is self-education, at the deepest level, as we learn to know our emotions and those of others. “Education,” wrote Robert Frost, “is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self confidence.” This includes listening to around disasters.


Those with lower EQ do yield to anger and loss of self confidence, projecting their anger and sense of impotence onto colleagues who aren’t reacting the way they are, or the way they think they should; on leaders who aren’t getting it right; on life itself; or saddest of all, at the victims for the very fact that they are victims.


Developing our emotional intelligence is building immunity against stress. Like immunization against physical disease, it’s a bit of the hair of the dog, in this case so it doesn’t bite you. We become immune to smallpox by getting an injection of a manageable amount of it when we’re healthy, enough for us to martial a defense against it, but not so much that we’re overwhelmed. We flex out muscles, developing antigen against it, so when it does come around in its virulent form, we can fight i off.

In the same way, we study emotions intellectually as we experience them in quieter times, so we learn how to defend ourselves against being flooding by them. With increased self-awareness, we learn how they feel within us, and how they work for us. We can then apply this knowledge and understanding to those around us. We do this when the sun is shining and the breeze is gentle, so when the hurricane arrives, figuratively, we have bolstered our defenses and are prepared.

You may have noticed the incredible composure some people have who have survived personal catastrophe. They look on life with quiet eyes, and often teach others. Victor Frankl is an example. So is the women next door.

Emotional intelligence allows us to erect a floodgate that will protect us from being overcome or swept away. It allows us to hold our center when the winds are whipping around us; to let a little in, or out, so the pressure doesn’t build; and to bend so we don’t break. We learn this by using adversity.

“Three passions, simply but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life,” said Bertrand Russell, "the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

It’s the knowledge, ultimately wisdom, that allows us to bear the passion. The emotions will come to us. The knowledge we have to go after.

Emotional intelligence protects you like packing material, a seat belt, or a motorcycle helmet; never completely, but they cushion the blow, deflect the impact, and absorb some of the shock.

EQ IS THE INTERFACE BETWEEN FEELING AND THINKING. Pack them both in your disaster survival kit. You do have one, don’t you?

©Susan Dunn, MA, The EQ Coach, . Providing coaching for individuals and businesses, Internet courses, and ebooks around emotional intelligence for your personal and professional success and wellness. EQ Alive! training and certifying EQ coaches. for information on this fast, affordable, comprehensive, no-residency program. Email for free ezine.

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