Part 3 of EI and Nursing – Too Much Attention

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Part 3 of EI and Nursing – Too Much Attention

            Hello Fabiah readers! We hope you are staying well. We continue the EI and Nursing series this week by diving deeper to look at one of the traits used to measure EI, a trait called attention.

            In total there are three traits that are often used to measure Emotional Intelligence (EI). These three traits are attention to emotion, clarity about which emotion we are feeling, and repair of negative emotions. If you’ll remember that we defined EI as the ability to accurately identify and effectively manage emotion, then you can think of attention and clarity as measuring how well we “accurately identify”, and the repair trait as measuring how well we “effectively manage” emotion. People who score higher in these three traits tend to have a higher EI, with one exception. If our attention to emotion is too high, then our EI will actually be lower. The peril of high attention is our focus in this article. The other two traits, clarity and repair, will be covered next time.

            It’s not at first clear how emotional attention would be a problem. After all, it seems that being aware of our emotions is exactly where EI begins. We have to be aware what we and others are feeling before we can address those feelings, think about them, and then manage them. That is true, but let’s look at how high our level of emotional attention can get. As Salovey and Mayer describe in their 1995 article, those of us who score high in attention would say that we “strongly agree” with statements like “I pay a lot of attention to how I feel,” and “I think about my mood constantly.” Now, if we really are thinking about our emotions constantly, then it’s easier to see how a problem could arise. Attention to our emotions can go beyond being aware of what we’re feeling and into something more like obsession.

            It turns out that those of us who score high in emotional attention are more likely to experience a range of negative effects. This 2014 article in the Journal of Clinical Nursing found that these effects include increased stress, lower self-esteem, and more difficulty identifying feelings. The last of these – more difficulty identifying feelings – you may find surprising. Apparently, we do not necessarily gain a better understanding by giving our feelings a lot of attention. In fact, the opposite is the case; by giving our emotions too much attention, we may become less clear on what we are feeling.

            How could it be that paying constant attention to our emotions would make it harder for us to say what emotion we are feeling? It could be that emotional attention is closely related to emotional intensity, so that those who score high on attention are experiencing their emotions more intensely. This increased intensity may lead to feeling overwhelmed by emotion or lost in what we’re feeling. We might also think of not being able to let a particular emotion go or becoming stuck. If we consider Tabitha’s nursing scenario we covered in the first article of this series, it’s easy to see how Tabitha might have given too much attention to her emotions and, as a result, she may never have been able to move on and provide the care her patient needed.

            We hit a problem at the other extreme as well, with an emotional attention that’s too low. When we don’t give emotion a thought, then we’re not taking into account how we and others are feeling and we can begin to see all the negative effects of low EI. So, we can give our emotions too much attention on the one hand or not enough on the other. Accordingly, people with a high EI generally score high in clarity and repair, and low to moderate in attention. The sweet spot for attention is the same place it was for Goldilocks: not too hot and not too cold.

            So far, research has focused on how to raise an emotional attention that is too low. However, we may make some guesses as to how to cool an emotional attention that is too high by going back to our article on Emotional Labor. There we saw that expressing our emotions in a supportive environment was helpful for dealing with the strain of Emotional Labor. If someone with a very high emotional attention is stuck ruminating on feelings while at the same time having difficulty understanding those feelings, then talking about or trying to express those feelings in other ways might help.

            That’s it for the EI trait called attention. We need emotional attention in order to have EI, but too much attention can come back to bite us. In the next article for EI and Nursing, we are going to cover the traits with less downside: clarity and repair.

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