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4 Ways St. Ignatius can help you grow in emotional intelligence

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His enormous influence in spiritual direction and his own personal holiness is proof that we can all make progress.

I had a psychological exam once and the doctor remarked that I have an amazing lack of ability to recognize my own feelings. I might know I’m upset or happy, but I have trouble reflecting on why, and the dots between “I’m upset” and “this specific person said this specific thing and that’s why I’m upset” often go unconnected. Sometimes this is a strength because I can function and work right through my difficult feelings, but it’s definitely more often a weakness since I have often ignored my issues until I’ve fallen into a clinical depression or cycles of stress-related illness and couldn’t figure out why.

Generally, it’s actually pretty easy to go through life oblivious to what we’re feeling. Because of this, our motivations remain hidden and we can behave in self-destructive or irrational ways. This, I suppose, is why counseling and spiritual direction exist — we all need help coming to grips with our emotions. We need to understand them, confront them, accept them, and express them appropriately. This doesn’t simply relate to individual contentment, either, because the higher our emotional intelligence, the better we are at treating those around us with charity and empathy. It’s hard to deal with other people when you barely understand yourself.

St. Ignatius can help. His Spiritual Exercises were written as he was struggling to come to grips with his own emotional state, and they can help us understand our own “disordered affections.” Only in doing so can we can tame our inner chaos and live from a place of inner peace.

Here are some helpful insights into how to use Ignatius’ wisdom to develop your own emotional intelligence…

Think twice

The Exercises are about placing yourself in a moment and really, really feeling it. It’s important to note that the best approach to emotions isn’t to deny them or ignore them. Rational people have feelings, too, and it’s a beautiful part of the human experience. Instead of floating through life oblivious to emotions, it’s much more helpful to embrace what we’re feeling.

If an interaction from the past is bothering you but you can’t figure out why, or if someone said something that doesn’t sit right with you, go back through the moment in detail and imagine it with all five senses — what you saw, touched, heard, smelled, tasted. Allow the moment to wash over you, inhabit it again and place yourself there. As you re-live the moment and your feelings come into sharper focus, you’ll have more insight into how it has remained with you and continues to affect you. Maybe an apology needs to be made, maybe a resentment let go of, or a heart-to-heart talk is in order.

Be attentive

Don’t allow situations to overtake you and prompt unreflected actions. Sometimes, we’re confident we understand what’s happening around us because we have a lot of information, but if we haven’t taken the time for interior reflection, we may not know as much as we think. This is why Ignatius says, “it is not an abundance of knowledge that fills and satisfies the soul but rather an interior understanding and savoring of things.” What he means is that we ought to be attentive and ponder what it is we’re experiencing before jumping to conclusions. Often the reality lies below our surface impression, and our motivations may not always be as clear as we think they are. For instance, this woman named Martha Castenada tells of how the Exercises helped her attend to the fact that she resented her mother and never knew it. Once she clarified and reflected upon her emotions, she was able to recover her relationship with her mother.

Listen to your inner monologue

Don’t stop listening to yourself. Feelings may not be the best way to direct our actions — it isn’t good to act out of anger, for instance — but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist or that it’s wrong to feel angry. Patterns of avoidance are exactly how we fall into self-destructive habits and vices we end up powerless to control. Father Joe Laramie, who has years of experience leading Ignatian retreats, says that the Exercises, “involve becoming more aware of my own emotions.” This can be extremely difficult, because sometimes our inner monologue is about shame, confusion, or sadness – but we still need to listen.

Ignatius says, “I will ask for pain, tears, and suffering.” What he means is that he wants truly sad thoughts to prompt an appropriately sad response, he doesn’t want to become calloused to evil or accept flaws in himself. Father Joe says, “I bet none of you have ever prayed for shame and confusion!” It’s worth it, though, to work through any and all emotions we’re feeling and to confront even the difficult parts of our experiences. This is how we stay alive and vital instead of becoming numb to life.

Consider your attachments

We all have our attachments, things and people we really like. I know I would fall into a catatonic state without my coffee, that I would feel lonely and sad without my friends, and I always get an itchy, antsy feeling when I can’t get out for my daily run. Our attachments may or may not be healthy. Even attachments to things that are good can become unhealthy if our emotions are over-heated towards them.

For instance, I have in the past kept running even when I knew I was injured because I have a physical and psychological addiction to exercise. In this case, an attachment to a noble goal — staying healthy — became an emotional liability akin to addiction. Unhealthy attachments like this influence our emotional state in an undesirable manner and cloud our judgment.

When Ignatius encourages us to be attentive to our emotions, he intends that we would identify those that are disordered and begin to re-order them. Father Joe says, “Emotional intelligence involves noticing our emotions and then doing things to re-orient them in a healthier direction.”

Ignatius began life as a playboy soldier who desired to become famous by covering himself in the glories of warfare. When he got a cannonball to the leg, he had a lot of time to re-think his priorities and was able to totally change his life. He accomplished this amazing transformation by developing his emotional intelligence and re-directing his emotional attachments towards a different, much better goal. The result, his enormous influence in spiritual direction and his own personal holiness, is proof positive that we can indeed make progress.

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