Emotional intelligence can be a potent tool for recovery, says Derek Fredericks.
One hot summer’s day 13 years ago, I remember sitting alone on the 192 bus to Stockport. Clutching a satchel to my chest, my thoughts swirling, I was struggling to breathe. I caught one of the thoughts: ‘They are not going to like you.’ Then another: ‘You’re going to fail’, coming at me like blows from a heavyweight boxer. I felt hopeless.
It had been a tough six months – no drugs, no alcohol, no release and no escape. I thought about the 20 years of drugs, crime and prison, and now at 38 years old I was going to college to sit in class with ‘normal people’, to study Health and Social Care Level 1. What did that even mean?
As the bus stopped, I spotted three men huddled together, talking excitedly. I looked closer and realised I knew them all and had used drugs with them. As a BMW stopped, they all ran towards it. ‘THEY’RE SCORING!’ Standing up with a start, I thought: ‘God! That looks attractive.’ No sooner had I had the thought and sat back down, I began to question it. What’s attractive about sitting in a crack house? What’s attractive about prison? What’s attractive about not seeing my sons?
This was one of the pivotal moments in my life, when unwanted and intrusive thoughts could have changed not just my own destiny, but that of my sons and countless other people. This was when I started to become aware of my thoughts. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the development of my emotional intelligence; the beginning of my empowerment – of learning to use a dormant skill that I wasn’t even aware existed.
I stayed on the bus and I passed the course, and the next, and the next. I began to question negative thoughts and emotions and started to practise not succumbing to them.
What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence (known as EI or EQ) is a term created by two researchers – Peter Salovey and John Mayer – and popularised by Daniel Goleman in his book Working with Emotional Intelligence.
It refers to the ability to identify and manage one’s own thoughts and emotions, as well as those of others. Goleman cites the Harvard Business School research that determined that EQ (emotional quotient) counts for twice as much as IQ (intelligence quotient) and technical skills combined, in determining who will be successful.
Being addicted to any substance indicates a person’s refusal or inability to process thoughts and emotions, especially when the consequences become severe and the person finds it difficult to halt the process of ‘fixing feelings’. As time goes on, it becomes more difficult to identify and manage emotions.
My first recollection of a drug fixing my feelings was when I was nine years old. It was the morning after I was taken from the family home and put into a care home. I was distraught at being taken away from my family, and I screamed the place down. I remember waking up the next morning, hearing birds singing and being very calm. It was almost as if the trauma of being taken away had vanished overnight.
I found out years later that I was given diazepam to calm me down – my first experience of my emotions being ‘fixed’. A pattern was set; I then knew, subconsciously, that I didn’t have to experience uncomfortable emotions.
We are told we are addicted to whichever drug we are taking when, in reality, we are addicted to not feeling – we just choose different vehicles to get to the same place. I had a lot to relearn. I had to recognise the difference between a feeling and a thought. We have all heard people say ‘I feel like a pint’ or ‘I feel like a failure’. These are not feelings – these are thoughts. When I work with clients or students, this is one of the first things I ask them to investigate.
When I started using drugs in the 1980s, the only help that seemed to be available was Nancy Reagan’s advice, ‘Just say NO!’ Very good, Nancy, but how do I do that? Although simple in theory, recovering from addiction or from unprocessed emotions is fraught with obstacles, dangers and, mostly, the negative ‘self’ that will try to take us back to misusing substances again. We need to become aware of our emotions and thoughts, so we can better accept and challenge them. We need defences and protection. This is why I think enhanced emotional intelligence is essential for successful recovery.
Can we teach emotional intelligence?
I am frequently asked the question, ‘can you teach emotional intelligence?’ and the simple answer is no. However, what we can do is make each other aware of the barriers that stop it developing naturally. There are proven ways to help this, such as the ‘Johari window’ – a simple tool to help with self-awareness.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs also helps with experiencing self-actualisation. It’s funny how I thought a speck of powder could destroy my life, when in fact the risk was from unmet basic needs – lack of connection, poor self-esteem and, most of all, not enough experience of triumphs. Emotional intelligence can help develop skills relating to assertiveness, maintaining safe boundaries, developing and enriching relationships, dealing with change, taking calculated risks, and many other areas of personal growth.
In a lot of ways, I am just as scared as I was back then. My esteem can still be low, but the difference now is that, through an awareness of my thoughts and feelings, I am able to challenge my emotional and mental state and not give it power. With fearful situations, I do it anyway – at least sometimes.
For eight years, I worked with people who were still using drugs in a group setting and, each day, the objective was always to enhance their emotional intelligence, empowering them to have more choices. Today, I teach counselling and addiction awareness to people in recovery, as well as teenage schoolchildren, corporate managers, nurses, perpetrators of domestic violence, addiction workers, therapists and anyone who wants to be the best they can be.
At the Calico Group, where I work, our chief executive Anthony Duerden ensures that training around emotional intelligence is delivered across the organisation.
As therapeutic workers striving to help the wounded, I am convinced that we become more potent at what we do when we ourselves strive to enhance our own emotional intelligence.
Learning about emotional intelligence gave Karl the techniques to begin living life the way he wanted to.
Karl had been addicted to heroin since the age of 17 and came into treatment aged 34. He was homeless, with destructive behaviours and a chaotic lifestyle. He had contracted hepatitis C and had turned to crime to support his drug habit. He was also selling himself.
These behaviours went against all his morals, beliefs and values. He had attempted suicide numerous times. His mother had committed suicide while he was in addiction. Karl thought he was ‘worthless and better off dead’.
Through a therapeutic process Karl was able to look closely at his thoughts, behaviours, and actions in a safe environment. He was able to improve his self-awareness through enhancing his emotional intelligence. With this process came the development of certain key skills to move on with his life.
Karl reported that since putting down the drugs it had all become about living his life. This meant managing himself, his thoughts, emotions and relationships. He began to manage his emotional state by being aware of his negative self-talk, and with this awareness he began to challenge himself to go further. His self-control was improving and through the techniques of emotional intelligence he began to get experience of achieving.
His relationships also began to improve, which he felt was a massive part of his recovery. He began to form boundaries and become more assertive, allowing his relationships to flourish, and he began to get in touch with his natural empathy for others.
Karl is now helping other people develop and enhance their emotional intelligence through his work as a tutor and counsellor.