How memoirs enhance emotional intelligence (EQ)

When I was younger, anytime someone expressed an emotion I felt offended. “Why are they bothering me with what they are feeling?” During that period my lack of interest in feelings led me to reading science fiction. The focus on problem solving and adventure enabled me to stay aloof from the complexities of emotional life. But when I graduated from high school, I discovered that my disconnection from other people came with a price.

Like the sailor who cried out in Coleridge’s poem, “water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink,” I was surrounded by thousands of college students, and was as lonely as if I was floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean. To solve this deep persistent problem, I devoted many years to learning self-help techniques.

Writing might help (even if most of us were shy)

Around the time I turned fifty, I discovered a passion for writing. To follow that passion, I overrode my discomfort around people and joined a writing group.

I soon began to notice that among my aspiring literary companions, many of them, like me, were afraid to open up and share themselves with other people. Since I’d spent a lifetime overcoming these challenges myself, and having recently completed a master’s degree in counseling psychology, I wanted to offer what I’d learned.

So I tailored a workshop toward helping writers gain the courage to write. My decision to teach others how to overcome their fears forced me to overcome my own. I’d been terrified of speaking in public, and teaching these classes helped me feel more comfortable in front of a room. I received some praise for teaching the class, and felt energized by the sense of connection I felt when teaching a room full of aspiring writers.

Harnessing a love for writing as a self-development tool

While in the group, I took a workshop from a teacher who had written a memoir. To learn more I read his book, and I was hooked. Instead of flat, emotionally limited characters, books in this new genre led me on an emotionally rich journey through the heartaches and hopes of real people. Since each one was constructed in the shape of a good story, I felt as engaged in each one as if it was a spy thriller. For the first time in my life, I was able to walk a mile in other people’s minds.

I began studying them in earnest, teasing apart the way they were constructed, and attempting to put together a roadmap for how to write one. I’d already discovered that the best way to learn a complex subject is to teach it. So I put together a class which would help aspiring writers share their own life experiences.

In each class, every time someone shared an intense memory, their stories evoked palpable emotions in the group. These observations validated what I’d already observed in myself. We’d collectively stumbled on the fact that sharing ourselves through stories bridged the gap that usually separates strangers from each other.

As I witnessed the amazing power of emotional connection in each of my writing classes, I felt that I’d discovered some alchemical formula. Get people together in a room, let them share their stories, and like magic, they become wiser about themselves and each other.

How did my writing make you feel?

I also experienced this alchemy when I submitted my own written pieces in small writing groups and asked for feedback. Over and over my writing partners said, “I need to understand more about the emotion in that scene.” After they expressed their sense of distance from my character, they offered tips to help me find the words to share what I’d been feeling.

At first, I simply declared, “I was angry” or “I was sad” or happy, frustrated or eager, anxious or content. That was a start. But my writing partners pushed me to go further.

Trying to write about how I felt in those long-ago scenes differed radically from any other introspective experience I’d ever had. When viewed through memory alone, I stabbed at a general sense of how I might have felt. But when trying to write it, I could slow down, to ponder what was going through my heart and mind and how to find the words that others would be able to feel.

In this way, memoir writing groups became a perfect training ground to help me make better sense of my emotions. Once I became accustomed to my listeners’ desires for clear communication, I began to see what had been missing all along. I gradually learned that to express my emotions I needed to use my words in a more nuanced way.

And there was one other magical aspect of this literary and emotional alchemy. In written stories, authors had figured out how to communicate non-verbal cues such as facial expression and tone of voice. So even though writing stories about my feelings had to be done entirely as words on the page, I was now challenged to understand, perhaps for the first time in my life, how people read each other’s emotions in real life, as well as reading my own bodily cues.

Over time, thanks to my love for reading and my desire to improve my writing, I learned to describe subtler indications such as the tug of a smile at the corners of my mouth, a hopeful or a worried thought, a heaviness in my heart, or any of a million other nuances that might signal what I was feeling.

Learning the language of emotions influenced all aspects of my emotional life

Learning how to share my emotions in writing had a two-fold effect. It helped me become more aware of feelings I’d never noticed before. And in becoming aware of the feelings, I suddenly had a new language to share those aspects of myself which had always been off limits. By staying too hidden, I had kept myself apart. Opening up made me vulnerable. But it also liberated me.

By showing me how to see everyday life through the system called “story,” writing a memoir turned out to be a system of improving my emotional intelligence unlike any I’d ever read or heard about. It was another example of the way the Memoir Revolution changed my life and could change yours.