Emotional Intelligence: The View from My Glass House
My task this month was to write about the benefits of developing emotional intelligence skills—the ability to recognize and manage one’s own emotions to meet life’s challenges. Instead, I want to share my own struggles with practicing what I preach.
Let me share a bit of background, so you can understand the context in which I misbehaved. Wayne and I have owned dogs throughout our 30 years together. One of the first things we did as a couple was to liberate a dog from the local shelter.
Until a month ago, our pack consisted of Pepi, a 14-year-old toy poodle; Otis, a middle-aged beagle; and Sadie, the giantess of the gang—100 pounds of enthusiastic chocolate lab. The animals who have shared our home have always been large dogs, so Pepi was something of an enigma. However, he found a way into our hearts and spent almost all of his nights sleeping on my pillow. He also ruled the pack, keeping Otis and Sadie waiting while he ate and always grabbing Mom’s lap first. After all, he raised them both from puppyhood.
Pepi still enjoyed every day. Even at his advanced age, his spry run and eager attitude graced our morning walks through the grass fields. I consistently prayed for several more poodle-filled years. It was not to be. On a recent Saturday, I’d had to go into work. Fortunately, Pepi insisted I give him a thorough neck rub before jumping in the shower. I am so thankful I spent time with him that morning rather than just running out the door.
Later in the day, Pepi joined Wayne and the other dogs outside to do a bit of yard work. While lying in the sun, Pepi spied our neighbor and her German shepherd, Sally, head over toward our shared tree line. Adored all of his life, Pepi had every reason to think that this neighbor would love a visit from a perky poodle. I’ll spare you the gory details here, but Sally must have seen Pepi as a threat; she grabbed him in her jaws and closed hard. Pepi died in just a few minutes, wounded and alone.
My husband only saw the accident from afar, and by the time he got to the scene, Pepi was gone. He carried him in the house, put him in his bed, covered him to hide the wounds, and called me to tell me the terrible news. I don’t recall the drive home that day, but I’ll never forget seeing my beloved little guy lying quiet and still.
That is the background to my more recent story.
From that day forward, I couldn’t stand to look at Sally. Never a friendly dog, this incident made me see her as a major threat. When she’d venture into our yard, my husband and I attempted to shoo her home. She didn’t like being shooed, and aggressively made that very clear. Our pleas to our neighbors to keep her home fell on deaf ears, as they felt the Pepi incident was an anomaly and believed that Sally was a well-behaved dog who deserved her morning stroll in our rural neighborhood. Finally, yesterday, while visiting our yard, she nipped at my husband’s leg when he attempted to send her home.
This triggered a neighborhood row, with our two families yelling at one another across the property line. Frightened, frustrated, and angry, I lost it.
I behaved badly and said things I wish I’d never said. The situation escalated so quickly, that I suspect we all hit the anger red zone before we knew what was happening. As we turned away from the ruckus, I felt sick to my stomach. It had been several years since my anger flashpoint had ignited so intensely, and I was instantly remorseful.
In “Hijacking the Amygdala” (May 2010), I wrote about a situation very much like this one. In the piece, I shared the story of a physician who became so frustrated with the office’s new medical records system that he stormed into the reception area, ripped a printer from the counter, and threw it to the floor. When I relayed this true story, I silently patted myself on the back. My hard-earned and well-practiced emotional intelligence prevented me from such embarrassing episodes!
Well, as I humbly discovered, I can still go there. I can let loose and wound with words, if not with thrown objects. With all my training and my experience, I can fall off of the EI wagon just like the next person.
I spent the evening alternating between fuming, rationalizing, and reinforcing my frustration. The conversation in my head wore me out with its justifications of what was “fair,“ how the neighbors’ bad behavior vindicated my negative response and how I deserved to be angry and terrified at them and their dog.
But, underneath all of this was the voice of reason. The clearheaded alter ego who has managed and reinforced my personal journey to mature and empathetic adulthood, spoke quietly and forcefully. “You’ve made a mess of things, old girl, and now you need to clean it up. If you don’t, this situation will continue to escalate in a terrible way,” it intoned.
I reflected. I counted to 10. I took a long walk and let my anger melt away in the sights and sounds of the summer evening.
I then came home and wrote a letter of apology to our neighbors, acknowledging how difficult this whole situation has been for them, and asking forgiveness for my bad behavior. I acknowledged that our frustration at one another came from the shared source of love for our respective dogs. I asked them for a fresh start, a push of the relationship “reset” button. I delivered the letter; I felt lighter. The negative voice in my head keeps attempting to pull me back into the pit of frustration and anger, but I’ve been working hard to ignore it.
Was that the “right” thing to do? What if they don’t respond? What if they continue to keep this disagreement alive and don’t cooperate? What if...? Well, I guess that is their decision. I’ve made mine, and it is the best one for me. I guess we’ll see how it goes!
Our neighbors wrote us a civil and courteous letter, thanking us for calling a truce. They, too, had been very disturbed by our row. They recommended that we come over and get to know Sally so that our apprehensions about her could be dispelled.
I found myself glad that I had taken the high road in our disagreement and had offered my hand in peace. Although I didn't agree with everything in their letter, I recognized that, indeed, our battle stemmed from our similar connection with our beloved pets and our sense that the other didn’t “get” our perspective
As to the recommendation that we befriend Sally, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I respectfully declined and again asked them to keep her at home. Sadly, we are building a fence between the two properties to ensure all of our animals remain safe. When perspectives differ, and emotions run close to the surface, establishing clear, concrete boundaries sometimes is best.
Dr. Ruby is head of Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine Counseling and Wellness Department. She is a licensed professional clinical counselor and is cofounder of Veterinary Leadership Experience, an international program to expand the professional vision, communication skills, and servant leadership competencies of veterinary students, faculty, and health care team members.