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Pillars of Emotional Intelligence: Mastering the 4 Key Components

Emotional intelligence includes 4 different pillars that determine our ability to navigate our emotional world. These pillars include: self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy (“other-awareness”), and social skills.

When we think of “intelligence,” we often associate it with things like logic, math, and science. 

The basic view of emotional intelligence is that emotions aren’t necessarily the opposite of thinking, but a different way of thinking about different types of problems that exist in our world.

At certain times, emotions can be a valuable tool to help guide our choices and behaviors. But we have to learn how to use them wisely.  

In light of his theory of evolution, Charles Darwin theorized that our minds have evolved to experience emotions so that we can better adapt to our environment.

For example, we’ve evolved to experience a “negative” emotion such as fear so that we can better respond to a situation that is bad for survival. In this case, fear is an emotion that motivates us to avoid something when we are in danger.

On the other hand, a “positive” emotion, such as joy, can signal to us that a situation is good for survival. In this case, joy is an emotion that motivates you to seek more of something.

This is a very basic and rudimentary analysis – and it doesn’t come anywhere near describing the complexities of our emotional world (as well as social world) – but it gives you an idea on how different emotions can guide our behaviors in different ways.

Emotional intelligence is about being more aware of our emotions and what they are signaling to us.

Below I describe the 4 fundamental pillars that make up emotional intelligence as a whole and how you can apply them to your daily life.


The first pillar of emotional intelligence is paying attention to your own emotions.

Emotions often come in two main parts: 1) The psychological component – the thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs that underlie most of our emotions, and 2) The physical component – the bodily sensations that often accompany different emotional states.

For example, an emotion such as nervousness may be a mixture of certain thoughts (“I’m not good at this” or “I’m scared I’m going to make a mistake”) and certain sensations in our bodies (a fluttery feeling in our stomach, ie “I have butterflies in my stomach”).

Sometimes just being more aware of our emotional states (and all their components) is enough to manage them better. In one recent study, they found simply labeling negative emotions can help you overcome them.

The next time you’re feeling a really strong emotion, try stepping back and just observing that emotion as it is. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling? What am I thinking? What physical sensations am I experiencing with this emotion?”

A little honest reflection of your emotions can really help you understand yourself better and how your mind really works.


Once you are more aware of your emotions, the next pillar of emotional intelligence is learning how to respond to them better.

Depending on the situation, there are many different strategies I teach my clients to use to better regulate their emotions. Some of these strategies include:

  • Channeling an emotion in a new and constructive way, such as through exercising, writing, or painting.
  • Avoiding triggers – such as certain people, situations, or environments – that are more likely to bring out a negative emotion.
  • Seeking positive experiences to reverse negative ruts (such as watching a comedy movie when we are feeling down, or listening to motivating music when we are lazy).
  • Turning emotions around by doing the opposite of what you feel.
  • Sitting and watching emotions as a passive observer, instead of acting on them impulsively.

These are all strategies available to us to help us regulate our emotions better on an everyday basis.

Think of “emotional intelligence” as a kind of toolkit. There are many different ways to respond to a particular emotion, and not every tool is going to work depending on what the situation is.

The more emotionally intelligent you become, the better you will be at deciding what is the best way to respond to an emotion. But that’s going to take steady practice and awareness to actually change your neural circuitry permanently.


Understanding your own emotions is half of emotional intelligence, the other half is understanding the emotions of others.

As we improve self-awareness, we also improve other-awareness.  We learn that there is sometimes a difference between our own thoughts and feelings and the thoughts and feelings of others.

Empathy is our ability to see things from another person’s perspective – and to take into account their individual thoughts and feelings about an experience.

Of course, we can never understand another person’s mind completely, but we can actively learn about a person’s inner thoughts and feelings by paying attention to what they are communicating verbally and non-verbally.

Empathy is a kind of “mind-reading,” but it’s based on making inferences about people’s internal worlds based on their external actions.

Another powerful tool for improving empathy is perspective taking. This is a mental exercise where you literally imagine yourself experiencing a situation from another person’s perspective to better understand them.

Be more willing to ask yourself, “What is this person thinking? What is this person feeling? Why is this person acting in the way they do?” These types of questions will be a great starting point in building more empathy in your daily relationships.

Social Skills

Once you understand the emotions of yourself and others, the next question is “How do I respond to other people’s emotions?” This is where social skills comes in as the last pillar of emotional intelligence.

First, understand that a lot of our emotional world has a social component to it. For example, emotions such as love, guilt, rejection, and embarrassment are almost strictly social emotions (they rarely exist outside the context of our relationships with others).

To build healthy relationships it’s therefore important that we are attuned to other people’s emotions, especially how they respond to our own actions and speech.

If your actions cause negative emotions in other people, then that can hurt a relationship and your ability to connect with others in a meaningful way.

Cultivating positive emotions – like joy, optimism, excitement, and humor – is key toward bonding with others in a strong and lasting way.

Have you ever walked into a room of people who are really depressed or stressed out, and you immediately begin to feel depressed and stressed too? This is an example of emotional contagion, which is the idea that our emotions can often spread to others like a virus.

In the same way that other people’s emotions affect us, our emotions affect other people. So if you walk around life with a generally positive attitude, that is going to rub off on those you interact with (but you have to first have your own mind in order).

The social skills aspect of emotional intelligence is about becoming an “emotional leader” of sorts. But you need to practice turning negative people around by first being positive in yourself.

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Picture of Dr. Sydney Ceruto

Dr. Sydney Ceruto

A Pioneer in Neuroscience-Based Coaching

As the founder of MindLAB Neuroscience, Dr. Sydney Ceruto has been a leading force in integrating neuroscience into coaching and counseling for over two decades. With three master's degrees in psychology and two PhDs in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, she is widely considered a top expert in her field.

Harnessing the power of neuroscience-based coaching, Dr. Ceruto's innovative approach focuses on neuroscience, neuroplasticity, and neural pathway rewiring to foster lasting positive change in mental health.

Dr. Ceruto holds esteemed memberships in the Forbes Executive Council, Positive Performance Alliance, Wharton Executive Education Program, the International Society of Female Professionals, and executive writing positions for Alternatives Watch, Brainz Magazine, and TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.

Dr. Ceruto's accomplishments include:

  • The 2022 CREA Award.
  • A lead research position at NYU Steinhardt.
  • Volunteer work with Covenant House and the National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI).

Her science-backed method of Neural Rewiring has successfully guided thousands of clients toward happier, more productive, and more resilient lives.