The Theory of Emotional Relativity

ApplesAndOrangesAbout 15 years ago, I wrote my first book and in it, I introduced a concept that I called “The Theory of Emotional Relativity.”  What I suspect many of you do not know about me is that I have an undergraduate degree in Physics. I have always been fascinated by deciphering why things are the way they are. What causes one thing do this, but yet, based on another set of circumstances (application of force, pressure, etc.) why does a different stimulus cause a different reaction? To me, this study and inquiry of physical science was, at the time, a very feasible and pragmatic approach to discovering how to understand something … anything. And in all fairness, my study of physics was probably my first attempt to come out of the closet with my deep passion for decoding human behavior. Psychology, in college, was a little too abstract for me. So when I studied physics, I often tried to connect the established and proven theories of the hard sciences to human behavior. And that’s when I stumbled on knocking off Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Over the past couple of months, I have had almost a dozen exchanges where this has come up. I found my audience responding very favorable to this old theory of mine, so I’d like to share with you. Imagine two friends go hiking in a large park. Josh trips and breaks his arm during the hike. Paul also trips, but only has a minor cut on this arm. Clearly, Josh has a more traumatic experience and is in more pain. Let’s fast forward and say that both of them decide to go hiking again a year later. And again, they both trip. But this time, the pain is reversed. It is Josh who scratches his arm and Paul who breaks his arm. It is very plausible to assume that for Josh, after having broken his arm before and experienced that trauma, merely brushes off the scratch and does not think twice about it. After all, he has been through much worse in the past. For Paul, however, who had only experience a scratch before, the breaking of the arm is quite traumatic…since it was so much more painful than a scratch.

The Theory of Emotional Relativity argues that those of us that have had more challenging experiences in life are better prepared than those who have had less challenging experiences simply because our scale for measuring the gravity of these experiences is so different. There is an old saying, Some of us learn from our experiences, and others never recover. Those who learn from their experiences have a far better opportunity to have significantly higher EQ than those who do not. So in effect, those who have had more traumatic experiences in their past also have more opportunity to have higher EQ than those who have not. In other words, victims (of all kinds) are actually capable, if they choose, to achieve higher degrees of success if they can convert their experiences to learning experiences. This is quite a dramatic shift of the victim’s paradigm as we have previously known it — which is traditionally to blame others (rightfully so, in many cases) or to hide behind the experiences for very long periods of time.

Emotional experiences are relative – two people experiencing the same experiences will almost never have the same emotional response because the response is based on what we experienced before, and how we processed those events. As a leader or manager, it can be incredibly powerful to have a sense of your team members’ past emotional experiences, as they can be great clues to how much resilience they have and how well-equipped with EQ they are. This is very critical to understand and appreciate — not only when it comes to growing one’s own EQ, both personally and professionally… but of others’ as well.


3 responses to “The Theory of Emotional Relativity

  1. This is facinating, and intuitively I agree with the theory. However, I detect a challenge in the application of sensitivity in varying degrees to people in similar or equal situations.

    Don’t people expect equal treatment, and become upset if others seem to receive more recovery time after difficult situations, or any other emotionally challenging events? A leader can’t easily say tell one party that “you don’t deserve the same leniency here, because your life until this point has been made of more difficult experiences.”

    Note that I am an EQ ingnoramus – be gentle should you respond. I’m really curious to know how to exercise sensitivity sensitively.

  2. I don’t even know what EQ means, but I have read your theory and I have a couple of thoughts.

    Firstly, I believe you are entirely correct in saying that all emotion is relative. This can be proven using the cold man theory; “A man standing outside in the cold for six days will feel warmth from a room on the seventh if he so enters, whilst a man who chooses to remain in the room will feel no such warmth”

    Secondly, an expansion to your theory, that I have concluded myself, is that overall, if two people equally try in life, regardless of their experiences they will experience the exact same emotions. This is because all emotions are relative, and thus someone with more bad experience will feel better in the good times, whilst someone with more good time will feel worse in the bad. Overall, both experience equal amounts of pleasure and displeasure, assuming they have put in equal effort over this time.

    The conclusion I have made from my personal thoughts over the past week or so is near exact to yours, although mine relates more to the philosophical approach we should take towards life. I will leave you with a quote by myself;

    “I long for the reward achieved whilst putting the effort in, rather than the cheap gimmicks nature throws at us proceeding this time, for my aim is not to relax, but to achieve”

  3. Hello, I think your blog might be having browser
    compatibility issues. When I look at your blog in Chrome, it looks fine butt when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping.
    I just wanted to gie you a quick heads up! Other then that, amazing blog!

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