About 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.