Making Sense of Emotion: Innovating Emotional Intelligence

Making Sense of Emotion: Innovating Emotional Intelligence
Dr. Frank John Ninivaggi Psychiatrist New Haven, CT

Dr. Frank Ninivaggi is a psychiatrist practicing in New Haven, CT. Dr. Ninivaggi is a medical doctor specializing in the care of mental health patients. As a psychiatrist, Dr. Ninivaggi diagnoses and treats mental illnesses. Dr. Ninivaggi may treat patients through a variety of methods including medications, psychotherapy... more

By Frank John Ninivaggi MD

Yale University School of Medicine

Yale Child Study Center

I propose that emotions are persons—personalities.

Self-evident emotions are undeniable.  Recognizing this and giving emotions equal rights—equal to that of thoughts and thinking—with the same privileges, free of negative status, is a bold demand of our time. No state of mind can abridge this freedom.

Emotions and thoughts may appear different but have a core identity—both are citizens of one mind, each proclaiming a single sovereign land. Without an unfettered engagement of emotions with critical thinking, cynicism and burnout occur.

Giving emotions equal rights leads to emotional literacy—the refinement of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence strengthens resilience. This capacity resists falling apart in the face of conflict, trauma, and confusion—burnout prevention.


To prevent burnout, understanding its scaffolding, particularly cynicism and negative goodness, increases emotional intelligence. This resilient empowerment strengthens us as emotionally sensitive, accountable, and responsible persons.

“Burnout” is the bottom line of prolonged job dissatisfaction and exhaustion. Occupational exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficient work performance are core features.

Cynicism entails profound emotional distrust—seeing the motives and intentions of others as devoid of goodness. Unlike skeptical doubt, cynicism voids any trace of belief in altruism or helpfulness. At first, cynicism is projected into others; then, it re-introjects and blackens one’s mood.

Prolonged disappointment leads to physical and emotional exhaustion. Both are frustrating. Attempts at indifference fail. Powerlessness, feeling inadequate and incompetent then lead to cynicism.

When cynicism solidifies, it becomes obdurate—hardened and difficult to erase. Reactively believing that others are motivated exclusively by selfish concerns is cynicism. Listening to what others have to say, being objective and empathetic fail. Cynicism locks the cynic into a solipsistic state of self-absorbed isolation—unable to hear and learn.

Reinforcing evidence comes from everyday examples of dishonesty, greed, exploitation, aggression, crime, and wars. These “facts of life” bring about disillusionment, disappointment, betrayal, unfulfilled expectations, and a sense of hopelessness. All buttress cynicism.

People with burnout describe themselves as fried, depleted, drained, spent, crumbling, and feeling devitalized. Physical and emotional exhaustion predominates. One feels a sense of inefficacy, loss of control, and helplessness.

Personality, temperament, disposition, and resilience are significant in the way stress is handled. The burnout syndrome escalates when inner resources become depleted. The chaotic environments of today’s work conditions with its many demands and unpredictable crises impinge on adapting and coping effectively. Anxiety clouds thinking, making problem-solving difficult.

The stress reaction escalates. Cortisol, the emotional-hormonal “public health enemy number one,” rises to hijack the body and mind. People then operate on overdrive. Frenzied attempts to keep up with the pace increase anxiety beyond healthy levels. This pressure exerts excessive force on the brain, heart, blood pressure, and glucose-regulating systems. One’s speed accelerates to accommodate work demands to get things done—on time. The result is biomental exhaustion. Physical energy, appetitesleep, and other activities of daily living go awry.

Negative goodness

Negative goodness entails psychological, moral, and spiritual depletion. The missing parts involve the absence of once-present feelings of trust, seeing beauty, hopefulness, and feeling comfort—in other words, goodness. Positive thoughts and pleasant sensations evaporate. Gloom, a barren and foreboding struggle merely to survive—is this my life?—is all that remains. Apathy, indifference, and callousness become norms.

Negative goodness is not “badness.” Negative goodness is the depletion and eradication of the goodness or positive emotions, optimism, and enthusiasm that previously had been present. Cynicism looms large, only to settle into apathy, even depersonalization. Depersonalization is the state of mind making one “impersonal” —unfeeling, unempathetic, mechanical, and “device-like.” This phase in the burnout cycle signals the full burnout syndrome.

Emotions, I argue, are core to intelligence. Emotions humanize our capacity for empathy—connecting with the heart and soul of others. This ability enables each of us to respond—both to ourselves and to others in a relationship of care, respect, and helpfulness.

Looked at below the surface, I argue that envy is the root of cynicism since cynicism blocks goodness (e.g., hope) entering the mind.

Envy is the weak link of vulnerability that disables “making sense of emotion.”

Envy involves the mind’s binary cognitive-emotional knowing: grasping things, at first, as their two extremes, then imputing a devalued status to the “not me”—what is intolerable, hated, and rejected.

Envy as part of "emotional processing" is a natural predisposition or tendency, certainly on a spectrum of reactivity and responsiveness from minimal to intense depending on contextual development, learning, coping skills, and personal motivation. Envy only stirs when unbearable confusion and conflict override the healthy ability to make sense of experience. Low resilience is the ground that makes envy easy to hijack thinking and feeling.

Envy is the first perception of goodness. Because the goodness cannot be embraced—impaired resilience—it is spoiled. Spoiling temporarily wipes out the perceived source of bitter envy. But, this transitory deletion is only a feeble gesture. Envy’s devaluing, darkening, and voiding reappear over and over to assert themselves in bolder and bolder ways.

When spoiling occurs over a long time, feelings of cynicism get attached to the props perceived as triggering it in everyday living. Daily frustrations start to take on labels of “cause.” Causes typically involve superior-inferior splits and feeling that someone else is “better” or “inferior” and so gradually disliked to the point of being hated. Many of my articles on Psychology Today address the psychology of envy and its vast dynamics in detail.

Emotional intelligence

Burnout syndrome is biomental exhaustion, cynicism, and a nonproductive life. Burnout gnaws away at the core of human life satisfaction—happiness.

Increasing and refining emotional intelligence strengthens biomental resilience—knowing oneself, emotions, and how to manage them effectively. This strategy is preventive medicine.

Primary stress management interventions target exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. Relaxing stress at its inception breaks the burnout cycle at its root.

Stress management, in fact, has been shown unquestionably to optimize health and well-being. Mindfulness coaching and cultivation are also used. Mindfulness involves the purposeful and nonjudgmental attention to one’s experience, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Experts in burnout research say that exhaustion is easily treatable with stress management techniques.

Cynicism and inefficacy are harder to tackle. Cynicism blocks learning because it is "unreceptivity" personified—inability to take in anything as being worthwhile and valid. Work engagement, at this point in research studies, appears more effective in helping cynicism and inefficacy. Issues needing attention are self-perceptions, self-efficacy, problem-solving skills, self-esteem, and learned helpfulness skills, to name just a few. Negative emotions need a profound realignment. Work engagement pivots on how effectively the work environment aligns itself in as personal a way as possible with the professional and personal goals of its team members.

Innovating emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the self-awareness of identifying, understanding, labeling, balancing, and putting into appropriate action one’s comprehension of emotions. Mindfulness, I argue, can be presented as a way of viewing oneself, handling feelings, and deciding how best to respond intelligently.

Mindfulness, for me, is remembering to remain aware. It entails "presence of mind" in the moment. Of course, mindfulness “training” is useful but only as a component or stepping stone toward empowering one’s emotional intelligence—a lifelong cultivation of refinement. This journey may launch with training but needs a self-activist, intrinsic cultivation that is deeply personal. Emotions are our system-wide signature, identifying us to ourselves and others. This self-development involves a delicate synthesis of both self-understanding and understanding others.

We as persons are truly free to engage our thoughts and feelings. Free people can elevate their aspirations toward greater freedom by becoming more emotionally literate. If we do this, we break the bonds of our slavery to self-imposed emotional depersonalization.

Emotional intelligence entails a profound literacy composed of emotional and social competencies. I have attempted to dig deep into these ideas and open new doors in Making Sense of Emotion: Innovating Emotional Intelligence.


Ninivaggi, Frank John, Making Sense of Emotion: Innovating Emotional Intelligence, Rowman & Littlefield, MD, 2017.