Ask yourself questions on a regular basis. Insight is key in your enhancement of emotional intelligence. It is what gives you the ability to look within yourself and evaluate your own feelings on a regular basis. There are many different types of questions to ask yourself. You want the questions you choose to ask yourself to be the ones that have the possibility to lead to increased passion and confidence. For example, you can ask yourself either “Why am I overweight?” or “How can I lose weight and love the process?” The first question can lead to an answer of, maybe you are eating unhealthily and don’t have the best rituals. Ultimately, though, where does this question get you in terms of passion and confidence? The latter, on the other hand, straightforwardly asks you not only how to lose weight but how to actually enjoy the process. This will get you thinking in an entirely different way.
As a part of our series about Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Donna Novak, PsyD.
Dr. Novak is a licensed clinical psychologist in Simi Valley, California. She is the proud owner of Simi Psychological Group, a therapy group private practice that empowers people to create real change in their lives. She believes that it is through her own love of personal development and growth that allows her to help people in the most meaningful ways. Dr. Novak is a passionate leader and entrepreneur who is dedicated to makinga changes that will ripple out into the world.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I am the youngest of three sisters. There is a bit of an age gap between my sisters and me: seven and eight years. Growing up, it was always really nice having two older sisters to look up to. At the same time, it felt like it was pretty tough to try to match them. They were always very ambitious — going to top universities — one went on to pursue a law degree and the other a medical degree. I could tell my parents had some worried moments with me.
I had quite a hard time finding myself for a year to two during my teenage years. I was so very self-conscious, constantly worrying about how others perceived me. It’s still the running joke (albeit some scarring thoughts with it) that I would walk around with my hair covered over my face. There were some points where I would hide in the bathroom, and it’s crazy to admit this out loud, but I would actually eat my lunch sometimes in the bathroom stalls.
During my ninth-grade year, my parents witnessed me being depressed, socially anxious, and withdrawn. This led them to make a really big (and the best) decision to send me to Israel for an exchange program where I didn’t know it at the time, but it would change my life. I had this one awakening moment at the start of my program. The main counselor in my program told me, “Donna, you shouldn’t cover your pretty face.” At that moment, I made what felt like the boldest decision of my life. I took off my makeup, put my hair up in a ponytail, and walked out of my dorm room with my head held high. This ended up being what I will still say today as the best year of my life. The truth is that my mom would stay up at night throughout that year, worried about me and my safety, as Israel was pretty targeted at the time. I can’t thank my mom enough for pushing through those fears and sleepless nights as this was a turning point that was a huge start to my journey to being the woman I am today.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
My dad was the one to inspire me to pursue my career. During college, I had some interest in psychology but can’t say I really knew where to go with it. I became involved with a lot of research programs and volunteered with children on the autism spectrum. I loved helping people. I loved knowing that I could make a difference in someone’s life.
My dad saw this ambition in me, and one day he came to me with printed pamphlets to a doctoral program in clinical psychology that he wanted me to apply to. At the time, I pondered the idea of going into the field of psychology but at most considered a master’s degree. The thing is with my dad is that he wouldn’t let me go for anything less than what he perceived as the best. My dad would tell me, “Donna, you have everything in you to do this.” The thing is, he raised three girls with the inherent notion that you should not ever rely on a man but on your own ability to be financially independent and successful. He made sure we all knew that. I ended up applying for that doctoral program, landed the interview, and started my incredible journey in the field of psychology.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
Yes, my husband was “and is” my biggest supporter. There is definitely a backstory for why this answer comes so easily to me. For some reason, I got in my head that I needed to have my first child before I was 30. I’m not sure what happens at 30 that is so bad, but likely, it was because my oldest sister followed that path. My husband, on the other hand, wasn’t so ready. He was finding himself, trying to figure out what he wanted to do in his career. My husband always knew that he was going to be a business owner and entrepreneur.
I met my husband when I was 16 years old, right after I came home from the abroad program in Israel. We were friends for a few years before we started dating. I remember when people would ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up, his answer was, “a millionaire.” At the time, this made me laugh. The truth is, though, that no matter how much people around him laughed, he never did. It’s like he knew it. It was in his soul. Today, I understand that this is going to be our reality, but, at the time, as a 16-year-old girl, I thought he was dreaming.
As you can imagine, someone with such an ingrained vision of being a millionaire and not finding himself for quite a long time was a very painful combination. With that being said, I ended up getting pregnant and having my first child at 29 years old. I was employed with a therapy group practice where I was making decent money prior to maternity leave. Once I returned to work post leave, we were the most financially strapped we had ever been. He was pretty much unemployed with some little gigs here and there. I wasn’t able to build my caseload with nearly enough clients as I needed to support our family. If I close my eyes, I could just picture my husband’s face of shame for not supporting us financially.
My husband repeatedly encouraged me to go off on my own and build the group practice I wanted to build. The thought terrified me. I ended up taking the leap, which was one of the hardest and most growing decisions of my life. It scared me senseless to leave the comfort that I knew and go into the unknown. My husband was the one who encouraged and believed in me every step of the way — from building my first website to applying for all the licenses I needed, and lifting me up when I was terrified of falling — he was a guiding force in my business-ownership journey. He instilled in me that I can do, be, and reach any place I wanted to go in my life. He is my rock through it all.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I love having visions for the things that matter to me in my life. I had a very detailed vision of the group practice I wanted to build, including the actual suite space. I always envisioned our outdoor signage being at this specific, ideal spot outside. I was approached by the tenants next door who attempted to pretend to sublease a space from me in an effort to get signage outside since they didn’t have a space facing the correct side of the street for permits. I turned them down, thinking that I would be doing this for my practice really soon.
In getting caught up with other facets of the business, this part of the vision went to the back of my mind. If I am being honest with myself, I think the decision to create the sign, for whatever reason, brought about anxiety and fear of failure. About one year later, I drove into work one day and saw that their signage was exactly where I envisioned mine to be. I can’t tell you how difficult that feeling was.
It turns out there was a vacant spot upstairs where they purposely rented a small room, so they could put out the signage. There was absolutely nothing I could do at this point but recognize the fact that because I didn’t act on the exact vision I had, it wasn’t going to happen. At the moment, I was a bit devastated, but the truth is I learned a very valuable lesson. Action is key to success, and this is the only way your vision will come true. Now, every time I drive to my office and see their sign where I envisioned mine to be, I am reminded to take action.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The truth is that every mistake I made helped me grow, and, ultimately, it is through mistakes that one is able to learn that they can get back up. Your journey to success involves a road filled with uncertainties; however, allow the biggest certainty to be your belief in yourself to figure things out. Make sure to map out the vision you have for where you are going. Without a vision, you don’t have a guiding post for where you want to go. The “how” to get there is really secondary to your “why.” Make sure to take the time to do some personal work around the vision you have for your business and your personal life and relationships. I am a true believer that it is all interconnected. Take a look at each part of your life and do some work around your personal values and your vision for where you want to be.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Everything is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo really helped me get into the mindset that there is nothing I can’t figure out. She really ingrained in me that the most powerful things in the universe are the words you say to yourself. Throughout the book, she provided insight into action challenges — where I challenged myself to work through my excuses, defined my goals, and laughed with my fears. She gave personal examples of how she went through the toughest of moments and was able to live by the notion that everything is “figureoutable.” She had her readers do “standards,” writing these words over and over. At some point, it became one of my mantras that was so deeply entrenched in me. To this day, whenever something feels hard or scary, I repeat those words.
Can you share your favorite “life lesson quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
My favorite life lesson quote is, “Let your addiction for growth be stronger than your addiction for comfort.” Growth inherently comes with stretching outside of your comfort zone and ultimately teaching yourself that you can handle uncertainty. Within all the unknowns, you have some knowns that can be, if you allow it, a true guiding force for you. The knowns are your own internal trust to get through those hard moments and to figure things out along the way. When you start to experience this type of growth, you really don’t want to turn back to living a lifestyle of sole comfort and stagnation. When you are able to allow your addiction for growth to be stronger than your addiction for comfort, miraculous things can happen for you in your life.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
One project I am currently working on is in creating a referral system for all inquiries that come our way. I want anyone who calls us to be landing in the right place with the right therapist, and even if that’s not with us, we help them get to the right place. I have been meeting with many different therapists and therapy group owners to get to know them personally so that when we refer someone to them, we can do so confidently. This is becoming something I am using in my branding. The first phone call to get help for many people takes courage. I want to make sure we will do whatever we can do to help ensure they are getting the help they need and deserve.
Another project I am working on, overall, is creating the systems underneath in the business so that I can work “on” the business rather than “in” the business. I am promoting my first hire as clinical director, a well-deserved position for him, and building the infrastructure, so I can do what I do best and what I love: create, innovate, and help more people on a larger scale.
Okay, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority about emotional intelligence?
I help people to truly understand their emotions and how they can learn to communicate them in ways they are proud of on a daily basis. I also support my team in building skills and awareness themselves, so they are doing the same for their clients. As part of my doctoral program and training, I took many courses that were all about personal development and building internal awareness so that I have all the resources within me to help people out in the world. I have been in the field of clinical psychology for 11 years now and have learned so much about how to help people get beyond the content that keeps them stuck and dig into all the real stuff, so they can make the meaningful changes they want in their lives.
For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what emotional intelligence is?
Emotional intelligence is the awareness and true understanding of your emotions, which also influences your ability to control, react to, and engage with people in productive and connected ways. It is through emotional intelligence that one is able to have compassion and empathy for others and for themselves. As a result, they are able to diffuse judgment, conflict, and feelings of resentment and anger they may hold within themselves. Emotional intelligence gives people the power back into their lives, so they are in control of their emotions rather than the other way around.
How is emotional intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is different from intelligence in that it is based upon one’s ability to understand emotions and thus communicate, empathize, resolve conflict, and truly connect with others. Whereas, intelligence is seen through more traditional measures of standardized tests or book smarts, emotional intelligence is a deeper, more interpersonal intelligence that helps them understand people and themselves.
Can you help explain a few reasons why emotional intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?
Emotional intelligence helps someone connect with their inner selves to understand why they are feeling a certain way in response to something someone said or did. They are able to develop their internal self-talk so that they can talk themselves through the emotional turmoil or upset they may be feeling. When someone is able to do this, he or she is also able to understand the deeper meaning and emotion behind others’ behavior as well, thus helping them make sense of otherwise difficult situations and incidents with people around them.
Let’s take a look at a typical conflict that may occur within a couple. The wife is feeling frustrated that her husband is watching television while she is sharing something upsetting that happened in her day. As a result, she yells, telling him that he is lazy and never does anything to help her around the house. He, in turn, gets angry with her for not giving him some time to chill out; after all, he had a long day as well. This turns into a night of ignoring one another, and the husband ends up sleeping on the couch.
What happened here? The wife was feeling unheard. She was looking for connection and understanding from her partner and didn’t receive this. For that moment, let’s imagine that she was able to look within herself, calm down her reactivity, and communicate what she was really wanting, which was to go to him and say, “I know you had a long day. I am really struggling with something and would love your support in getting through this.” She is opening up the door of communication with vulnerability. As a result, he is much more likely to let down his walls and be there for his wife in a way that would feel good to her.
Another angle in looking at this is in imagining that the wife had the same response with yelling at him for being lazy and not helping. Let’s imagine that the husband was able to take a deep breath and ask himself the question of “What is really happening here?” Then, he could understand what his wife was needing at the moment. He turns off the television and asks her more about her day, telling her that he is there for her. He is able to look past the “stuff” of the moment and, ultimately, his ego and get to the root of things. This is a clear example of emotional intelligence from my standpoint: the ability to look within ourselves for the real stuff, ease reactivity, and connect with the people closest to us.
Would you feel comfortable sharing a story or anecdote about how emotional intelligence has helped you in your life? We would love to hear about it.
With my 4-year-old yelling, throwing things, and having a fit at Target or anywhere else he chooses; my 2-year-old purposefully taking his mashed potatoes and smearing them all over the walls; coming home, from a quick trip to Starbucks, to find my kids holding sharpie markers and seeing nice drawings all over my couch, walls, and floors (true story) — emotional intelligence has helped me in each of these scenarios because my instinct is to get quite pissed. The ability to calm down the instinctual reactions and feelings that come up for me at that time and ask myself some questions, truly helps me as a mom. I know that my children are testing boundaries. They are figuring out things in the world. If I am being honest with myself, it’s kind of cute to see them develop the courage to go beyond the boundaries. At the moment it’s happening, it doesn’t always feel cute, but emotional intelligence helps get me to the place where I can see the cuteness and laugh internally through many of those difficult moments.
Can you share some specific examples of how emotional intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?
In business, you want to have the ability to understand people and put aside your own “stuff” for the betterment of the business. This requires the ability to have awareness of your own emotions and to figure out how to respond to what is coming up for you in a productive way. There are also many situations that require emotional skills to deal with them in a way that will help your business flourish.
Being able to understand what is behind someone’s actions that you don’t agree with is one way that emotional intelligence can serve you in business. For instance, if someone snaps at you, then understanding that there is something deeper going on will help you address the real issue. Emotional intelligence helps you to be able to communicate in a less reactive and empathetic way with your team. Building a culture of trust, connection, and shared values are integral to building a successful business. Emotional intelligence is what helps you to be able to build this type of culture.
Can you share a few examples of how emotional intelligence can help people have better relationships?
Emotional intelligence is key in understanding people and getting past the fluff. The ability to understand people’s true intentions rather than the reactivity and anxiety that someone displays will help you in communication and conflict resolution. As a result, you will be able to connect with people on a deeper level. Emotional intelligence will also help you with the insight of what you need in a moment of frustration or when you’re overwhelmed. This in turn will help you build your internal resources so that you are able to better respond to those closest to you. You will be much more likely to engage with people as your better self due to this.
As a leader, for example, you will be able to better understand your team members and what they need to feel valued. You will be much more likely to ask good questions that lead to discussions, increasing their agency within your company. As a result, they will be more invested in the growth of the company and in strengthening relationships.
Can you share a few examples of how emotional intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?
Understanding, communicating, and validating your own emotions will help you reduce the feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed out. You will be much more likely to take care of yourself on a regular basis when you internally communicate that you matter. Making a choice to take a step back when you need to, rather than being reactive, will build your confidence within yourself. You will also have more space in your mind to deal with the things that really matter to you rather than the anxiety or insecurities taking over. When you have a good sense of awareness of how certain situations impact you, you will be able to come up with a plan of action to get through the harder moments in your life.
For example, if you find yourself getting overwhelmed with being a new parent and the uncertainties that come along your way, emotional intelligence helps you define what it is you are feeling. You will be able to validate your own experiences rather than live in a pit of judgment and feel overwhelmed. This will give you much more mental space and confidence to tackle the harder moments that come up for you during those early stages of parenthood. As a result, you will be able to communicate with others and yourself about your feelings and allow others to support you in the process.
Okay. Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you recommend five things that anyone can do to develop a greater degree of emotional intelligence? Please share a story or example for each of these.
- Ask yourself questions on a regular basis. Insight is key in your enhancement of emotional intelligence. It is what gives you the ability to look within yourself and evaluate your own feelings on a regular basis. There are many different types of questions to ask yourself. You want the questions you choose to ask yourself to be the ones that have the possibility to lead to increased passion and confidence. For example, you can ask yourself either “Why am I overweight?” or “How can I lose weight and love the process?” The first question can lead to an answer of, maybe you are eating unhealthily and don’t have the best rituals. Ultimately, though, where does this question get you in terms of passion and confidence? The latter, on the other hand, straightforwardly asks you not only how to lose weight but how to actually enjoy the process. This will get you thinking in an entirely different way.
- Pause and evaluate moments of conflict before and after you respond. As a continuation of the first point, in terms of the development of insight to help build emotional intelligence, make sure to evaluate yourself during moments of potential conflict or upset. How am I feeling? How is the other person feeling? They are saying something frustrating and upsetting to me, but what is really happening here? How can I take responsibility for things on my end? And very importantly, how do I want to handle this situation? Connecting to your internal self and building this awareness will help you lead with your best self forward. You will be much more likely to release unneeded feelings and allow yourself to develop empathy both for yourself and others.
- Have a daily practice of gratitude. What are three things that happened yesterday that you are most grateful for? Challenging yourself to think of specific moments of time and writing them down encourages your brain to look for what is going well. Maybe your son came home with an A on his test and had the biggest smile on his face. Possibly you had a great time during date night with your partner. There is something very unique that happens when you start to write down these grateful moments. You then start to look for moments of gratitude in your life. Gratitude gives you the ability to shower down frustrations and feelings of being overwhelmed to see the grace in moments. As a result, you are much more likely to have the mental space to find beauty in the hard moments and strengthen your relationships.
- Evaluate the values you want to live by in your life. There is something so powerful in evaluating your own values and really looking at how you are living your life according to these values. One of my strongest values is to continue to strive toward being the mom I want to be. I have this value ingrained in my mind, and I am able to keep it at the forefront during many moments of difficulty that arise with my kids. Having this value in my mind and asking myself whether I am living up to this, helps me continue to work toward this mission every day of my life.
- Create a vision for where you want to be in your relationships. One of the most powerful things you can do is to create a vision for where you want to be in each area of your life: in your business, relationships, spiritually, financially, etc. I want to encourage you to take the time to create a vision for where you want to be in your relationships. Most of us inherently value connection. We want to feel love and to provide love to those we care about. When you are very specific about what this will look like in your life, you are able to have a guiding post of where you want to be. If you are in an intimate relationship, that is an excellent place to start. What do your conversations look like? What does your sex life look like? How do you say hello and goodbye to one another? In what ways are you one another’s best friend? Answering these questions and working toward this vision in your relationship will help you increase awareness and connection. Emotional intelligence is wrapped in that and will be able to be strengthened as a result.
Do you think our educational system can do a better job at cultivating emotional intelligence? What specific recommendations would you make for schools to help students cultivate emotional intelligence?
Yes, I think the educational system can do a much better job at cultivating emotional intelligence. I recommend that emotional intelligence become a much bigger element in the discussions within the school systems. This will bring about more brainstorming and problem solving within the system so that they will be able to bring in more ideas that strengthen emotional intelligence.
Having small group activities with role play is a great way to cultivate emotional intelligence. There are common themes of conflict that occur within child and teen relationships. Having some open-ended questions around empathy building, emotional awareness, and conflict resolution can be a helpful activity. Other recommendations include watching videos in class and inquiring about a character’s feelings in the videos, conflict resolution options, and empathy building. Encouraging problem solving with an adult and providing more opportunities for a safe place to talk things through would also be a helpful resource in building emotional intelligence.
Okay, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As a psychologist, I get to see firsthand the power of someone having a space to work through their internal struggles in a safe nonjudgmental space. There is something about having an unbiased-third-party professional helping you develop these insights, empowering you to live your values, and continuing to strive toward the visions you have for your life that can be life changing. The beautiful thing is that I get to see this every day. I love what I do, and, most importantly, I love that I get to build a team that does this as well. I am always thinking about how to help more and more people and give value out into the world.
If I could inspire a movement, I would inspire every person to let go of the stigma that they place on themselves and allow this beautiful experience of therapy or coaching to be a part of their lives. I would inspire each person to do it three times before deciding it’s a “no.” So many people out there are scared of what it will mean for them to seek help. I really believe that, and will say this day in and day out, it is the strongest people who are able to put aside this stigma and ego and reach out. Ultimately, this leads to going outside one’s comfort zone, which is the key to growth. Everyone is human, and we all need to understand that it is through this self-exploration and getting unstuck, that we are able to raise our standards in life and work toward being the person we want to be and deserve to be.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially, if we both tag them :-)
If I could have a private breakfast or lunch with anyone in the world, I would, hands down, choose Tony Robbins. He has been such an inspiration to me in all facets of life. Attending his in-person events were life changing and something I would recommend to anyone wanting to create sustainable changes in their lives. He is someone of such love and passion, and his energy and drive transcend into all of who he is.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.
You are very welcome! Thank you for including me!