Mathew Bjorngaard of ‘Mental Fitness’: Emotional Intelligence; What It Is, Why It Is So Essential, And How We Can Increase It
Remember you’re human, and humans aren’t perfect. This is a daily practice just as important as any other. Don’t be so hard on yourself! If you try to put a laser focus on everything, good or bad, it will just overwhelm you and slow down your progress.
As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mathew Bjorngaard.
Mathew is an entrepreneur, mental health expert, and wellbeing advocate working at a Fortune 100 company. Mathew’s story is one of stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, failure, and resiliency. He is the founder of Mental Fitness LLC, a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and has taught classes on self-care and stress management. Mathew strives to use his knowledge and personal experiences to help others lead healthier and more fulfilling lives.
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?
Growing up, I never thought of myself as a health-conscious person and even scoffed at the idea of self-care. I thought it was mumbo-jumbo and that I was better than that. I ended up going to school for business, and currently work in corporate finance. In fact, my story as a health advocate did not begin until about four years ago, when I was diagnosed with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) and Dysthymia (persistent depressive disorder). I had been a very anxious and negative-thinking kid growing up; until my diagnosis, I assumed my constant feelings of unease, nervousness, and chest tightness was a product of being a normal human — I figured I just had to live with it and try to ignore it. Unfortunately, because I did not fully understand my symptoms, they continued to get worse and in college, I turned to alcohol to self-medicate. For nearly five years I lied to myself, believing my increasingly out of control behavior was ‘no big deal’. But the constant cycle of alcohol abuse left me broke, a college dropout, barely functional, and on probation at my job. I was convinced, begrudgingly, to see a therapist. It was at therapy where I was officially diagnosed with GAD and Dysthymia and my journey began.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
In hindsight, therapy was the catalyst that led me down the path I am on today. Learning that my constant inner turmoil WASN’T normal really opened my eyes. Discovering there were actions I could take to improve the situation, that did not include self-medication, brought a huge sense of relief. Despite this revelation, it took me a long time before I was able to even think about replacing my old habits and thought patterns with newer, healthier ones. I suspect this is common. It’s tough breaking habits that are so intertwined with who we are as a person. I had 20+ years of practice with my harmful habits; it takes time, persistence, and specific benchmarks to chip away at it.
In fact, it took a solid three years before I was able to halt my negative momentum and start moving in a more positive direction. Slowly, I changed one aspect of my life at a time. It began with simple exercises provided by my therapist: beginner-level strategies and action items for handling my anxiety. I slowly added a few other techniques and eventually had additional tools, other than just alcohol, in my mental health tool-belt.
I quickly became fond of learning more about my illness and trying different strategies. This led to me forming a new goal: I wanted to share my knowledge and experiences with others. I had gone 25 years of my life without knowing I had a treatable problem and wanted to bring more awareness to a wider audience so others didn’t have to wait so long. I also realized even simple stress management habits could have a huge impact on anyone, whether they had a diagnosed mental illness or not.
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?
The answer is twofold. It was my parents and my wife. My parents have always been very supportive and caring. Even during my worst periods, they were always there for me. Whether picking me up from detox or letting me move back home to halt my self-destruction (when I had no job and no money). At one point, my mom even researched doctors and therapists I could go to and called them on my behalf to get the ball rolling.
The same goes for my wife. While my parents witnessed portions of the nightmare, my wife had to live it. We lived together throughout most of this tumultuous period and she had to suffer from my fallout directly. A lesser person would have gotten as far away from me as they could, but she stayed. She knew I needed help and sacrificed her own well-being to help me. Without her, I would probably me dead or in jail right now (I know that is a cliché thing to say, but it’s still true).
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?
During the journey of sharing my experiences, I have facilitated several meetings and classes. The first time I ever taught a stress management class online, I accidentally enabled a setting that kept the students on mute for the entire lecture. I was incredibly frustrated that no one participated in the discussion or asked questions. I did not realize until afterward that the class was silent because I had muted them all. I was embarrassed by the mistake and sent a follow-up e-mail apologizing to the students for my gaff. Most of the students that I spoke to laughed about it and appreciated my honesty. The experience really reinforced the idea that you need to own up to your mistakes. Most people will respect you for it and let the mistake slide. It is only when you try to cover things up or blame others for the mistake that your reputation will crumble.
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?
In my opinion, there are 3 pillars to the foundation of success. 1) “Be Intentional”, 2) “Be Accountable”, 3) “Be Forgiving”.
Be Intentional — Have an idea of where you want to go. Write down your ideas and goals, create benchmarks along the way. Things can always be amended, but you have a much better chance of getting where you want to go by writing it down, planning it out, and beginning with the end in mind. Think of it this way: if two ships set out to sea and only one ship maps its course, uses a compass and refers to each as it travels, there is about a 99% chance the ship reaches its destination. As for the other ship, traveling with no map and no compass, it would take a miracle for the ship to come anywhere near its destination.
Be Accountable — One of the most difficult things to do in life is to hold yourself accountable. There is nothing more powerful, or detrimental, then saying, “I’ll do it later” or “I’ll do it tomorrow”. If you have a plan or goals in place, you need to set-up rules to ensure you follow through. Place your alarm in another room so you’re forced to get out of bed in the morning. Tell someone about your plans and ask them to follow up with you on your progress. There are an infinite number of things you can do. Find a few that work for you and action them.
Be Forgiving — We are all humans, and humans are not perfect. You need to learn to be okay with that. We all make mistakes, lose motivation, get distracted, and get down on ourselves. That is perfectly normal! You can set up the best accountability rules ever created and will still fail from time to time. That is okay! It is important that you have self-compassion, forgive yourself, and set aside time some “me time” every single day. If you have a slip-up, acknowledge the mistake and try to learn from it, but don’t hold yourself, hostage, to negative feelings. That does far more damage long-term than taking a nap one afternoon instead of going to the gym…and maybe your body just needed a nap that day!
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?
The book that has made a significant impact on my career is “The 4-Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferris. It sets out to solve the age-old issue: How can we work to live and prevent our lives from being all about work? The book resonated with me because it forced me to think about my life and career from a different perspective. The book provides a ton of concrete action items a person can take to gain confidence, accept failure, and live life to the fullest — skills I did not nurture growing up. The book also lays out a detailed path for pursuing a balance between life and work. Frankly, if it weren’t for “The 4-Hour Workweek”, I would have never pursued my passion of helping others through mental health education. In fact, it was this book that led me down the path to this very interview.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“You Become What You Think About”. In other words, your thoughts are the foundation of everything you do in life. What fascinates me about this concept is that it is so simple but so difficult to control. I have spent years trying to understand and control my thought patterns. It is undoubtedly a lifelong practice. There are entire books dedicated to this one quote or a variation of it. My favorite is “The Strangest Secret” by Earl Nightingale.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I am currently working on a productivity planner that incorporates self-care into your daily routine called The Mental Fitness Planner™. While most traditional planners treat humans like they’re robots who do nothing but aim for 100% efficiency and productivity, this planner prioritizes self-care by utilizing the 8 Dimensions of Wellness.
Most of us understand the importance of setting goals, benchmarks and working towards a result. We also need to understand the importance of taking care of ourselves. The planner guides you to build good self-care management habits into your normal day. No one ever mentions that self-care and productivity need to work together, but you cannot sacrifice one for the other. The Mental Fitness Planner™ helps people take care of their goals while taking care of themselves. We can all feel better AND do better!
OK, 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 don’t consider myself an authority on Emotional Intelligence, but I am a student of the craft and practice it every day. It has become a daily practice for me because it keeps my anxiety and depression under control and prevents me from falling back to self-medication. It’s become a regular part of my routine and I believe I can use my experiences, both good and bad, to educate others on Emotional Intelligence.
For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?
Simply put, I think of Emotional Intelligence as “self-awareness” and “social-awareness”. Most experts break down Emotional Intelligence into two steps. First, developing the ability to recognize and understand your own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. Second, is your ability to use this information to guide your own thinking and actions. In other words, how well you can manage your internal and external environments.
How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?
Intelligence is the ability to understand things, Emotional Intelligence is the ability to understand people. This is oversimplified, of course, but I think it gets the point across.
Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?
In my opinion, Emotional Intelligence is at the foundation of everything we do as humans. Thoughts, emotions, and behaviors all affect each other in our brain’s order of operations. If we can better recognize and understand how the parts work together, it can change our entire lives.
The brain is first triggered by some external stimulus which leads to an initial thought or set of thoughts. Those thoughts lead to emotions. Those emotions lead to our actions and behaviors. Your brain must understand what is happening, or what it thinks is happening, before you can feel it. The thought comes first, whether or not you’re even aware of it.
It is a fact of life that we cannot control everything that happens to us. However, we can control our reaction to it. Building an emotional intelligence skillset allows you to understand and manage your emotions better in order to self-motivate and to create positive social interactions. It really is the first step to realizing your true potential.
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.
Sure, let me give an example using the order of operations I just mentioned.
A few months ago, I was critiqued on a report I had created at work (EXTERNAL STIMULUS).
My initial reaction was to tell myself “I can’t do anything right” and “they think I’m an idiot” (THOUGHTS).
I was disappointed, discouraged, and frustrated by the situation (EMOTIONS).
Those feelings easily could have led me to 1) avoiding the report all-together 2) putting less effort into future tasks or 3) putting so much focus on getting the report right that I ignore other responsibilities (BEHAVIOR).
Thankfully, I was able to step back before taking any action. I realized my emotions were based on errors in my thinking — one critique does not mean I’m an idiot. Ultimately, this awareness allowed me to take a more realistic approach to the situation.
Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?
When I talk about Emotional Intelligence from a business perspective, I start by asking a few questions. First, do I believe that emotions should be kept away from the workplace? Second, will I be successful purely with the knowledge of facts and figures? Definitely not! Studies have proven that poor emotional and social skills derail more careers than lack of technical expertise or even general intelligence.
This is only one example but ask yourself: how much do you enjoy dealing with people who do not handle their emotions well? I’m guessing you don’t enjoy it. Now, consider how executives feel about dealing with people who don’t handle their emotions well.
On the other hand, having these skills can create more self-confidence, better rapport and trust with your peers and leaders, and more success with teamwork and collaborations. If you are regularly sharpening your EI skills, you will also handle change more readily and be more likely to embrace challenges.
I encourage everyone to take a moment to consider how your own self-awareness, attitude and behaviors impact your work performance.
Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?
Just like in business relationships, you can build more trust and mutual understanding. This is largely because EI skills make us more aware of the changes — large and small — that are constantly occurring in ourselves and others. On top of that, by understanding your own emotions and how to control them, you’re better able to express how you feel and understand how others are feeling. This encourages more effective communication and forges stronger relationships.
Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?
EI makes it easier to look at things from a neutral perspective and take necessary actions. Instead of stewing in stress, anxiety, anger, or depression, you can define the problem and create action steps to solve it. Even if there is no easy solution, just going through the problem-solving process will lift some of the nagging worry and uncertainty.
Ok. 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.
- Read! Read anything, really. I make time to read every single day. It can be fiction or non-fiction. The more you read, the more you are exposed to different ideas and perspectives. Whether you agree with something or not, you are still developing more self and social awareness.
- Pay Attention. Make time to observe how you react to other people. Schedule 15 minutes each day to self-evaluate or reflect. Ask yourself questions like “How do I react to stressful situations?” or make a note of when your mood dips. After a while, you’re likely going to notice recurring themes.
- Express yourself. Talk to your friends or family. Take the time to express how you feel. When you practice articulating your thoughts and emotions to someone else it improves your ability to recognize emotions and encourages effective communication at the same time.
- Memorize the 10 Types of Thinking Errors. This was a tip that really struck me early on. As I’ve mentioned, Emotional Intelligence begins with recognizing our thoughts. One way to help you identify unhelpful thoughts or thinking errors is to review the 10 Types of Thinking Errors. The book “Feeling Good” by David D. Burns goes into detail on these, although he calls them Cognitive Distortions. You can also google the terms and several helpful results will pop up.
- Remember you’re human, and humans aren’t perfect. This is a daily practice just as important as any other. Don’t be so hard on yourself! If you try to put a laser focus on everything, good or bad, it will just overwhelm you and slow down your progress.
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?
I do believe schools could do a better job of cultivating Emotional Intelligence from an early age. There should be dedicated classroom learning to introduce the topic and beginner-level actions starting around 5th grade (coinciding with the start of sex education) and continue through high school.
Prior to high school, it can be a few special sessions each year that include expert guest speakers. Once students reach high school, however, I firmly believe it should be a required class for freshmen that runs through at least the first year.
Ok, 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.
We all need to be more open and honest about our mental wellbeing. At the same time, we need to learn to listen empathetically to those speaking. This is the only way to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental health. I think each of us can do our part by expressing our feelings and listening with compassion.
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 US, 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 :-)
Adriene Mishler (entrepreneur, yoga instructor, YouTuber). To me, she is the epitome of everything I strive for personally and professionally. Personally, she embodies kindness, empathy and compassion. Professionally, her business helps to improve the wellbeing of millions of people every single day.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
They can go to thementalfitnessplanner.com for updates on my current project, additional wellbeing resources, and the services provided by our team of certified health coaches at Mental Fitness LLC.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.