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The Emotional Intelligence (or Not) of Immigration

June 27, 2018

For most of my life, I’ve shied away from political topics. Political discourse has always felt somewhat-to-completely futile to me. (Perhaps it’s my ‘wants’ orientation that needs a kind of ‘do this – get that’ relationship to get me motivated.)

Also, I’ve found that political issues have a way of bringing out the ire in otherwise kind and generous people. And I’m not eager to have that heaped upon me.

Now, futile or not, ire or not, I can stand quietly by no longer. My hope is that what I write brings about understanding and connection that ultimately makes a difference.

So, with great trepidation, I wade into the timely and highly political topic of immigration with a blog post (guaranteed to be at least partly futile and somewhat ire-inducing) that hopefully sheds some light on the Emotional Intelligence (EQ) aspects of this issue.

Note: While I’ve been accessing anger and experiencing at least a couple of its gifts (in particular, direction setting and motivation), my intention is to keep that anger out of these posts (as anger rarely connects us all).

The Emotional Intelligence of Immigration is About Boundary Setting and Compassion

I’m no expert on immigration. And I don’t have a solution to the challenges that illegal immigration presents to our country. I do know a bit about Emotional Intelligence as we define it at Learning in Action. And the EQ essence of the immigration debate is boundary setting and compassion.

As it relates to boundary setting, you might be thinking, “Well, duh!”  Border/boundary – same/same. OK. From an Emotional Intelligence perspective, boundary setting is about defining where I stop and where you start, what’s ok and what’s not ok between us, and what’s mine and what’s yours (particularly when we are in conflict). The ideal boundary from an EQ perspective is one that allows us to be both separate from and connected with each other. (Says easy, does hard.)

And if we tend toward thicker boundaries, compassion can keep us connected while we work out our differences. Compassion is the glue that can help us stay in relationship in tough times. Compassion connects us with others through shared thinking, feeling and wanting, and honors the inner experience of others.

Staying separate and connected (with healthy boundaries) and compassionate can be extraordinarily complex, energetically challenging and incredibly uncomfortable, particularly when we are in conflict. I call it “withstanding the thousand tiny paper cuts of being in relationship.” And it’s tough to get it just right and most of us don’t. And we can try.

Blurred Boundaries

Because the ideal EQ of both separate and connected is so challenging, most of us tend to lean one way or the other – toward either being unseparate or unconnected – when we are under stress. When we lose our separateness, our boundaries can tend to blur, making it difficult to separate what’s me or mine from what’s you or yours.

When we experience blurred boundaries, particularly under stress, we can tend toward one or more of the following:

  • Take more responsibility than is ours to take (e.g. taking on the physical responsibilities of others and/or responsibility for the emotions of others)
  • Allow others to take advantage of us (e.g. allow others to expect more of us than is reasonable, though we may not perceive it as too much at the time)
  • Enable others to not do their part (because we are doing it for them, often before they choose to do it for themselves)
  • Not be able to define clearly what’s ok and what’s not ok in relationship (perhaps because others violated our boundaries when we were growing up and there is no space in our brain that can define what a boundary is – that’s a whole other blog post to come)
  • Fear/belief that setting a boundary will end the relationship (perhaps because we’ve become so unconsciously enmeshed in the relationship that drawing a boundary can feel like an ending of both self and other)
  • Become exhausted and overwhelmed taking on too much, disconnecting us from our own joy

Do you identify with any of the above statements?

To be clear, most of the above occurs outside of our consciousness. Those of us who lean toward blurred boundaries tend not to recognize the porousness of our experience because it’s the wallpaper of our lives. We don’t see it about ourselves except perhaps when someone with healthier boundaries points it out. (It’s often something we’ve learned that we don’t know we’ve learned.)

When our boundaries are so blurred, we can literally lose ourselves. And as a nation, if we applied our blurred boundaries to our immigration policy, it would pose an incredible challenge. On our resources, on our energy, on our own joy. So, clearly, saying, “Hey everybody, come on in! We’ll be responsible for you!” is not healthy. Not healthy to us as American humans or as a nation.

Boundaries Too Thick

When we don’t err on the side of blurred boundaries, we’ll tend to err on the side of being unconnected or disconnected from others. Creating boundaries that are too thick when we are challenged. When we are disconnected from others, we don’t feel their pain, we distance ourselves from their humanness, we “really don’t care.”

When our boundaries are too thick, we can tend toward one or more of the following:

  • Believe in the idea of ‘every man for himself’ (perhaps because we learned from an early age that we had to look out for #1)
  • Not consider the impact we have on others, being unempathetic to the feelings/needs of others (perhaps because we weren’t attuned with as children, no one recognizing or sharing with us in our feelings/needs)
  • View interactions with people as transactions versus relationships, ‘dealing’ with people, instead of relating with them (perhaps because that’s been a successful strategy for us in other parts of our lives)
  • Become angered by others not behaving as we expect them to (perhaps because we learned to look outside of ourselves as our point of reference, and life rarely gives us exactly what we expect)
  • Separate ourselves from others through blame, judgement and devaluation.
  • Believe that the end justifies the means, placing policy over people and their welfare.
  • Ascribe to the idea that being right ‘trumps’ all else. (It’s about the principle!)

Do you identify with any of the above statements?

Perhaps not? Some of it sounds pretty mean and heartless. And when we are being challenged (the way that we can feel that illegal immigrants challenge us), we can be triggered into a default way of thinking, feeling and wanting that we are barely, if at all, conscious of. We can have an inner experience like what’s described above, without being aware of it.

Conscious or not, too thick boundaries are not healthy for us as humans or as a nation. As humans, when our boundaries are impenetrable, they keep us protected and everyone else out. And it keeps us alone. Physically, emotionally, or both. It prevents intimacy, connection, love. Something we all need. As humans and as a country.

As a nation, thick boundaries (whether through walls or policies or tariffs) assume that we can survive somehow completely on our own in the world, without friends, without allies, without alliances. And we can’t. Not in the long run.


Regardless of our tendencies to lean toward blurred boundaries or too thick boundaries, empathetic compassion can keep us in relationship when it’s hard to be in relationship. Empathetic compassion taps into our heart, connecting us with the feelings and needs of others.

When we are empathetically compassionate, we know, care and share in the feelings of others. It keeps us leaning toward others versus away when the going gets tough. People who don’t experience empathetic compassion, simply don’t care about the thinking, feeling, and wanting of people, especially when they are in opposition with them.

Many things can block people from experiencing empathetic compassion. Personal hardship, wealth, racism, righteousness. (See more on Empathy in this related blog post.) And it’s rarely a conscious choice people make. It’s often a result of how their brains have been shaped by the events and relationships of their lives.

We’re All Human

Most of us are unaware of how boundaried or compassionate we are when we are being challenged. These aspects of our internal experience are largely unconscious to us. (That’s why we created the EQ Profile – to help make what’s unconscious to us about our inner world, more conscious).

For the most part, boundaries and compassion are not conscious choices we make. Rather, they are the result of the relationships and events of our lives and the meaning we’ve made from them. Those relationships and experiences have influenced our beliefs about what’s required for us to survive in the world.

And the experiences that have created those beliefs have shaped how the neurons in our brains have wired together and determine what feels comfortable and right to us. And what feels comfortable and right gets reinforced as our patterns of thinking, feeling and wanting play out. So, for some people, what feels comfortable and right, what feels necessary for survival, is to keep others out.

Understanding this, that our boundaries and our degree of compassion, are not completely our choice, helps me to understand and be empathetic toward the people who favor separating children from their parents as a deterrent to immigration.

To be clear, I’m not saying these people aren’t responsible for their actions or that connection or compassion are beyond their choice. I’m simply suggesting that understanding how these folks may have come to their position, understanding their perspective, helps me give them some grace. And I can regard them with compassion as fellow humans. I can give them what they don’t give others or perhaps themselves.

The Emotional Intelligence of People Who Favor Separating Children From Their Parents

It is easy for me to make up a lot of mean and sinister stories about the people who decided separating children from their parents would be a good deterrent to immigration. Making up stories is what we humans do. It’s part of our neurobiological make up. And those stories we make up can easily turn into judgments that then further separate us.

So, I can’t and won’t speak to the motivations and intentions of the people who made these decisions. I wasn’t there. I don’t know.

And the EQ orientation of those people is one of thick boundaries and low compassion. With such an orientation, illegal immigrants, parents and children can be otherized, blamed, judged, dealt with, and ultimately treated as objects. And all of that can be justified with the belief that the end justifies the means.

People in favor of separating children from parents don’t want illegal immigrants coming into our country, using our precious resources, taking our jobs. And they can feel comforted in that stance with the belief that they are in the right. After all, it’s the illegal immigrants who are breaking the law. They are the ones putting their families at risk, not us. They are responsible for their choices. We are just enforcing the laws of our country, as is our right. Right?

And people who favor this type of treatment of parents and children, illegal or not, immigrant or not, have developed their orientation (whether they are conscious of it or not) as a means of their own physical and/or emotional survival.

The Emotional Intelligence of Immigration

Emotional Intelligence is messy. And staying connected and separate and compassionate is challenging and hard and complicated and often uncomfortable. And what’s right isn’t easily determined. And staying in relationship while we figure out our challenges can be energetically draining.

Immigration is messy. It’s complicated. It’s not easy to see what’s right. If it was easy, we would have figured it out.

And whether referring to EQ or immigration, turning our backs on the pain of others is never the answer. It just can’t be. When we disregard the suffering of others, we are denying and degrading a part of ourselves. We can not disconnect ourselves from others without also disconnecting from a part of ourselves. We all lose when we do. We just may not see it.

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