See what's new with COACHING WORLD

Are You Budgeting for Emotional Intelligence?

Posted by Irena O’Brien | January 10, 2019 | Comments (0)

My client, Sarah, hasn’t made any progress in our six weeks of coaching. She still has low self-esteem. She’s still very critical of herself, and she may be depressed. In fact, her energy is so low that she hasn’t done any of the tasks that we had agreed on together. I know that she has a strong desire to pull herself out of her despair. But, where do we go from here?

In her book, How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., introduces the concept of the body budget as critical for our emotional well-being. The purpose of the brain is not to make rational decisions, or for emotional intelligence, but to ensure that we grow, survive and reproduce. A useful metaphor that Feldman Barrett uses for this process is the body budget—how your brain budgets the energy in your body to keep you alive and well. To ensure that we keep our body budget in balance, the brain anticipates the body’s needs and attempts to satisfy them even before the need arises. This is why we need to look at the brain and body as one.

“You cannot overcome emotion through rational thinking because the state of your body budget is the basis for every thought and perception you have,” she says.

​Your mood (psychologists call this affect) shapes your emotions. Your mood is the general sense of feeling that you experience throughout your day. It’s not an emotion, but a much simpler feeling. You can feel good or bad, and with varying intensities. Your mood is always there, even when you’re sleeping. Your mood is simply the sum of your body budget. When your mood is low, it just means that your body budget is out of balance. Your brain anticipates your emotional reactions from the sensory information it receives from inside and outside your body. When your mood is low, and your body budget is out of balance, your brain will come to the wrong conclusion and issue an emotional reaction that’s less than ideal, or even destructive.

An example of how an unbalanced body budget can lead to the wrong emotional reaction is the concept of “hangry.” The English Oxford Dictionary defines “hangry” as being “bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.” My daughter is someone who gets “hangry.” She knows that she’s not really angry, only hungry. Simply eating something will always do away with her short temper, and her husband keeps snacks in the car just for that purpose. We can laugh about being “hangry,” but many people don’t know that they’re short-tempered when they’re hungry. Or, when they’re tired.

How to Restore Your Body Budget

Remember, that the purpose of the brain is to budget your energy to keep you alive and well. So, the most important thing you can do to restore your body budget is to make sure that you eat a healthy diet, exercise and get adequate sleep. The quickest way to restore your body budget in the moment is through eating and sleeping. As coaches, we don’t often consider that low mood can have a physical cause, and we rarely ask our clients about their physical well-being.

Physical well-being is crucial for mental and emotional well-being. A participant in a group I was teaching told me that she and her husband tended to have their difficult conversations in the evening, after the kids went to bed. They often didn’t go well. After learning about the body budget, she introduced it to her husband, and they now schedule these conversations for times when they’re both well rested.

Let’s go back to my client, Sarah. She had been eating mostly sugary snacks and processed food. I had been encouraging her to clean up her diet, and when she finally did eliminate sugar, her mood and self-esteem went up dramatically within a few days. We were able to start doing good work together because she now had the energy. Of course, she did keep going back to sugar, so one of the issues that we worked on was her need to self-medicate with sugar.

Many of the issues facing our clients are related to low affect (e.g., low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, etc.). We’ve just seen how mood is simply the sum of our body budget. This means that low mood and negative emotional reactions could be due, at least in part, to physical causes. This is something we should consider when coaching. We need to encourage our clients to keep their body budget balanced by eating well and getting enough exercise and adequate sleep. Because without a healthy body, it’s impossible to have a healthy mind.


© Irena O’Brien and The Neuroscience School

irena obrien headshot

Irena O’Brien

Irena O’Brien, Ph.D., is a cognitive neuroscientist and the founder of The Neuroscience School, which provides neuroscience training and information for coaches and health and wellness professionals. She un-complicates neuroscience and teaches practical evidence-based tools and strategies that her students can use in their practice. Irena has developed The Body Budget tracker, a checklist for identifying how your physical well-being impacts your mental/emotional well-being. You can download it here.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Leave a Reply

Not a member?

Sign up now to become a member and receive all of our wonderful benefits.

Learn more