Transforming Self-Awareness


“Reacting to offensive comments is not simply a matter of course, where a comment is made and we just respond. These comments are typically fraught with an emotional charge. Thus, responding effectively depends in large part on our ability to recognize and acknowledge our own emotional reactions.

Emotional intelligence, or EI (Goleman, 1995) is used primarily in leadership development with the idea that recognizing and understanding our own and others’ emotional states is conductive to better leadership practices. EI mandates that we go through a process of self-discovery. If educators are self-aware about our own emotions, we are more likely to manage those emotions successfully, especially in times of stress. In other words, not only is it important to manage the emotions of students in the classroom as the sensitive topics of gender, race, sexuality, and so on come up—which they do, no matter what subject is being taught—but also, as the facilitator of the class, we need to be aware of our own triggers: those topics that bring about a physiological and, thus, an emotional response in us.

EI has been essential to my work in the classroom. For example, before I knew about EI, when I would hear an offensive comment coming from one of my students, my first reaction was frustration, anger, and a resultant fast heartbeat. I would probably become a bit red in the face and I wanted to verbally react without thinking. When I began to learn more about EI, I found that instead of reacting, my goal was to be aware of my emotions. Simply

admitting to myself that I was being triggered was a big step toward a productive outcome. It reminded me that despite the fact that I might have a desire to lash out, an aggressive or defensive response from the instructor could be demoralizing and destructive. It could produce lasting consequences not only for the student who made the offending comment, but also for the rest of the class in terms of their future willingness to participate.

Acknowledging my trigger allowed me the chance to take a deep breath and remember that students, like everyone in society, have been socialized to believe misinformation. Whatever comment was spoken simply represented this lack of knowledge, and said very little about the instigator. I could then gently challenge the comment in a calm, compassionate effective way by letting the perpetrator and those who heard the comment know that I was troubled by the language use/comment/behavior, regardless of the intention. It would give me the opportunity to unpack the process of microaggressions: that it is not the intent that matters, but the impact of the underlying message.

Processing self-awareness about our own triggers allows us to calm down in the face of challenging moments and respond without causing the perpetrator to become defensive. Actually, self-awareness is useful before we even get into such a situation, first to acknowledge that we do, in fact, have triggers; second, to consider what they are; and third, to play out a scenario in our mind to practice how we might react constructively. I have far fewer triggers in the classroom than I used to because of this process. In addition, understanding our own triggers helps us to be more compassionate when we witness other people experiencing a trigger.”

This is an excerpt from The Culturally Inclusive Educator: Preparing for a Multicultural World, by Dena R. Samuels. Get a copy of her book here: