Signs of Low Emotional Intelligence

Low emotional intelligence (EI) is characterized by a reduced ability to recognize and use emotional cues to guide appropriate behaviors.

People with low EI might present with frequent mood changes, emotional outbursts, or the tendency to react impulsively to emotionally charged situations (Bradberry and Greaves, 2009).

They might have trouble accepting criticism from others, fixating on their own opinion, and find it difficult to understand the emotional needs of others, adopting behaviors that are insensitive or failing to comprehend what is the right thing to say.

low emotional intelligence

What Is High Emotional Intelligence? 

Someone with high EI has the ability to perceive, understand and manage emotions, both within themselves and in others (Goleman, 1996).

People with high EI can attune to a wide range of emotions, explore them with curiosity, and have insight into how their feelings can influence their thoughts and behaviors.

With greater emotional awareness, they can adapt more easily to changing environments, maintaining an open attitude towards situations or perspectives that are different from their own. High EI also allows one to empathize with others and build stronger long-term relationships (Hansen, 2015).

Overall, emotional intelligence is essential to many aspects of our lives and is a strong predictor of life satisfaction and success (David, 2016).

What are the signs of low emotional intelligence?

Below are some of the most common signs of low emotional intelligence:

Signs of low emotional intelligence

Poor emotional control

People with low EI often have difficulty regulating their own emotions. Without fully understanding their emotional triggers, they struggle to maintain control of their immediate reactions and might experience overly intense feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness.

As a coping strategy, they might initially try to bottle up uncomfortable emotions by denying them or distracting themselves with other activities. However, this inevitably leads to emotional leakage, where suppressed emotions re-emerge in an unintended way (David, 2016).

People with low EI can also feel overwhelmed by their emotions to the point where they become particularly vulnerable to stress and develop mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression (Zeidner, Matthews, and Roberts, 2012).

Difficulty recognizing emotions

With limited emotional awareness, people with low EI find it harder to recognize emotions as they naturally occur. They might also dispose of a limited emotional vocabulary, tending to describe emotions in a less nuanced and precise way (David, 2016).

For example, on the range of negative emotions, they might use generic descriptors like “sad” or “angry” to name experiences of boredom, frustration, or impatience. This reduced awareness also translates to the emotions of others, which are often neglected or not validated appropriately.

As a consequence, people with low EI might be surprised when someone is upset or become irritated when others expect them to understand their emotions.

Poor social skills

Due to difficulty sharing an emotional connection with others, people with low EI often have very few friends. When someone shares their concerns, they fail to provide appropriate emotional support, or they tend to dismiss the entirety of the problem.

They also struggle to communicate their feelings assertively, coming across as aggressive or, at the other end of the spectrum, as passive and unclear. This can cause misunderstandings and ultimately lead to escalation of conflicts.

In situations of disagreement, people with low EI have poor negotiation skills and rigidly hold onto their perspectives (Jordan and Troth, 2004).

Low empathy

Due to limited social awareness, people with low EI have a reduced ability to empathize and feel compassion toward others (Shutte et al., 2001).

When having a conversation, they lack active listening skills, and they are often oblivious to the emotional cues present in their social interactions.

In addition to being unresponsive to other people’s emotions, they might also be extremely judgemental and criticize the experiences of others in an insensitive way. When their inappropriate behavior is noticed by others, they tend to become defensive rather than apologize for their own actions.  


People with low EI often want to be at the center of attention in every conversation. Even when the topic discussed involves other people, they always find a way to shift the focus back to themselves in an attempt to prove that their experiences are more valid and relevant.

As a result, they often give the impression of missing the main points of the conversation, which can ultimately leave them socially isolated (Bradberry and Greaves, 2009).

Their self-centeredness is also evident during discussions and arguments, where they want to prove they are right at all costs, and they are rarely open to welcoming other people’s perspectives.

Blaming others

People with low EI have little insight into the consequences of their emotional responses. When something goes wrong, they tend to blame others or attribute the fault to circumstances that are outside their control rather than taking responsibility for their own actions (Kaufmann, Quirin, and Baumann, 2022).

For example, if they say something upsetting, they may say it is because other people triggered them to do so. If they fail an assignment, the problem has nothing to do with their own performance but is attributed to the assessors’ judgment.

Mistakes are rarely seen as learning opportunities, and also, when constructive feedback is provided, it is not used as helpful information to improve future performance.


In practice, there are some behaviors that can help us recognize when someone lacks EI skills (Bradberry and Greaves, 2009).

  • People with low EI avoid talking about how they feel, trying to hide their true emotions or using very vague language to describe them (e.g., “I feel bad,” “I’m just a little stressed”)
  • They treat emotions like problems, viewing them as threats to fight rather than temporary messages that will resolve on their own.
  • They want to ‘fix’ negative emotions in others, trying to make them quickly go away rather than patiently sitting with the other person and validating their emotional experience.
  • They pretend to be happy all the time, denying the experience of painful emotions. They hope that by showing a positive emotional state, they will convince themselves and others that negative emotions do not affect them. 
  • In stressful situations, they don’t take time to cool off before responding. They tend to respond too quickly, sharply, or disjointly.
  • At work, their stress and sense of urgency are projected onto other people.
  • They have a hard time congratulating colleagues for their accomplishments, which can come across as jealousy and create unnecessary competition.
  • They have difficulty working well within teams, minimizing other people’s points of view, or not actively participating in conversations during meetings.
  • They also might tend to jump to their own solutions to a problem without allowing others to express alternative plans that might be more effective.
  • They find faults in every situation, making extremely critical and judgemental statements to others.
  • They are unaware of their own’s blind spots and have difficulty accepting criticism.

Consequences Of Low Emotional Intelligence 

Mental health and wellbeing

Ignoring emotions on a regular basis or not dealing with them appropriately can have a significant detrimental effect on a person’s mental health and well-being (Martins, Ramalho, and Morin, 2010).

Specifically, low EI represents a significant risk factor for the development of mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, and is associated with greater difficulty dealing with life challenges and transitions.

People with low EI also tend to adopt more dysfunctional coping mechanisms in an attempt to suppress or avoid uncomfortable emotions. For example, in a study conducted on adolescents, low EI was associated with greater alcohol and tobacco use, possibly due to reduced mental ability to resist unwanted peer pressure (Trinidad and Johnson, 2002). 

Social functioning

Low EI has a direct impact on overall social competence, preventing the establishment of supportive relationships with family and friends.

This can be partly explained by the fact that people with low EI might have a less secure attachment style, struggling to experience emotional closeness to others as well as the ability to ask for emotional support when needed.

In a study on married couples, relationship dissatisfaction was associated with low EI in at least one of the two partners, with reduced frequency of collaborative and affectionate behaviors being one of the strongest predictors (Schutte et al., 2001).

Among teenagers, those with lower EI tend to display more aggressive and conflictual personalities and have poorer quality relationships with their parents (Brackett, Rivers and Salovey, 2011).

Academic and work performance 

Low EI can prevent the adoption of effective emotional responses in academic contexts, where taking tests and getting feedback on performance can be highly anxiety-provoking.

Students with low EI are more likely to be affected by feelings of anxiety and disappointment when failing an examination, they tend to engage in negative self-talk, and they are less proactive and motivated when having to focus on their future preparation (MacCann et al., 2020).

Low EI is associated with reduced stress tolerance also in work environments, impacting employees’ productivity and increasing the risk of burnout.

In a study conducted in a healthcare setting, EI represented a significant moderator of the association between nurses’ job demands and burnout (Chen and Chen, 2018).

In addition, low EI can lead to reduced job satisfaction, affecting levels of commitment toward an organization (Miao, Humphrey, and Qian, 2017).

Causes Of Low Emotional Intelligence 

Parenting style

Emotional intelligence is a skill that starts to develop early in life.

First interactions with parents and other caregivers shape the way a child develops emotional awareness and empathy (Segrin and Flora, 2019). If, in a family, talking about emotions is discouraged, and support is offered in an inconsistent manner, children are more likely to grow with low EI.

Model figures might have poor emotion regulation skills themselves, and this implies less opportunity for a child to learn effective coping skills.

Another aspect that researchers link to lower EI is parenting style, whereby too authoritative or permissive styles are associated with lower EI, as opposed to a democratic style (Al-Elaimat, Adheisat, and Alomyan, 2020).

In authoritative relationships, the use of threat, punishment, and excessive control reduces a child’s ability to feel safe and express their true emotions. At the same time, if children are left without guidance, they might be unable to control situations or make decisions that are not commensurate with their age.

In democratic parenting styles, explanation and dialogue are encouraged, helping children to become familiar with a wide range of emotions and ultimately raising their levels of self-confidence and self-reliance. 


Alexithymia is a construct used across clinical situations to define difficulties in emotion recognition and expression, limited imaginal capacity, and the tendency to adopt logic and concrete thinking (Hogeveen and Grafman, 2021).

Individuals with alexithymia tend to present with flat, non-emotional affect and might display this symptom as a consequence of a developmental, psychiatric, or neurological condition.

For example, it has been estimated that approximately 50% of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are also affected by alexithymia, manifesting in differences in social cognition (Kinnaird, Stewart, and Tchanturia, 2019).

Acquired alexithymia can also emerge following a brain injury and is a significant predictor of functional outcomes, including quality of life and interpersonal relationships (Williams and Wood, 2013).

Can emotional intelligence be a symptom of mental health conditions?

Difficulty managing emotions can show as a symptom of an underlying mental condition, such as depression, emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD), or substance abuse disorder (Hertel, Schütz, and Lammers, 2009).

Although there is variation in the way emotions are experienced, every disorder can present with strong emotional difficulties at its core.

In major depressive disorder, people have a reduced ability to respond to positive stimuli in the environment and have difficulty regulating negative emotional states.

EUPD is characterized by frequent mood swings, impulsivity, and hypersensitivity to minor emotional events or situations.

Deficits in emotion regulation are also thought to be one of the main causes of substance abuse disorder, while, at the same time, addiction in itself can cause changes in the brain that lead to affective lability.

How To Deal With Someone Who Has Low Emotional Intelligence 

Because people with low EI have reduced emotional awareness, engaging in conversations that are rich in emotional vocabulary or that prioritize emotions over logic can be unproductive.

To have more successful interactions, we should: 

Be open to listening

When someone does not respond to our emotional cues, it is natural to become frustrated and want to leave the conversation.

To avoid creating additional barriers, we can instead make an effort to actively listen to what the other person has to say, demonstrating interest in understanding their point of view. This will help create greater emotional closeness and possibly elicit further sharing of perspectives (Bodie et al., 2015).

Offer validation and acceptance

Rather than focusing on the person’s emotional weaknesses, our approach should be directed toward providing empathy and kindness.

By showing that we want to be present and refrain from judgment, we can help the person open up and feel validated for their worth.

Be explicit

Because people with low EI struggle to pick up the emotional nuances in a conversation, we should not expect them always to understand emotions conveyed through our body language or voice tone.

If we express our thoughts clearly and explicitly, we can have more productive conversations with them and avoid misunderstandings (Petrovici and Dobrescu, 2014).

Don’t take things personally

If we are more sensitive individuals, it is hard not to take criticism from someone with low EI as a personal attack. Rather than becoming too defensive, we can make an effort to maintain a calm attitude and communicate our feelings assertively. 


Does emotional intelligence increase with age? 

Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence is a flexible skill that can be learned over time and with practice. It, therefore, seems intuitive that our ability to deal with emotional challenges might improve with age.

Research suggests that when making decisions and problem-solving, older adults are better able to balance emotions and rationality (Carstensen et al., 2000).

Emotion regulation skills also seem to improve with age, with a greater ability to manage negative affective states and uplift positive emotions.

At the same time, people’s chronological age might not always match their level of emotional maturity, and for some individuals, more time and consistent practice are needed to develop emotional intelligence (Fariselli, Ghini, and Freedman, 2008). 

How can a partner with low emotional intelligence affect the relationship? 

When a partner lacks EI, it becomes more difficult to create intimacy, have an open dialogue and get our emotional needs met.

With reduced emotional awareness, we might also struggle to appraise aspects of the relationship that are not working well and work collaboratively to find a solution that can promote positive change in the relationship (Brackett, Warner, and Bosco, 2005).

EI can promote resourceful problem solving, where both partners are committed to understanding each other’s perspective to find mutually beneficial solutions.

Do narcissists have low emotional intelligence?

In grandiose narcissism, individuals tend to have an inflated view of themselves and overestimate their skills, including emotional abilities. On self-reported measures of EI, they tend to present high scores. However, there seems to be a discrepancy in their objective levels of emotional ability (Zajenkowski et al., 2018).

Vulnerable narcissists have instead a less positively biased perspective, and due to low self-esteem, they tend to perceive their emotional abilities as rather poor. In addition, characteristics of vulnerable narcissism, including emotional instability and difficulty sustaining relationships, are related to low ability EQ (Miller et al., 2018).  

Do people with low emotional intelligence still have high IQ?

Though IQ and EQ are sometimes related, they represent two separate constructs that might present with different levels of development in the same person (Goleman, 2020).

A person with low EI might still present with a good ability to rationally analyze situations and understand abstract ideas, allowing them to perform well in academic and work contexts.

However, when decisions require to outweigh both rational and emotional components, they tend to prioritize logical reasoning, which can ultimately lead to inflexible patterns of problem-solving.

Is it possible to improve my emotional intelligence?

Yes, emotional intelligence is a skill that can be developed and improved over time through self-awareness, empathy, active listening, and managing emotions effectively.

Practice and intentional efforts can lead to significant improvements in emotional intelligence.

Find out more about how to improve emotional intelligence.


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Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Sara Viezzer

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc in Applied Neuropsychology

Sara Viezzer is a graduate of psychological studies at the University of Bristol and Padova. She has worked as an Assistant Psychologist in the NHS for the past two years in neuroscience and health psychology. Sara is presently pursuing a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.