Emotional Intelligence as a Gateway to the Spiritual Life

Understanding facets of our spiritual needs, with the help of the movie Inside Out

country road at sunset

Have you found yourself crying lately over Encanto? Or shouting in anger at the cereal bag that won’t open? Perhaps you laughed uncontrollably at spastic cats on Tik Tok? Or maybe you can barely access your emotions these days as you curl up lethargically on your couch?

The Covid-19 pandemic, which began in 2020, disrupted everything. The global pandemic also amplified and compounded long-standing systemic racism and economic and healthcare disparity. These pandemics together produce stress, anxiety, and strain on bodies, relationships, and sense of wellness. In the past two years the pandemics and their ripple effects have taken a huge toll on our emotional lives and well-being, leaving our spiritual wells empty.

If you pause for a moment and take stock of what is going on with your emotions and your spiritual life, what do you notice?

When you do that kind of reflection, you are making use of your emotional intelligence.

Do you know your EQ? 

In my recent book about Pastoral Imagination, I devoted a chapter to emotional intelligence. Your capacity to acknowledge, express, and regulate embodied emotions in yourself and in others can be summed up as your emotional intelligence quotient (EQ). 

Increasingly, emotional intelligence is recognized as a key factor for effective leadership. Having a high EQ is valued in business and educational circles, as well as by psychologists and mental healthcare specialists. 

Emotional intelligence also offers us a gateway to the spiritual life.

Healthy well-functioning human emotions offer signs pointing us to what is important in a moment. When we attune ourselves to what really matters, we are opening up the heart of our spiritual lives. As ministry leaders, paying attention to the emotions that arise in situations and conversations, will help us ask curious questions that can lead to spiritual insight.

Emotions inside and out 

Emotions are complicated. And their meanings are not necessarily obvious. Frequently an entire thicket of emotions surrounds a situation or relationship. We can even have emotions about our emotions. For example, I recently felt disgusted with myself because I was feeling guilty about something about which I really deserved anger, not guilt. Ring a bell?

Although emotions are complex, full of multiple meanings, and come in many embodied expressions, feelings are also important pathways into the spiritual life. But how? 

In the 2011 Pixar movie, Inside Out, directed by Pete Doctor, we see a delightful and instructive visual representation of five (or six) of the primary, universal human emotions. The Inside Out plot takes place partly inside 11-year-old Riley’s head, and partly in her life following her family’s cross-country move from Minnesota to California. We also get glimpses into the brains of her parents and a few other characters.

Inside Riley’s brain, five characters portray her primary universal emotions. These visual representations give us a way to think about how our emotions interact. Joy is the lead character, and she wants to run the show. The other emotions also have big roles. Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger all vie for attention and control of Riley’s thoughts and decisions. The Fear character also embodies the one additional universal human emotion: Surprise.

So in 11-year-old Riley’s brain the emotions compete for attention and sometimes work together to solve problems. But what do these basic emotions have to do with our spiritual lives? 

Signs of the Spirit

A series of scenes from Inside Out help us see each emotion-character in action. From an adult perspective we can also see how each emotion is a gateway to understanding some facet of our spiritual needs, aspirations, and/or well-being. Let’s consider them one at a time. You can watch a video here: 



With blue hair, a sunny yellow dress, and boundless energy, Joy is the first emotion on the scene when newborn Riley arrives.  When Joy is in the lead, life feels lighter, more buoyant.

As adults when we feel joy, we are experiencing what St. Ignatius called consolation, what many of my friends call grace and welcome and belonging. This emotion is much more than any simple pursuit of happiness. What has joy to do with our spiritual lives? 

When we feel buoyancy and joy we are perhaps experiencing not only consolation, but also a sense of alignment and congruence. Spiritually we are in the heart of our vocation and moving with a sense of the right time and place. Joy is the gateway to a spiritual belonging, calling, and grace.


Right after Joy comes on the scene at Riley’s birth, 33 seconds later to be exact, dressed in blue and tear-drop-shaped, Sadness shows up. Sadness mopes and sighs and bursts into a fountain of tears.

When feelings of sadness present themselves, our spiritual attention is drawn to grief and loss. A lingering sadness endures, because we are finite, limited mortals. Sadness is activated when we come face to face with our own mortality or when we experience the fragility of life. Much of life is tenuous and fleeting. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Sadness is a gateway to the vulnerability of our bodies, relationships, and spirits. And it leads us to do the spiritual work of grieving and healing.


Two-year-old Riley feels invincible until she encounters an obstacle. Fear takes the control board (executive function in the brain) to keep Riley safe. And alive. Fear signals to us where we need to be on alert and aware. Fear keeps us from being run over by a bus. Yet fear can also be debilitating, keeping us from making important decisions. And fear and its close cousin “anxiety” have shown up often in the past two years, dominating our lives and bodies.

We can’t simply live in a state of fear. And we need to subject our fears to the test of love. Fear is a placard telling us in bold letters about the most important things we need to face for our spiritual well-being. Fear may also urge us to turn away, a sign pointing us in another direction,  a desolation according to Saint Ignatius

Fear’s big gift is an invitation to courage. To trust. When we hold that which makes us fear up to the Christ light, we see it more realistically. And with help from our communities of faith, fear loses its power over us. We can see a fearful situation through eyes of courage and love.


When two-year-old Riley is offered broccoli, Disgust says “no way!” And broccoli goes everywhere. Disgust, similar to fear, works to keep Riley safe and away from both social and physical harm. As adults disgust functions an emotional warning sign that points us to the work of justice. When we find ourselves repulsed for instance by the history of war or slavery or lynching, it can be a force to propel us into the work of justice, motivating our defiance to the wrongs of past and present.


Shaped like a fire plug, with a head full of flames, Anger rushes to the control panel in Riley’s brain when she hears a threat to her wishes. “No dessert?!” Well take that! Screaming and flailing ensue. 

As adults we experience anger in many shapes and forms from seething invisibly to open rage. In all its many forms, anger is a billboard declaring that something needs to change. Anger is an emotion with many complicated and spiritual purposes for our lives. It can signal injustice and inspire prophetic action. Anger helpfully communicates to us that our deepest values are being violated. Turning anger around, awakens us to deeply held spiritual values in our lives. 


As you watch Inside Out you will see no character named “Surprise.” Yet elements of surprise are clearly present, sometimes looking like Fear or Joy. Surprise comes when we encounter something new. However, the question is will surprise lead on to learning?

Can we allow “surprise” its moment in the sun? Can we stop being so certain that we know about the world or what is coming? When we make a place for not knowing, then surprise becomes the doorway into learning. When I teach pastoral care classes, I try to teach students to intentionally place themselves in a position of not knowing. This opens space for what people will tell you about their feelings, experiences, and their lives. We cannot truly give pastoral or spiritual care if we hold on as if we know what is best for others. To become spiritually engaged learners and deep listeners, we need to remain open to the possibilities of being surprised.

Your turn

Each of these six basic emotions give us clues about possible pathways and important moments in our spiritual lives. Knowing our emotions, and recognizing them in others, allows us to make use of our EQ not only to be good leaders or caregivers. Most importantly it allows us to be attentive to the movements of the Spirit in our lives and communities of faith

With whom might you share this post to contemplate together the intersections of EI and the spiritual life? Consider the following and add your own: 

  • Church staff 
  • Prayer team 
  • Elders 
  • Pastoral search committee 
  • Parents of pre-school and school-aged children
  • Parents and youth, a confirmation class
  • Young adult retreat before college

  • Eileen Campbell-Reed

    Rev. Dr. Eileen Campbell-Reed (she/hers) is Visiting Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Care at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. She is co-director of the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project (a national, ecumenical, longitudinal study of ministry, pastoralimagination.com), founder and host of Three Minute Ministry Mentor (weekly video, blog and podcast, several episodes of which are linked in this post), and author of Pastoral Imagination: Bringing the Practice of Ministry to Life (Augsburg Fortress, 2021).

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