Emotional competency is a set of skills that really does not get the attention it deserves. Emotions are colorful, dramatic, fascinating, and essential dimensions of every person’s experience. Emotions send a constant stream of powerful signals that can guide us along the difficult path of survival or quickly send us off on destructive and painful tangents.
Emotions obey their own peculiar rules that we can study, understand, listen to, learn from, master, and even enjoy.
Emotional Competency or Emotional Intelligence
Much has been written about emotional intelligence. If you have been frustrated in your attempt to increase your emotional intelligence, you are not alone. The problem is that emotional intelligence cannot be learned because it is a test of emotional competency. You can learn to become emotionally competent; you cannot learn to be emotionally intelligent. If you want to score high on an emotional intelligence assessment, master the skills of emotional competency.
This article will get you started.
Understanding The Difference Between Affect And Emotion
Affect is the experience of feeling pleasant or unpleasant. Affect arises as a physiological reaction to your environment, your thoughts, and your memories. Sylvan Tomkins, a 20th-century psychologist, identified 9 affects. They are:
All humans are born with these affects.
The Neuroscience of Affect and Emotion
From a neuroscientific perspective, affect results from the interactions of the amygdala (fear and anger, startle-surprise), hypothalamus, insula (disgust, dissmell, shame, humiliation), and striatum (happiness, joy, pleasure). These brain structures are modulated through the ventromedial prefrontal cortex into the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex.
The hypothalamus receives signals from the amygdala. The hypothalamus then uses the endocrine system to convert the signals into affect through powerful chemicals called hormones. The thinking part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, has no role in creating affect.
However, the prefrontal cortex has a significant interpretive role because it creates emotions from affect as symbolic representations. Humans are not born with emotions but must learn them starting at about 18 months of age.
Understanding The Difference Between Self And Emotions
You are not your emotions. At times, however, emotions can be so overwhelming that you can confuse your self with them.
One essential skill of emotional competency is learning how to distinguish yourself from your emotions. For example, you might feel angry, but your self is not angry; you are merely experiencing the emotion of anger.
The sense of self is more or less enduring, while the experience of emotions is usually brief.
Developing Emotional Self-Awareness
Emotional self-awareness is the ability to recognize and name your emotional experience in the moment. Most of the time, you probably experience a neutral affect and no emotion. In other words, neither sensory inputs, thoughts, or memories are triggering affect. When you are triggered, you will feel emotions. Since your brain has separate functions of thinking and generating emotions, you want to be cognitively aware of your emotions as well as feeling them.
Notice that there is a sharp distinction between awareness of emotion and feeling emotion. Just because you feel an emotion does not mean that you are aware of emotion.
There are four reasons self-awareness of emotions is critical to emotional competency:
- You concretize emotions into your consciousness, which creates self-awareness.
- Once you are self-aware, you can look around to see what is causing your emotion.
- Self-awareness allows you to make informed choices about what to do next.
- Self-awareness allows you to communicate your emotional experience to others.
Emotional self-awareness is also the ability to understand why you are experiencing emotions.
Emotional self-awareness means that you understand the links between your emotions and what you think, do, and say
Emotional self-awareness allows you to understand how your emotions affect your performance. You can analyze what you are feeling with what you are doing and decide if your actions are consistent with your goals. Self-awareness helps you see that your feelings are driving you away from your goals.
Finally, emotional self-awareness helps you see how emotions drive your values and goals. Suppose you are angry about racial injustice and are self-aware. In that case, you gain the insight that working solving injustice is crucial to you. Without this self-awareness, you would just be angry.
Developing A Vocabulary Of Emotions And Emotional Expression
Emotional competency includes an ability to express your emotions accurately. If you cannot name your emotions, you may suffer from a condition called alexithymia.
Your ability to name your emotions requires you to develop categories of emotions. Emotional categorization begins at about 18 months of age as the limbic system begins to mature. Children have to be guided to learn what words describe what feelings they are experiencing.
Most children are denied the opportunity to develop emotional categorization because they are frequently emotionally invalidated by their parents and peers. Emotional invalidation occurs whenever someone tells you how to feel, diminishes, dismisses what you are feeling, or judges you for feeling. Common examples of emotional invalidation are:
“It doesn’t hurt.”
“Don’t be a sissy.”
“Don’t be such a drama queen.”
“Be a man.”
“Toughen up, buttercup.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”
“It’s not worth getting upset about.”
“Things will be better tomorrow.”
Numerous research studies show that emotional invalidation is one of the most pervasive and insidious forms of childhood abuse. Emotional invalidation is hurtful and prevents children from proper emotional brain development. Emotional invalidation tells a child that she is a bad person for having feelings. The parent may not intend for the child to believe that, but that is how the child receives the message.
As a result, children become emotionally stuck when they cannot navigate a difficult emotional situation. Their brains will wall off the emotion as a means of self-protection. Over time, with repeated invalidation, a child becomes emotionally shut down and unavailable. When a child no longer feels emotions, her brain cannot move her forward. The impulse towards maturity is halted.
Suppose you have become emotionally stuck in childhood. If you are stressed as an adult, you will revert to the time and age you became emotionally stuck. That will be the limit of your emotional self-control.
Developing Emotional Self-Regulation
Emotional competency means that you have a high degree of emotional self-regulation. Emotional self-regulation arises from the prefrontal cortex. It is the ability to control impulsivity and emotional reactivity.
Emotional self-regulation develops with emotional self-awareness. If you are not emotionally self-aware, you will not be able to control your behaviors. Instead, you will be emotionally reactive.
Developing Awareness Of Others’ Emotions
Emotional competency also includes the ability to read other people’s emotional data fields.
Every person sends out signals or data about their emotional experience.
Our brains are hard-wired to scan this data. However, because western culture eschews emotions as relevant, we are not taught how to use our innate ability to read others’ feelings.
Developing Reflective Emotional Listening (Cognitive And Affective Empathy)
Empathy is the ability to reflect back another person’s emotions accurately.
Empathy must be learned and practiced.
There are two kinds of empathy: affective and cognitive.
Affective empathy is the ability to feel without thinking what another person is experiencing emotionally.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to observe, identify, and think about another person’s emotions.
Empathy is always expressed with a “you” statement. You would, for example, say, “You are angry.”
Empathy should never be expressed with an “I” statement. “I” statements and the associated skill of “active listening” was invented by psychologist Thomas Gordon and recast into nonviolent communication by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg.
Sixty years of experience has taught us that “I” statements do not work. What does work is a “you” statement.
Coping With Aversive Emotions And Developing Emotional Resiliency
Life is not easy. Sometimes, we have bad experiences or memories. With them come negative emotions. Emotional competency includes our ability to manage intense negative and unpleasant emotions so that we are not permanently injured by them.
Emotional resiliency is the ability to move through unpleasant emotional experiences, such as sadness and grief, to reach a state of emotional equilibrium in contentment, happiness, and satisfaction. Resiliency is not well-understood from a neuroscientific perspective. However, resiliency seems to be strongest in people who can embrace a broader perspective on life, have strong and diverse identities, and develop relationship networks.
Developing Interpersonal Emotional Negotiation Skills
Emotional competency includes interpersonal emotional negotiation skills.
Interpersonal emotional negotiation skills are the skills we use to manage our emotions and help those who have a relationship with us manage their emotions.
- We develop the ability to state our emotional expectations clearly to others.
- We develop clear boundaries about what is emotionally acceptable and what is not.
- We listen to and honor the expressed emotional expectations of others.
- We acknowledge and honor the expressed emotional boundaries of others.
This skill is missing in co-dependent, pleaser, appeasing, and passive-aggressive behaviors
Teaching Others (Especially Children) Emotional Competency
The final emotional competency is your ability to teach emotional competency to others, especially children. One of the top reasons children melt down is communicative frustration. Without the skills to process complex emotions, children are powerless. They are scared when they don’t understand why their body and mind experience intense emotions. Many children do not have the vocabulary or language skills needed to label their feelings and express themselves. Instead, they unconsciously repress their emotions. This can result in negative thoughts and shame associated with feelings. Reflecting back emotions helps children identify, reflect, and resolve their feelings.
When you are able to teach emotional competency to others:
- You model emotional competency for others to imitate.
- You explain the science of emotions accurately and appropriately
- You explain and demonstrate the various skills that make up emotional competency
- You coach others towards incremental improvement of their emotional competency
This is a key function of leadership and a key function of parenting.
Emotional Competency Is The Secret to a Fulfilling Life
We spend decades learning how to be task-focused. Formal education emphasizes knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving. We spend almost no time on developing emotional competency. Misery often results from not being taught how to be emotionally competent. Think about poor leaders, relationship failures, addictions, co-dependent relationships, to name a few, and the result of emotional incompetency is everywhere.
Being emotionally competent is the secret to a fulfilling life. Learning these skills is not difficult, but does take a commitment of some time and effort.
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