Saturday, May 25, 2013

Emotional Competence, Self-Experience and Developmental Patterns

The parent's job is to facilitate their child's growth toward a "good enough" version of what is possible.

What is emotional competence? How is it developed? How does trauma and deprivation interfere?

I teach a course introducing psychodynamic theory to clinical psychology doctoral students, taught from the perspective of Descriptive Psychology. When we go over "The Essentials of Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice", I remind students of the historical shift in the theory's focus on what an infant or child needs to manage and tolerate. For the early Freudians, the central problem was the management and toleration of sexuality and aggression. For later theorists, attention shifted to the infant and child's ability to handle the complexity of dependent relationships with their ambiguities and ambivalences. These later theorists were also interested in the self that experienced these complex relationships and tensions. How are these feelings and relationships to be managed?

The development of any personal characteristic requires a prior capacity and an appropriate intervening history. Self-experience concerns feeling of continuity, coherence or fragmentation; a person's sense of authenticity and agency; and a host of related themes. The development of one's sense of self has patterns and through-lines with characteristic outcomes.  For children with ordinary or exceptional initial capacities, the nature of their parenting and circumstances, fortuitous or not, is relevant.  Self-experience and emotional maturation are interwoven themes. A person's toleration of affect and their expression of emotion go hand in hand. 

The chart below attempts a summary of major developmental achievements the good enough parent in the good enough environment fosters in the average expected child in contrast to what follows in the wake of deprivation and trauma. A person's developmental history fosters or elicits an ongoing pattern of life. I use this sort of language in an attempt to avoid implying causality, since there is no reason these patterns necessarily result in a specific outcome, but are understandable when they do. We are not surprised by the result even if it did not have to turn out as it did. This is not a deterministic model of development, but rather a Dramaturgical pattern that makes sense in retrospect. To paraphrase Adam Philip's summary of Freud's theory of development, childhood informs everything but predicts nothing. 

For methodological purposes, I am defining self-experience on an axis of "cohesion" and "fragmentation". I am not all that happy with the images implied by this language. But for now, I don't have better images or concepts available, and this language does have an established use in the Self Psychology and Object Relations literature. I welcome a better conceptualization.  By "cohesion", I am referring to the sense of a person having it together, feeling whole or comfortable in their skin. This is in contrast to a condition of "fragmentation", of falling apart, cracking up or not being able to keep it together.  I suspect you know what I mean. 

Some further elaboration and clarification:

Problematically obscured, if not articulated, is what we commit ourselves to when we talk about emotion. "Emotion" covers a lot of ground and is one of the most varied and conceptually muddled terms in psychology. (This, as Wittgenstein reminds us, is the condition of conceptual confusion that plagues psychology).  In the tradition of Descriptive Psychology, when I use emotion concepts, I refer to a family of intentional actions in which the actor has a learned tendency to immediately act on an appraisal without deliberation. Fear, anger, guilt, jealousy, envy, sadness and joy are paradigm examples. Sympathy, admiration, and many other relational stances bear a family resemblance to emotions although not everyones will agree they should be called emotions. But they do, more or less, share the quality of an immediate response to a recognized circumstance.

Mostly, we don't decide to feel emotional, we automatically respond to our appraisal of what we take our circumstances to be. When I recognize immediate danger, I act fearfully; when suddenly provoked, I act with hostility; and so on. "Unless clauses" are also central in clarifying emotional behavior since I will act with immediacy toward my circumstances unless I have a stronger reason not to. For example, I will act with hostility to provocation unless I see it as too dangerous to act, or ethically wrong, or I am unable to act at that time, or I am unable to see the provocation for what it is, and so on. This holds for all of our emotion terms coupled with the appropriate unless clause reminders.

Understanding emotional competence also hinges on the meaning of competence. Competence is a matter of effectiveness, something achieved by relevant practice and experience over time. Whereas knowledge or insight can be achieved in an instant, competence or know-how generally must be practiced under varied circumstances before it feels natural.

Certain patterns of emotional behavior are more apt to result in a successful outcome than others. Anger versus rage or fear versus panic are cases in point. Anger and fear may result in a highly specific and well targeted response, whereas rage and panic suggest a poorly modulated, flailing reaction. Similarly, some emotional behaviors are more likely to have pro-social than anti-social implications and will be valued accordingly. One's expression of sympathy or gloating in response to another's loss may result in different reactions from the community. 

Some other implications: 

1. Central aspects of emotional competence concern a person's accurate recognition of the emotionally appraised state of affairs, the ease of expressing the emotion, and the reversibility, closure, resolution, and termination of the emotional action.  Am I provoked by what is appropriately provocative? Am I able to tolerate being angry in response to what I see? Can I adequately adjust my behavior to a revised understanding of the circumstances? Can I let it go and get on to other business? Emotional behavior can be competent or incompetent. This reminder undermines the false distinction between rational behavior and emotional behavior. Neither its immediacy nor its absence of deliberation make emotional behavior an irrational response to a person's circumstances. Emotional behavior is rational when it is an accurate and effective response. It is irrational when, like any other response, it follows from an inadequate or distorted appraisal of the relevant circumstances. 

Here's the logical form of emotional behavior as an intentional action:

W:  What the actor Wants to accomplish.
K:  What the actor Knows, distinguishes, or recognizes in the circumstance that is relevant to what the actor Wants.
KH:  What the actor Knows-How to do given what the actor Wants and Knows about the relevant circumstance.
P:  The procedural manner or Performance of the action in real time.
A:  The Achievement of the action.

And an example that highlights the appraisal and competence needed to act effectively:

Notice it is the automatic and immediate tendency to escape the Zombie that gives us reason enough to label this as fear.

Hence the reality or cognitive basis of emotion:


2. A person's empathic skills are a crucial aspect of their ability to adequately appraise the actions of others and respond appropriately. 

3. A person’s ease or skill at emotional closure is a fundamental quality of emotional competence as is:  

5. The ease and accuracy of recognizing emotion in one's self and others.

6. Developmentally, the social experiences that foster the creation and development of the values, knowledge, and skills required for competent emotional behavior are those that provide adequate practice and experience in the effective and immediate response to danger, loss, provocation, wrongdoing, and so on.  The ability to act effectively and immediately is fundamental in demonstrating emotional competence.  The ability to refrain from emotional expression is equally salient. It is negligent to not pause and deliberate under certain circumstances and this is required of the competent person if they are to remain in good standing with others.

7.  Emotionally competent behavior effectively restores or enhances a person’s status or place in their world. 
Incompetent emotional behavior is ineffective at restoring or enhancing one's position.  

8. Emotionally competent actions are judged by the community's sense of the shelf life of reasonably enduring or putting up with a person’s emotional actions, traits, states, and moods.  The shelf life is the actual but varied duration it takes for others to decide that a person should have resolved their situation or reconciled with an incomplete or failed resolution.  Social norms and idiosyncratic values apply. A community has stated and unstated expectations for when its members need to "get over it, already". This can be complicated by the fact that a person is a member of a variety of communities not all of which will have the same standards. 

9. The classic psychoanalytic observer might notice that the axis of cohesion to fragmentation somewhat resembles the tradition of grouping issues as Oedipal to pre-Oedipal. About this, I remain silent. 


(but have kids and teach your children well.)



  1. A well-crafted post, Wynn. A lot to consider here.

    It might be useful to point out that emotional competence is part of a person's overall competence at being a person (as Peter G. Ossorio put it) "in a world of persons and their ways." Lacking emotional competence, one is restricted, sometimes seriously, in being a person and thus, in being oneself authentically.

  2. As a student in the Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience Track, I never become tired of speaking in depth about how a person's developmental history fosters or elicits an ongoing pattern of life (as you mention). I would like to highlight that a bit more. When it comes to creating a safe, holding environment that yields to secure attachment, Mitchell and Black (1995) cleverly state that "It is crucial that the mother be there when needed, but it is equally crucial that she recede when she is not needed" (p. 126). Winnicott will clearly agree with your chart above in that the "good enough parent" in the "good enough environment" will inevitably foster toleration of conflict and ambivalence, secure attachment, and I-Thou relations".

    In the unfortunate scenario of deprivation and trauma, Mitchell and Black (1995) would also agree with the negative effects this situation elicits and go on to state that "When the mother is unable to provide the kind of good-enough environment necessary for the consolidation of a health sense of self, Winnicott felt, the child's psychological development essentially ceases" (p. 129). This observation goes hand-in-hand with your chart above.
    ~ G. Cruz

  3. The older I get, the more I notice these "patterns" seem to be passed down within a family. Almost like some sort of emotional-virus pattern. That is to say, if the mother responsible for the child was herself not on the receiving end of a "good enough" parent or environment, then this seems to be passed down to her offspring. I theorize this emotional-virus can and is passed on to our house hold pets as well. I think that the animal can experience this depravation and/or trauma too and thus "panic" or have a tendency to come unglued or withdrawn under stress. What really interests me is our ability (or not) to break this cycle for those organisms in our wake.