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. I teach it 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 tolerate. For the early Freudians, their central problem was the toleration of sexuality and aggression. For later theorists, attention shifted to the infant and child’s ability to manage the complexity of dependent relationships with their ambiguities and ambivalences. These later theorists were also interested in the “self” that experienced these relationships and the tensions of sexuality and aggression. 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, at least as described in the literature. In the development of “emotional competence”, for children with ordinary initial capacities, the nature of parenting coupled with whatever deprivation and trauma encountered is relevant. Self-experience and emotional maturation are interwoven themes. The capacity to tolerate affect and the 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 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 they are understandable when they do. This is not a deterministic model of development, but rather a “dramaturgical” pattern that makes sense in retrospect.

For methodological purposes, I am defining self-experience on an axis of “cohesion” and “fragmentation,” but I am troubled by the materialistic image implied by this language. 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, feelingwhole or comfortable in their skin. This is in contrast to a condition of “fragmentation,” of falling apart, cracking upor 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 other relational feelings may bear some family resemblance to emotions although not everyone will agree. But they do, more or less, share the quality of immediate or non-deliberate response to a recognized circumstance.

Mostly, I don’t decide to feel emotional, I automatically respond to the appraisal of what I take my 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? And, 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.

Adapted from The Behavior of Persons (2013), Peter Ossorio

2. A person’s empathic skills are crucial in 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.
4. The ease and accuracy of recognizing emotion in one’s self and others.

5. 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” are fundamental in demonstrating emotional competence. The ability to refrain from emotional expression is equally salient. It is negligent to not deliberate under certain circumstances and this is required of the competent person if they are to remain in good standing.

6. 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 status.
7. 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 the actor should have resolved their situation or reconciled with an incomplete or failed resolution. Social norms and idiosyncratic values apply. A community has stated or unstated expectations for when its members need to “get over it, already” if they are to remain in good standing. This can be complicated by the fact that a person is a member of a variety of communities and not all will have the same standards.

8. 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.)

Background information on Descriptive Psychology can be found here: The Society for Descriptive Psychology and on Facebook .

Written By Wynn Schwartz Ph.D

Emotional Competence, Self-Experience and Developmental Patterns was originally published @ Freedom, Liberation and Reaction: Lessons in Psychology and has been syndicated with permission.

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