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Studying Emotional Competency

Learn to recognize, interpret, and respond constructively to emotions in yourself and others.


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This guide[1] suggests a path for studying the emotional competency material and presents a thorough and orderly tour of the entire curriculum. The tour starts at the beginning and moves logically from one topic to the next until each topic in the curriculum is visited. Because each of us differs significantly in our background and interests, we will want to study some topics in depth and move quickly over other topics. Therefore, it may be helpful to consider your comprehension and interest in each statement or topic as you read the study guide. If the statement is clear, understandable, and you believe it to be true, then move on. If you don't understand the statement, or you are skeptical, or curious and want to learn more, then follow the links embedded in the text to learn more about each topic. Several of the more important or complex topics will be covered more than once, beginning with a short introduction to the topic and leaving the in-depth coverage for later in the tour.


All humans experience emotions that help guide our actions. These emotions are ancient mechanisms that quickly mobilize us to deal with important interpersonal encounters. Emotions are experienced as feelings that often occur simultaneously along with our cognitive (conscious) thoughts. The emotional feeling may be subtle and go almost unnoticed, or it may be strong enough that it clearly divides our attention, or it may be so strong that it overwhelms our decision making and leads us directly to immediate action.

Emotional competency is the ability to recognize, interpret, and respond constructively to emotions in yourself and others. Humans are social beings, and emotional competency is an essential social skill. Just as one person might be good in math, one good in music, and another good in sports, we each differ in our emotional competence. Some of us might easily recognize an emotion that others don't even notice. Just as studying math increases our math competency, and practice with a musical instrument increases our musical competency, studying emotions and practicing constructive responses can increase our emotional competency. While some people seem to have a knack for math, and others have a knack for music, some people easily attain high levels of emotion competency, even without formal instruction. These people are naturally high in emotional Intelligence. But just as most of us don't learn math without careful study, most of us can benefit greatly by studying to improve our emotional competency.

Emotional competency is an important skill that can provide several benefits throughout many aspects of your life. It can increase the satisfaction you have with relationships while it increases your gratification and contentment with the many simple events in your life. It can give you greater insight and help you better understand the motives and actions of yourself and others. You can free yourself from anger, hate, resentment, vengeance, and other destructive emotions that cause hurt and pain. You can feel relief and enjoy greater peace-of-mind, autonomy, intimacy, dignity, competence, and wisdom as you engage more deeply with others. Increasing your tolerance and compassion can lead to an authentic optimism and a well-founded confidence, based on your better understanding and interpretation of what-is.

As your emotional competency increases, you may experience a variety of positive transformations in your life. Destructive behavior patterns of the past may transform into more constructive behavior as you begin to solve the mysterious puzzle of human interactions and gain a quiet and confident understanding of them. Anxiety may yield to more peaceful, tranquil, and contented feelings as your understanding increases. You may become less isolated as you become more engaged with others you now enjoy relating to. You may feel more confident and powerful, and less confused, frustrated, and powerless. Overall you can transform from confused to confident; from clueless to comprehending and enlightened, from fragmented to coherent, from shallow to deep, and from oppressed to liberated as you become your authentic self.

Once we recognize an emotion, we can choose how to react to it. Making good choices requires us to understand the information the emotion is sending us, know how to interpret that signal, consider the choices we have for action, and foresee the consequences of those choices. The many emotions we all feel provide us with many decisions we are responsible for. Let's begin by analyzing the powerful emotion of fear.

Fear is a Basic EmotionEdit

Everyone experiences fear at some time. This emotion is helpful because it quickly alerts us to imminent danger and prepares us to act to avoid that danger. Fear serves to protect us from harm. Fear is typical of emotions in that we have a physiological response, including a distinctive facial expression, the signal may or not be directly helpful in today's world, and we have choices in how to respond.

The signals that trigger fear originally developed millions of years ago. They include: something hurling rapidly toward you, such as a boulder rolling quickly toward you; sudden loss of support, such as the floor giving way; and the threat of physical pain. We also learn new triggers for our fears based on our experience in the modern world. Because these ancient triggers may not be relevant in today's world, we have to analyze the true source of our fears before deciding how to react. Falsely triggered fears, or ineffective responses, can increase our stress and make it difficult to relax.

If you discover the threat is now gone and the danger you feared has disappeared, you will enjoy a feeling of relief.

Anxiety is a generalized variant of fear triggered by an uncertain threat. It describes a prolonged moderately intense condition provoked by a specific event that can be upsetting. It is the distress we feel when existential concerns are provoked by an immediate or upcoming event.

While fear alerts us to threats, surprise alerts us to any unexpected event, whether or not it is a threat. Both emotions increase our alertness and focus our attention as strategies for self-defense and survival. Surprise motivates us to find answers.

Fear provides the basis for dominance—the ability to harm. Dominance is one source of power—the ability of one person to change the behavior of another. Although you often hear the phrase “motivated by fear”, fear usually constrains our actions rather than motivates us. Survival is the true motive at work.

As with any emotion, culturally determined display rules influence how much we allow others to see the fear we are feeling. Adults typically maintain a cool and brave outward appearance in public even if they are experiencing moderately high levels of fear. We don't often allow ourselves to scream in front of our boss or other people we seek to impress. We also work to keep a brave face and don't show our fear while we are protecting children from a danger we may be facing along with them.

Courage is a particular strength we use to cope with and manage our response to fear. A courageous person understands danger, and chooses to overcome their fear and proceed to face the danger. It is not fearlessness, recklessness, or rashness. It is a well-considered and brave decision to behave constructively despite the fear.

Studying fear in depth provides important insights into the working of our emotional brains. Our brains evolved first as survival mechanisms. Only eons later did we develop our cognitive abilities. As a result, when we are faced with a threat we sense and act first and only later do we consciously notice, decide, and reflect. We are built to defend before we comprehend. This probably worked better in prehistoric caves than in today's modern homes and offices.

Perceiving What-isEdit

Emotions instantly respond to a rapid assessment of our sensory inputs and immediate perceptions. They attain their speed by sacrificing accuracy; emotions are oriented toward action based on snap judgments. It is safer to mistake a stick for a snake than to delay or overlook a possible threat. However, a careful investigation, examination, and analysis of the situation often leads to a different conclusion and more constructive course of action. To react constructively it is essential to understand what truly is, not just what might seem to be. This requires a careful examination of the evidence. This, however, is made difficult by the large number of fallacies we are likely to overlook, our tendency not to challenge the opinions of people recognized as authorities or holding power, our existing beliefs, the time and attention we dedicate to the investigation, and the many distortions our brains introduce. Applying our own well-developed theory of knowledge can help us choose the most accurate and helpful beliefs and make more informed decisions. Reassessing the situation often provides a more accurate analysis and allows for more constructive action. Look carefully before you leap.

Justice—Fairness, Right, and WrongEdit

Each of us has a sense of justice—our ideas of what is fair, what is right, and what is wrong. This may be based on the constitution and written laws of our nation or state, religious teachings, or the by-laws and personnel handbook of the organizations we work in. We may adopt a more local or personal code of justice, such as the norms and customs of our parents or peer groups, the Code of the West, the Code of the South, the Code of the Streets, our sense of trespass, or our own set of rules for living. Alternatively we may seek a more universal basis for our code of justice. These universal principles may include: the golden rule, the principle of empathy, a sense of responsibility, or an appeal to equality, reciprocity, or symmetry. Our own values and beliefs also contribute to and are based on our own sense of justice. But of course these foundations for justice vary greatly in the guidance they provide and interpretations they are given.

In addition to this variety in our chosen basis for justice, we each have our own personal experiences, recollections, and perceptions of what happened in any particular situation. This is further shaped by our own first-person viewpoint, motives, needs, and goals. As a result, ideas of what is fair vary greatly from one person to the next, from one family to the next, from one culture to the next, from one nation to the next, from one religion to the next, and from one situation to the next. The result is that two people, each claiming to be acting for a just cause can find themselves in a heated conflict strongly opposing each other.

Anger is the emotion that seeks to preserve and defend our sense of justice.

Anger—an Urgent Plea for Justice and ActionEdit

Anger acts as our sentinel for justice. This powerful emotion is triggered by a perceived injustice and it instantly alerts, arouses, and energizes us to take swift, decisive, and often violent action to preserve and restore justice, repair our loss, and achieve our goals. This vital emotion would serve us better if our snap judgments were more accurate, our sense of justice was more widely shared, and if anger would lead us to justice without starting a fight.

Both sadness and anger are emotional responses to suffering a loss. The difference is that we become angry at someone or something. When we are sad we do not blame someone. When we are angry we find someone, a responsible agent, to blame and hold responsible for the insult, loss, humiliation, trespass, or disrespect we suffer. The offense is “blameworthy”. Because we blame someone for the loss, we feel that we can “teach them lesson”, “even the score”, and “change things around here”. Anger insists “something has to change”, creates the vindictive passions that lead to revenge, and often result in violence. Anger breeds more anger. To satisfy our need to blame someone, we may create an innocent scapegoat. To escape unfair persecution, the scapegoat may resort to whistle blowing to alert others to the injustice and appeal for their help.

Whenever we are provoked to anger we face very important choices in how to respond. Although our almost uncontrollable urge is to prepare to fight, strike out, engage in an anger display, and become violent, this is the wrong choice. A passive aggressive response—hostile inaction—is another a poor choice, and so is initiating or entering a dominance contest. The best coping strategy is to calm down, perhaps by counting to 10 or 100, and analyze the situation in depth. Wait until you can overcome primal thinking—snap judgments based on polarized thinking and false dichotomies—and calmly gather and reflect on the evidence. This requires us to identify and assess our loss, discover the unmet needs identified by our anger, understand who we blame for our loss and why we hold them responsible, and engage in constructive dialogue that can resolve the root problem, strengthen our relationships, and lead to lasting and effective change.

Some people are easily provoked to anger; they just seem to be angry all the time. This may be caused by their fragile high self-esteem, specific hostile personality traits, or because they hold to unreasonable rules for making decisions.

After we take time to reflect and reassess the situation we often regret actions we took while we were angry. As we reflect on a situation, at some later time we may decide to apologize to people we have hurt and forgive those who injured us.


A relationship is the history of interactions between two or more people. Relationships are based on reciprocity—mutual exchange. Strong relationships are based on trust—relying on others—and authentic expression—gaining common understanding. Although each relationship has many features that define it, one pervasive characteristic is the level of symmetry of the exchanges. A relationship is either symmetrical and peer-based, or it is asymmetrical and power-based. In a peer based relationship each person regards the others as their equal. In a power based relationship, one person is in the “one-up” position, the position of power, and the other is in the “one-down” submissive position. This ranking may be well known and accepted, it may be disputed by the people in the relationship, the actual ranking may be inverted from the apparent or expected ranking, or it may be unknown to the people in the relationship.

Most of our relationships are casual, ordinary, and nearly neutral; however some evolve into strongly felt love—a caring relationship between two people—or hate—an intense dislike. Deeply felt love arises from limbic resonance—a kind of primal dialogue and emotional entrainment communicated between people through primal messaging and limbic attractors that closely connect and entrain the mental symbols of the couples' minds.

Doubts about love can lead to jealousy—feeling hurt because you fear you are unlovable. If the powerful urges of jealousy go unchecked they can lead to violence.

Hate too easily gives us someone to blame for our troubles and too often leads to violence. It is a popular but tragically short-sighted and destructive short cut. Because violence leads to more violence as people seek revenge, long-lasting and escalating bouts of violence are a common human tragedy. This cycle can be broken when someone makes the decision and has the courage to apologize, take personal responsibility for ending the violence, extends feelings of empathy to include compassion for their enemy, engage their enemy in respectful and meaningful dialogue, and forgive those who have wronged them.

Disrespect is the precursor to hate. Heed the warning. Reevaluate the evidence, avoid the distortions, correct the errors in reasoning, and reject the temptation to dismiss or humiliate the other.

Even healthy relationships often lead to conflict. Dialogue can help us understand the other's viewpoints and resolve conflict constructively.


Accurate empathy—a deep appreciation for another's situation and point of view—is the basis for the golden rule, and our intrinsic sense of justice and reciprocity. The basic skill of understanding how another feels, seeing ourselves in another, is generalized into a broader sense of empathy.

Empathy connects us to others. It is the basis for compassion—our unconditional kindness toward others—and gratitude—our appreciation of another's kindness towards us. It recognizes the basic symmetry and universal connections of humanity—whatever you may be experiencing, I too could be experiencing the same thing.


Stature, also known as prestige, is the ability to help others. We are attracted to people we believe have high stature because of the possibility of receiving a reward. Pride is the emotion related to increased stature, while shame is the emotion related to decreased stature. The terms “one up” and “one down” refer to relative stature in a relationship. Insults are an attack on stature that often provoke humiliation, anger, and violence.

Several emotions reflect changes in stature:

  • Pride reflects your pleasure with an increase in your stature.
  • Shame reflects your displeasure with a decrease in your stature.
  • Envy reflects your displeasure from an increase in an acquaintance's stature.
  • Gloating reflects your pleasure from a decrease in an adversary's stature. This may also make you feel a bit guilty.
  • Contempt is your assessment that another's stature does not meet your standards of what is acceptable. Contempt is similar to disgust, but is triggered by people rather than by toxic substances.
  • Fear is often based on a potential loss of stature through some type of injury or insult.
  • Anxiety can arise from concern over inadequate stature, especially in comparison to colleagues.
  • Hate is an attempt to isolate and remove people—the harmful others—suspected of low stature.
  • Anger results from humiliation, an unjust challenge to stature.

These emotions are often very powerful, perhaps because of the importance of stature for survival and procreation in prehistoric times. Respect and dignity often depend on stature measures. Humiliation is a cruel, powerful, and often enraging form of disrespect and stature challenge.

Stature is an important and authentic source of power and an essential component of your self.

True stature should not be confused with social rank or image—estimates of relative worth based superficially on appearances. These assessments are often incorrect and misleading.

Stature is so essential that all of history is the quest for dignity.


Power—which is often thought of as the ability of one person to alter the behavior others, has a more precise definition. Power is an asymmetrical dyadic relationship—basically an unbalanced or one-sided way of treating someone or of being treated. It is instructive to recognize that power is an attribute of the relationship and not of the person.

Power can be exercised from these three basic postures:

  • Dominance—The ability to inflict harm, also know as aggressive coercion, or
  • Stature—The ability to provide help, also know as leverage, or
  • Influence—altering people's beliefs.

The first two power bases are the proverbial “carrot and stick”. The third is an implicit and pervasive method used to alter people's behavior without requiring their obedience, submission, or perhaps even their awareness.

We communicate our understanding of the power relationship every time we talk with someone. If we believe we are speaking with a peer, we use dialogue, otherwise we use one of the many power-based communications modes.

When power goes unchecked it can quickly become tyranny and lead to oppression.


We are all human and we share a remarkable list of intrinsic similarities we call human nature. Yet we are all different, distinguished by the intrinsic differences we call personality traits, our unique experiences that establish our learned responses and habits, and our unique values, beliefs, and goals.

We also have our own unique strengths, motivations, needs, goals, hopes, joys, disappointments, and dreams. Everything we do and every perception we have of the world around us accumulates over time and contributes to the ever-changing entity we refer to as our “self”.

We have the remarkable, and perhaps unique ability to think about our own thoughts. This strange loop allows us to become aware of our self, judge our self, plan for the future, reflect and ruminate about the past, think about our selves separate from others, imagine the thoughts of others, and judge our own actions.

We assess the value of our own self. We may be pleased, recognize our own dignity, and respect our self, or we may be disappointed and feel shame for our self. The mental symbol we use to think about our self is our self symbol. When we understand our self and act according to our true self, we are authentic.

We have a unique view-point on the world based on our own center of awareness. We are responsible for the choices we make and the results, good or bad, that result from those choices. We apply our own theory of knowledge to choose our beliefs.


We use a complex integrated system to guide us through life. Our values, beliefs, and long-term goals set an overall direction. However, we make rapid, almost instantaneous appraisals of events that happen every day. When these appraisals involve important goals we react with particular emotions and stress. We cope with adverse events to solve problems and reduce their impact on us. We reappraise past events and may revise our values, goals, or beliefs as a result.

Architecture for InteractionEdit

Many factors influence our behaviors. The architecture for interaction model organizes these factors into four distinct layers and also considers the symmetrical nature of relationships that are currently influencing our behavior. We can easily change some of the factors that lead to our behavior and we can't change others. When analyzing your own behavior or that of others it is helpful to begin by determining which portions of this model are primarily responsible for the behavior.

These four layers of behavior are:

In addition, each relationship is either a peer-based symmetrical relationship or a power-based asymmetrical relationship. This complex system of behaviors is at work within you and every person you interact with.


Every human experiences a similar set of emotions that respond to a wide range of human encounters. These essential and primitive mechanisms drive us to take immediate action based on snap judgments. While emotions contain remarkable wisdom that has guided our ancestors' survival over millions of years, emotions often get it wrong, especially in our modern world. They may encourage us to over-react or to mis-react. A considered examination, investigation, and analysis of the situation often leads to a different conclusion and a more constructive course of action. We have the self-control and cognitive abilities to choose how we react in every event; we are not prisoners of our emotions. We can learn to cope. Emotions react to what is important in our lives. This includes what-is, safety, justice, power, relationships, stature, empathy, beliefs, needs, motives, goals, what we can change and what we cannot, and our own self concepts and strengths.

Emotional competency begins to provide a model for constructive human interactions and a path toward peace.

Passion does have logic. We can increase our emotional competency and improve our ability to recognize, interpret, and respond constructively to emotions in our self and others. Humans are social beings, and emotional competency is an essential social skill. We hope this curriculum helps to increase your emotional competency and allows you to live a more fulfilling life.

Next StepsEdit

If you are satisfied with your progress toward emotional competency, you may wish to proceed along the path toward wisdom, or study what matters most in life. Good luck to you.