Emotional Competence

Emotional Competence is a learnable competence. My domestic violence mentor, Tony Kubicki, long ago taught me that awareness gives me choice, and that awareness is the key component to emotional competence.

Personally, I like emotions, all of them. Anxiety, fear, sadness, melancholy, nostalgia, joy, excitement, contentment, desire, and all the other subtle nuances of the root emotions of mad, sad, glad, fear, and I add in shame, are what give life its 'juice' as far as I am concerned and I want to feel them all, and I have come to understand there are some very important components to managing the intensity of those feelings.

Remember, awareness gives me choice over intensity.

If you are a student of Czikszentmihalyi's work on FLOW, then you will remember that he says our Central Nervous System processes sensory imput, sound waves, photons for vision, pressure for touch, smell, taste, at the rate of seven bits of data every 1/18th second, which is about twice as fast as you can blink your eyes. Pretty quick.

And then you will be creating thoughts or words which interpret those sensations darn near as fast, and those thoughts will be what brings your feelings, and those feelings will be linked to hormonal and neurotransmitter changes in your brain and body, so you might go from joy at level 10 intensity to anger at a level 10 intensity (10 point scale) which is a 20 point switch from one pole of emotion to another in 1/18th second based on changing thoughts. Not much time to manage your emotions, right?

The good news is that you have done this hundreds of thousands of times, the bad news is that when you do not switch thoughts or 'break the chain" of negative thoughts, your behaviors will be pushed by intense feelings which are demanding an expression, so you can relax, actually.

If you are a guy, and find yourself experiencing this kind of intensity, give yourself 20 minutes minimum to clear the neurotransmitters and stress hormones from your body.

So emotional competence demands an awareness of your inner experience so that you can change thoughts or breathing patterns, even brain wave patterns, or heart rate variability, for example, and change the intensity of your emotions. That is emotional intelligence to me.

I liken it to how you drive your car. As you drive, you are constantly adjusting the position of the vehicle on the road, its speed, ect. with minor adjustments according to constantly changing traffic variables.

Those minor adjustments are what keep you safe on almost all your automotive adventures, whether its from the inconsiderate road hog, or the trucker needing to make a wide right turn, and that mindful attention is what keeps you prepared to respond to a sudden emergency.

I want to drive my body the same way, with mindful awareness, so that I can make quick decisions about emotions and their intensity and the thoughts I might have about those inner experiences.

Emotional Competence  and Facial Expressions

I have been fascinated by non-verbal communication since I was a kid, and was truely delighted to come across the work of Paul Ekman, who has been studying facial expressions and attempting to catalog or categorize them for a long time.

Some of his work has been across cultures, and he has discovered that humans respond very strongly to some expressions across cultures. In other words, if a person from another culture looks at me with an expression of contempt, I will respond emotionally just as fast as if my own kids had looked at me with "that look."

So another factor for us to be aware of is facial expressions and our response to them. Ekman says that facial expressions can play across our face in 1/25th second, so fast that I do not register it like I normally would register an expression.

For me, it is just another reason to pay close attention to my insides, my emotions will tell me something about what another individual is experiencing, and I will get a chance to dispute any thought I have of my being the cause of that individuals feelings.

My favorite tool for regulating my inner experience is HeartMath, or heart rate variability biofeedback, which is an easily learned method for controlling the time between my heart beats. I like it because it feels good, and once I have learned it, in 5-10 practices using a program on my PC or the hand held version, called the emWave, I can cue the pleasant HeartMath feeling on demand. I can even beging to change my inner thermostat so that I am cooler all the time.

HeatMath is based on research about the heart's own nervous system, and the ability of that brain in the heart to learn and make decisions independently of my cranial brain.

It turns out that the heart plays a key role in emotional regulation, mostly in the affiliative and cooperative range. So if I am operating from my heart intelligence, I am typically cooperative and affiliative, offering choice in conversation, playful, and able to make quick changes in my inner experience, even if the other person is sending me messages about anger and aggression. I call that mindfulness.

Other very important tools for me in my emotional competance tool box are deep breathing, frequent internal expressions of gratitude, because I could be in some other persons shoes, physical exercise, decent nutrition, lots of affirmational thoughts, and study.

Technology is making new information about the human experience available almost by the second it seems, and I want to keep up with it.

Besides HeartMath, which was unknown not too many years ago, brand new information is available about something called brain fitness, and there are some great tools available for us to use which makes our brains more plastic, which means they can rewire in minutes, based on what we are paying attention to (remember your HeartMath practice). Brain fitness tools then make the brain flexible, especially when that brain is nourished well, meaning get all the omega 3 fatty acid you need, among other things. (Makes your neurons supple and soft, very good).

Brain fitness means encouraging the growth of neurogenesis also, which is the growth of new brain cells, which migrate to the hippocampus where memories are stored.

A healthy brain will be a valuable ally in the inner attention work involved in emotional competence.

I invite you to try out the emWave and any or all of the brain fitness programs. Hope you enjoy.  Please see the link to Heartmath in the right column.

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