Emotional Competency

Explore the Logic of Passion

Ancient mechanisms quickly mobilizing us to deal with important encounters

Emotions are ancient mechanisms that mobilize us to deal quickly with important interpersonal encounters. They have both a primal aspect and a motivational aspect. Emotions act as primal beacons, guiding us along the path of survival.


Many definitions for emotion have been proposed, including:

  1. A mental state that arises spontaneously rather than through conscious effort and is often accompanied by physiological changes; a feeling [dictionary.com]
  2. A mental state that has a strong feeling component. [Gol]
  3. Complex reactions that engage both our minds and our bodies. These reactions include: a subjective mental state, such as the feeling of anger, anxiety, or love; an impulse to act, such as fleeing or attacking, whether or not it is expressed overtly; and profound changes in the body, such as increased heart rate or blood pressure. [laz]
  4. Emotion is a process, a particular kind of automatic appraisal influenced by our evolutionary and personal past, in which we sense that something important to our welfare is occurring, and a set of physiological changes and emotional behaviors begins to deal with the situation. [Ekm]
  5. Emotions are valenced reactions to events, agents, or objects, with their particular nature being determined by the way in which the eliciting situation is construed. [OCC]

Root: from French émotion, from Old French, esmovoir, to excite from Latin ex + movēre, to move out.

Synonyms include: affect, feelings, gut reaction, heart, humanity, sensibility, sensitiveness, sentiment, tenderness, vibes, and warmth. This organized list of words used to express particular emotions may help you to identify an emotion.


An emotion has the following defining characteristics [Ekm]:

  • There is a feeling, a set of sensations that we experience and are often aware of.
  • An emotional episode can be brief, sometimes lasting only a few seconds, sometimes much longer. If it lasts for hours then it is a mood and not an emotion.
  • Emotions activate widespread physiological adjustments. [Ste]
  • It is about something that matters to the person. Emotions reveal goals.
  • We experience emotions as happening to us, not chosen by us. They are things that happen to us, not things we will to happen.
  • The appraisal process, in which we are constantly scanning our environment for those things that matter to us, is usually automatic. We are not conscious of our appraising, except when it is extended over time.
  • There is a refractory period that initially filters information and knowledge stored in memory, giving us access only to what supports the emotion we are feeling. The refractory period may last only a few seconds, or it may endure for much longer.
  • We become aware of being emotional once the emotion has begun, when the initial appraisal is complete. Once we become conscious that we are in the grip of an emotion, we can reappraise the situation.
  • There are universal emotional themes that reflect our evolutionary history, in addition to many culturally learned variations that reflect our individual experience. In other words, we become emotional about matters that were relevant to our ancestors as well as ones we have found to matter in our own lives.
  • The desire to experience or not experience an emotion motivates much of our behavior.
  • Emotions provide us with the energy to respond to features of the environment.
  • An efficient signal—clear, rapid, and universal—informs others of how the emotional person is feeling
  • Emotions signal a discrepancy between your current state and some standard you hold.
  • Emotions are triggered by changes.
  • People express a full awareness of each other through their emotions [Sen]

There must be a goal at stake for an emotion to be aroused. The more important the goal the stronger the resulting emotions. Most emotions are simultaneously accompanied by stress which also results from progress toward or away from the goal.

Recognizing Emotions

The ability to recognize emotions in yourself and others is an essential social skill. Refer to our web page “Recognizing Emotions” to  learn more about this skill. A subjective mood map locates each emotion according to the energy level and good-bad feelings often associated with it.

Emotions are Universal

In the 1960s researcher Paul Ekman set out to determine if facial expressions and the emotions they conveyed were culturally specific or universal. To his surprise he found seven basic emotions were the same in all the cultures studied. These seven emotions are represented by the facial expressions shown below:









Surprise Disgust Contempt Fear Joy Sadness Anger

Expression is not the Emotion

Often the obvious outward expression of an emotion, such as a violent anger display, crying, smirking, or cheering is confused by observers with the actual internally experienced emotion itself. But we learn early and often not to show all that we feel. Often we learn to submit quietly to the existing hierarchy to avoid conflict. These display rules are often adopted to respect cultural customs, and especially to acknowledge a particular power hierarchy.

Hierarchies are ubiquitous in a wide variety of social organizations and cultures. The boss manages the workers, the master rules the slaves and servants, adults discipline children, teachers instruct students, doctors treat patients, police detain citizens, religious leaders preach to the faithful, elders may expect respect, and not long ago, wives obeyed husbands, men out ranked women, and whites demanded privileges over blacks. In many cultures, and perhaps less now than in the past, it is often permissible for the higher ranking person to express anger towards the lower, but it is disrespectful for the lower ranking person to express anger toward the higher. Reluctance to submit and comply is described as “having a attitude,”  “being uppity,” “being a wise guy” or “not showing respect.”

The structure of the hierarchy, our perceived position in it, the nature and extent of the power represented by the hierarchy, the options we consider, cultural norms, the presence of strangers, our own attitudes regarding obedience, and the depth of our emotional competency will determine how we respond outwardly to various emotions. The following table describes the meaning behind the various behaviors we choose, arranged from the most shallow and superficial at the top to the deepest and most meaningful at the bottom of the table.

Behavior Meaning Comments
Ignore, Unaware None You may not even be aware of your own emotions, or of any emotional exchange.
Obey Submission, Resentment You decide to submit and obey the request, even if you feel it is unfair, or unhelpful. It is better to go along and get along.
Polite Display Restraint You decide to outwardly display the expected compliance. This may be an insincere smile, or suppressed anger. It may also take the form of fawning (sucking up) or patronization. It may be the essential element of détente.
Release Relaxation The restraint required to submit, obey, play along, and simulate the expected outward appearance is stressful. Later, in a safe environment, you release these tensions. This may be a sigh, a groan, or some more elaborate and sarcastic caricature, impersonation, or mockery of the powerful person as you transition from bogus to authentic.
Feel Authentic You are in touch with interpersonal relations and your own feelings.
Understand and respond constructively Insight, growth, gratification,
This emotional competency represents a deep understanding of emotions in yourself and others. It can result in gratifying, meaningful, and mutually respectful relationships. The situation is dealt with through understanding rather than through conquest, procrastination, denial, or suppression. This is the constructive approach to identifying, addressing, and resolving conflicts and effecting useful change.


  • “Emotions are the brain's interpretation of reactions to changes in the world.” ~ Antonio Damasio


[laz] Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions, by Richard S. Lazarus, Bernice N. Lazarus

[Ekm] Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, by Paul Ekman

[OCC] The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, by Andrew Ortony, Gerald L. Clore, Allan Collins

[Gol] Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, by Daniel Goleman

Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion, by the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman

[Sen] Authority, by Richard Sennett

Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, by Edward L. Deci, Richard Flaste

Chapter 3, Basic Emotions, T. Dalgleish and M. Power (Eds.). Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 1999.

[Ste]Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America's History, by Carol Zisowitz Stearns and Peter N. Stearns

Emotional Intelligence: Theory, Findings, and Implications, John D. Mayer, Peter Salovey, David R. Caruso, Psychological Inquiry, 2004, Vol. 15, No. 3, 197-215.

The Inner and Outer Meanings of Facial ExpressionsExternal Link, by Joseph C. Hager and Paul Ekman

The Nature of Emotions, Plutchik, R, The American Scientist, Volume 89, Issue 4, 2001

Fear, Sadness, Anger, Joy, Surprise, Disgust, Contempt, Anger, Envy, Jealousy, Fright, Anxiety, Guilt, Shame, Relief, Hope, Sadness, Depression, Happiness, Pride, Love, Gratitude, Compassion, Aesthetic Experience, Joy, Distress, Happy-for, Sorry-for, Resentment, Gloating, Pride, Shame, Admiration, Reproach, Love, Hate, Hope, Fear, Satisfaction, Relief, Fears-confirmed, Disappointment, Gratification, Gratitude, Anger, Remorse, power, dominance, stature, relationships

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