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Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy. Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics

The question of emotions is one that is critical to cognitive/behavioral skill development. “…our deepest feelings, our passions and longings, are essential guides, and our species owes much of its existence to their power in human affairs” [Goleman – 1995]. That emotions have evolutionary importance goes without saying. The basic emotions of fear provides the species with the self survival mechanisms which enable it to escape danger. The next level of emotion is anger, rooted in danger, it allows the person to gear up to protect itself. Another emotional construct, attraction, leads from lust, to love, to friendship, to altruism, each of which has been a necessary element to our survival. But we no longer live in such a primitive state and these emotions have become quite complex to control at the next level of evolutionary development.

Each emotion offers a distinctive readiness to act, but the actions that were originally designed may not only be nonproductive in present society, but actually destructive. Seligman [1993] puts the specific emotional content into modern context when he defines the goad for specific action:

• Anxiety warns us that danger lurks. It fuels planning and replanning, searching for alternative ways out, rehearsing action.
• Depression marks the loss of something dear to us. Depression urges us to divest, “decathect”, fall out of love, mourn, and ultimately resign ourselves to its absence.
• Anger, highly opinionated, warns that something evil is trespassing against us. It tells us to get rid of the object, to strike out against it.

“….the more intense the feeling, the more dominant the emotional mind becomes – and the more ineffectual the rational” [Goleman – 1995]. In evolutionary terms, pausing to think over what to do could cost us our lives, thus the dominance of immediate reaction. Yet the only moderator of these impulses, the need to stop and think, becomes imperative in a social order. Our genetic heritage endows each of us with a series of emotional setpoints that determines our temperament. But the brain circuitry involved is extraordinarily malleable; temperament is not destiny. The emotional lessons we learn at home and at school shape the emotional circuits, making us more adept – or inept- at the basics of emotional intelligence. Thus, the option to become “civilized” is based on the development of a culture of social order and the learning of specific cognitive skills with which to moderate the impulsive actions demanded by our emotions.

Cognitive/behavioral skill building is constructed around mental representations, symbols and the language [words] used to understand and communicate. Emotion, on the other hand is an instinctive response. “The very root of the word emotion is motere, the Latin verb “to move”, plus the prefix “e” to connote “move away …”. “The emotional/rational dichotomy approximates the folk distinction between “heart” and “head’; knowing something is right “in your heart” is a different order of conviction – somehow a deeper kind of certainty – than thinking so with your rational mind. These two minds, the emotional and the rational, operate in harmony for most people, intertwining their very different ways of knowing to guide us through the world” [Goleman – 1995]. They have learned how to identify [create mental representations] for varying degrees of intensity for each of the emotional aspects. They use these cognitions to interrupt the impulse to act and find more reasonable ways to express these emotions than just the “raw” response. Emotional intelligence includes self-control, zeal and persistence, and the ability to motivate oneself.

The ability to control impulse is the base of will and character which is required in the creation of a social order. The whole question of “deferred gratification” is one of the paramount aspects of a person who is able to “succeed” in the process of a social life; comparable in power to the creative ability to find multiple solutions or alternative interpretations on the cognitive side. This deferral process, however, is unlikely to occur without the cognitive ability to interject thinking between the stimulus perception and the action. Thus, the linkage between self and other, behavior, must be modified away from the evolutionary instinctive response and towards a prosocial response is a social order is to survive. It is the absence of social behavior that defines “mental disorders” and this is allowed by the absence of cognitions required to mediate the behavior. The ability to behave in ways that are found acceptable by others then combines an ability to “think” about how one behaves and to have the “skills” to choose and perform behaviors in a manner that is both efficient in meeting one’s goals and, at the same time, recognizes and cares about the other.

The root of altruism [epitomizing the highest standard of social order] lies in empathy, the ability to read emotions in others; lacking a sense of another’s need or despair, there is no caring. Empathy is a learned process. Its learning is normally developmental, occurring in the relationship between the care giver and the infant. But two things can go wrong with such learning. The first, is that all behaviors are biologically dependent. We are structurally electrochemical entities afterall, and occasionally there is a structural error or neurological damage which interferes with the proper functioning of our cognitive interludes. Such difficulties may appear in the form of autism , for example, although much is still unknown about this difficulty. The occurrence of such neurological breakdowns is far less prevalent than mental health professionals would have you believe since the second form of malfunction, cognitive learning, produces many of the same effects. Thus, the biomedical reductionist are able to imply that such behavior is the result of some, as yet unidentified, defect.

Of course, the literature is quite coherent about improvement, if not etiology. Whether the difficulty is neurological or cognitive, the only effective interventions are cognitive. Even people with biomedical difficulties appear to improve functioning [if they are to improve at all] through cognitive interventions. Drug or other biomedical intrusions can, at best, reduce the negative behaviors, and the way these behaviors affect other people. While this may have some marginal value to the social order, it is largely overcome by the toxic effect that the intrusive procedures have on the person . While deficiencies in emotional intelligence heighten(s) a spectrum of risks, from depression or a life of violence to eating disorders and drug abuse, some of these are because of the difficulty of effective performance itself and others are the result of intrusive measures taken to control the individual from without.

“There are many compromise positions that refer to the ‘interaction’ of biology and environment, genetic ‘contribution’, ‘preparedness’, and genetic ‘predispositions’. Some of these compromises are just anesthetics, numbing us into thinking that the fundamental dispute between nature and nurture has somehow been solved or is a pseudoquestion” [Seligman – 1993]. These compromises, put forth by the biomedical reductionist will increase as they gain more “grist for their mill”, through genetic and brain exploration. But as Seligman suggests “Molecular biology has it backwards. The claim that mood and emotion are just brain chemistry and that to change you merely need the right drug must be viewed with skepticism.” Yet these efforts ignore not only the learning experience, but the will of the individual person as it interacts upon the world.

While cognition mediates emotions, emotions matter for rationality. Goleman maintains, and we believe rightly so, the counter-intuitive position that feelings are typically indispensable for rational decisions since they point us in the proper direction, where logic can then be of best use. Providing “signals that streamline the decision by eliminating some options and highlighting others at the outset.” Without emotion, we have difficulty placing value on people, places, events, experiences and things. It is the emotional context that makes a thing important or incidental. Lacking emotional weight, encounters lose their hold. Thus, emotions are a “double edged sword”, providing, on the one hand, the directionality of life, and on the other, the propensity for exaggeration. Seligman suggests that “most of us, much of the time”, are “astonishingly attracted to catastrophic interpretation of things”. He calls this “common irrationality, conservation of dysphoria”.

The Russian psychologist Blyuma Zeigarnik discovered early in this century that we remember unsolved problems, frustrations, failures, and rejections much better than we remember successes and completions. “When fear triggers the emotional brain, part of the resulting anxiety fixates attention on the threat at hand, forcing the mind to obsess about how to handle it and ignore anything else for the time being. The task of worrying is to come up with positive solutions.” [Goleman – 1995]. Seligman suggests that each emotion of the dysphoric triad [ anxiety, depression and anger] is a message goading us to change our lives. “With our daily dysphoria, we are in touch with the very state that makes civilization possible”.

But only if we can find the ways to change; if we can develop what Goleman has called an “emotional intelligence’; the cognitive ability to mediate the emotion/behavior connection. “Emotional intelligence: abilities such as being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope.” These crucial emotional competencies can indeed be learned and improved. Emotional aptitude is a meta-ability, determining how well we can use whatever other skills we have, including raw intellect.

People with well-developed emotional skills are also more likely to be content and effective in their lives, mastering the habits of mind that foster their own productivity; people who cannot marshal some control over their emotional life fight inner battles that sabotage their ability for focused work and clear thought. People who know and manage their own feelings well, read and deal effectively with other people’s feelings.

H. Gardner has outlined emotional control as part of the intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence.

“Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to understand other people: what motivates them, how they work, how to work cooperatively with them. Intrapersonal intelligence …is a correlative ability, turned inward. It is a capacity to form an accurate, vertical model of oneself and to be able to use that model to operate effectively in life.”

This intelligence requires the capacities to discern and respond appropriately to the moods, temperaments, motivations , and desires of other people, as well as the ability to access to one’s own feelings and the ability to discriminate among them. It is “the visceral-feeling signals you get that are essential for interpersonal intelligence.” Gardner goes on to identify five main domains:

  • Knowing one’s emotions. Self awareness – recognizing a feeling as it happens – is the keystone of emotional intelligence.
  • Managing emotions. . Handling feelings so they are appropriate is an ability that builds on self-awareness.
  • Motivating oneself. Emotional self-control – delaying gratification and stifling impulsiveness – underlies accomplishment of every sort.
  • Recognizing emotions in others. Empathy is a fundamental people skill. People who are more attuned to the subtle social signals that indicate what others need or want.
  • Handling relationships. The art of relationships is, in large part, skill in managing the emotions in others.

Each of these authors seems to agree that it is self-awareness that is the predecessor to cognitive mediation of emotional content and expression. Self-awareness is an on-going attention to one’s internal states. It is being so attuned as to be able to identify and name the emotions being aroused. Self-awareness is not an attention that gets carried away by emotions, rather it maintains self-reflectiveness even amidst turbulent emotions; a parallel stream of consciousness that is meta. Self-awareness can be a nonreactive, nonjudgemental attention to inner states. The realization “This is anger I’m feeling” offers a greater degree of freedom – not just the option not to act on it, but the added option to try to let go of it.

Goleman points out a danger in self-awareness, however. The “double edged sword” seems to be identified around the favored attentional stance that the person assumes under duress. Those who tune in under stress can, by the very act of attending so carefully, unwittingly amplify the magnitude of their own reactions. On the other hand, he suggests that those who tune out, who distract themselves, notice less about their own reactions, and so minimize the experience of their emotional response, if not the size of the response itself. Maintaining an emotional balance, accepting the emotions, but continuing the response seems to be the ideal course.

Alexithymia – a lack of emotions, seems to limit a person’s ability to react effectively to people, places and things, leaving the individual utterly lacking in the fundamental skill of emotional intelligence. Discriminating among emotions as well as between emotion and bodily sensation is reliant upon the ability to develop a mental representation which adequately contains these differentiations. Goleman cites Henry Roth’s novel Call It Sleep in regard to the power of language. “If you could put words to what you felt, it was yours.”

While strong feelings can create havoc in reasoning, the lack of awareness of feelings can also be ruinous. The intuitive signals that guide us come in the form of what Antonio Damasio, neurologist calls “somatic markers” – literally, gut feelings. More often than not these markers steer us away from some choice that experience warns us against, though they can also alert us to a golden opportunity. Emotions that simmer beneath the threshold of awareness can have a powerful impact on how we perceive and act, even though we have not idea they are at work.

The goal is balance, not emotional suppression: every feeling has its value and significance; feeling proportionate to circumstances. Maintaining a reflective posture during a reflexive incident takes energy and skill. We may have little or no control over when we are swept by emotion, nor over what emotion it will be, but we can have some say in how long an emotion will last and how we will act under its onslaught.

Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan teacher, perhaps has best summarized the difficult balancing act that must be learned for emotional control – ”Don’t suppress it. But don’t act on it.” The difficulty of overcoming the physical structures which have evolved to allow human beings to survive in a threatening world are emphasized by Goleman as he describes the shorter pathway which “allows the amygdala to receive some direct inputs from the senses and start a response before they are fully registered by the neocortex. The amygdala [the seat of emotional response] can have us spring to action while the slightly slower – but more fully informed – neocortex unfolds its more refined plan for reaction. Goleman goes on to indicate that anatomically the emotional system can act independently of the neocortex. “Some emotional reaction and emotional memories can be formed without any conscious, cognitive participation at all.” He additionally cites other research which has shown that in the first few milliseconds of our perceiving something we not only unconsciously comprehend what it is, but decide whether we like it or not; the “cognitive unconscious” presents our awareness with not just the identity of what we see, but an opinion about it.

But like all involuntary, reflex actions, emotions can be contained for a civilized social order. Such containment is structured within the individual mind by awareness and monitoring of the process, delaying gratification and developing empathy for others. It is structured with civilized cultures by admonitions to “stop and think”, sympathy, sharing and support. Atypical behaviors are often the result of a failure of learning, unfortunately reinforced by coercive response by the others around us. Changes in perspective and behavior will need to occur at both individual and sociocultural levels to overcome emotion flooding and its resultant outcome.