Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Competence Versus Impotence

Emotional competence (EC) is a relatively new and evolving concept.  It overlaps with "emotional intelligence" but emphasizes learning instead of aptitude.  In basic form, EC is a capacity to deal with emotions in a healthy way.  I employ it in the heavy duty, practical sense used in the mental health profession, where psychologists, therapists and counselors struggle to protect, maintain, and regenerate themselves, sometimes even flourishing, while they work face-to-face with people besieged by woe. 

In this context, EC takes on heroic proportions.  Practitioners, who typically see multiple clients over the work week, can be easily triggered.  A client's ordeal might impel unwanted and intense reminiscence, unsealing a therapist's wounds.  Death.  Abuse.  Suicide.  Accident.  Obsession.  Addiction.  On and on.  Any similarity in a client's story can be a stimulus.  So can body language, whether subtle or intense.  Or clothes or jewelry.  Something physically small yet soulfully titanic, like a bruise in a certain place, might catapult a therapist through turmoil and time.  

To remain empathically engaged in the workplace, both validating and caring, while also aware of ethical boundaries, therapists must avoid some psychic pitfalls.  Projection and externalization, which involve scapegoating, are in this category.  So is repression, hiding the truth by locking it away in the unconscious.  Let me take a moment to distinguish these defense mechanisms from suppression.  Suppression means putting one's feelings aside for a while

Emotional competence utilizes suppression as part of its skill set, while avoiding the totalitarian mechanisms, which are components of what I call emotional impotence (discussed more below).  As they are definitive components, I want to elaborate on them.  These totalitarian mechanisms, such as repression, create walls in the mind, blind spots in perception.  Not facing the truth means not facing traumatic pain in a healthy way.  Instead of catharsis, a release of positive motivational energy, there is distortion that generates disgust, fear and hate.

The unacknowledged pain cries out to be heard.  This results is a worsening cycle.  Walls lead to more walls to hide from the pain, more 'compartments' in the psyche.  Addiction or fixation can result, as these 'patch' and distract from what is lurking below, unacknowledged and outraged.  The classic symbolism of a maze-like haunted house with a vengeful ghost very much applies.  

To do their job, and sustain themselves, mental health professionals  must face their inner pain.  They find and validate their ghosts. This is courageous, a journey to gain better understanding that nurtures a liberated way of perceiving and being.  This is the path of emotional competence.  It offers freedom in the sense of an open, inquisitive, adaptive mind.

An essential component of EC is heartfelt sincerity.  A deep, longitudinal candor.  Therapists strive to investigate and express their feelings in relation to any issue along the daunting scale of an entire life.  New experiences, talks with colleagues, research, and personal breakthroughs (which not uncommonly come from therapy for the therapist herself) are all part of a quest for psychological and philosophical growth.

Some terms associated with emotional competence are self-care, self-knowledge, self-acceptance, ethical awareness and mindfulness.  Emotional competence is not so much a unitary skill, such as riding a bicycle, as it is a mode of being.  Since life is everchanging, it is not something that can be truly mastered.  However, EC engages with the meaningful, the salutary, the profound.  Ancient greek wisdom, Gnothi Seauton, translates simply as Know Thyself.  This is not simply rationality.  It is a matter of locating rationality within emotionality.  A marriage of intrapsychic aspects.  The haunted house, its rancorous compartmentalization, is replaced by comity in celebration--of life, its journey, its miracles, and the self as centered in these.

Emotional competence leads to universal compassion.  It is consanguineous, in this sense, with many great religious or spiritual practices.  Such compassion, a great underlying Love, induces neither self-abnegation nor self-aggrandizement.   The egoistic/altruistic divide merges.  There is a balance, in a way, but it is more like an equilibrium, a dance.  One of the hardest lessons for therapists to learn is self-care.  They are often such self-abnegating people that they burn out for no other reason than that they give so much yet regenerate so little.  When emotional competence connects with universal compassion, it doesn't solve all problems or engender enlightenment;  but it does underscore a quintessential point:  to sustain good care for others, you must care for yourself.  The inward/outward dance  across the exquisite terrain of life is ongoing, a life that is inherently about relationships.

I've grounded this discussion in the mental health professions for a reason.  EC is not just for secluded mystics.  Maybe it sounds fantastical and otherworldly.  But EC is not only attainable, but also necessary and practical, especially within the business of healing.  Indeed, a primary purpose of therapy is to facilitate emotional management, so clients partake of EC as well.  Feminist consciousness raising, or the simple 'letting go' of mindful meditation, are samples of other routes outside the profession.

You might say, "The larger culture is totally lost to this way of living."  And there you would be completely right.  That is part of why EC might seem so alien and impossible.

However, there have been plenty of radical changes to our culture, accelerating as we rush into the computer age.  One example is women gaining the right to vote (and since then other advances, like #MeToo).  So it is worth asking, What if people were acculturated into emotional competence?  What if cleansing perspectives were instilled in us, starting from birth?

The task seems daunting .  Where we are today?  Stymied in a consumerist, egotistic culture.  The system feeds off self-doubt, insecurity and belittling competition.  Gushes of ads inundate us, ads claiming that our self-worth depends on what we buy, what we own, what we consume.   Those who eat beef at McDonalds are, ipso facto, of a 'higher' status than the global majority.  Those who wear certain jeans or sneakers attain yet another rung.  Owning a Mercedes Benz is a major leap.  The hierarchy of toys and envy proceeds all the way up the condescending ladder.  If you think about it, the marketing industry bullies us.  We are body-shamed constantly, especially women.  Status-shamed.  Health-shamed.  Relationship-shamed.  Ours is a crass, material, juvenile collective consciousness that demeans humanity in the early 21st century.

Riding the fear-wave of Trumpism, things have become, if not more despicable, then more obvious.  It's about who you can swindle.  What you can get away with.  How much you can abuse others.  How much you can gloat..  The USA, obscenely wealthy after WWII, initiated a wrestling match between two worldviews:  greed and indulgence, on one side, and the social virtues that shepherded people through the Great Depression, virtues such as humility, charity, and thrift.  Given the current political theater of fear and hate, its colosseums of cruelty, it is hard to deny that greed and indulgence have utterly won. 

This brings me back to emotional impotence.  EI epitomizes a complete inability to deal with one's emotions in a healthy manner.  It is a disordered state athwart purification.  Instead of self-acceptance, it dwells in self-loathing  It demands a gargantuan dishonesty.  The defensive, vulnerable swagger of a middle-school mentality.  Bullying.  Bragging.  Intractable envy.  Fixation on conquests and toys.

As a diagnosable narcissist, with a hole in his heart that he will never face, Trump represents our country to the world.  Insatiable insecurity harnesses him to insatiable need for attention.  His weapons of psychological warfare are repression and scapegoating.  'Truth' ("alternate facts") is what he needs it to be.  He is never wrong.  What is wrong is the other, the object of fear and hate.  Immigrants.  Mexicans.  African Americans.  Liberals.  Feminists.  Anyone who threatens his ego.  His vituperative invective knows no bounds (see my previous blog entry, "Moral Cowardice").

We are all trapped in Trump's excruciated, abysmal place.  It is the place where white nationalism is the fixation and addiction of a very powerful man, head of the mightiest military in the world, a tyrant with tens of millions of avid followers.  It is a place where this white nationalism is his means to seek infinite and unconditional worship.  A Red Queen's race.

The authoritarian coin has two sides.  Trump is not alone in his emotional impotence.  At this desperate juncture, dragged down to a national nadir, a hate-infested dysfunction, it would seem that only therapeutic techniques offer any serious hope.  At the very least, emotional competence provides a means of personal ascent.  And yet maybe it can do more.  Maybe it can uplift entire communities, and then, with snowballing traction, salvage the nation.