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Emotions, Secure Base and Emotional Competence :

A framework for understanding the role of emotions in human behavior-1

------ © Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary

Attachment theory and the development of emotional competence

 John Bowlby, the first attachment theorist, used the term "attachment" to describe the affective bond that develops between an infant and a primary caregiver. He described attachment as a “…lasting psychological connectedness between human beings" (Bowlby, 1969, p. 194). Bowlby believed that the "attachment behavioral system" was one of four behavioral systems that are innate and evolutionarily function to assure survival of the species. According to him, attachment also serves to keep the infant close to the mother (caregiver), thus improving the child's chances of survival. The quality of attachment evolves over time as the infant interacts with his/her caregivers. The type of attachment or attachment status of the infant toward the caregiver is partly determined by the interaction between the two and partly by the caregiver's experiences with their own attachment figures.

The central theme of attachment theory is that caregivers who are available and responsive to their infant's needs establish a sense of security. The infant knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world. Thus children develop secure emotional attachments if their parents are attuned to their needs for safety, security and being physically cared for and if parents are responsive to children's signals that they require their needs to be met. Attachment relationships evolve over the first two to three years of life and beyond, but most importantly these early attachment relationships overlap with a time of significant neurological development of the brain.

Attachment has also been conceptualized (Alan Sroufe, 1995) as a form of dyadic emotion regulation. Infants are not capable of regulating their own emotions and arousal and therefore require the assistance of their caregiver in this process. How the infant ultimately learns how to regulate his/her emotions will depend heavily on how the caregiver(s) regulates his/her own emotions. In fact, the research has shown that there is a very high correlation between the caregiver's attachment status and the attachment status of the infant with that particular caregiver. As children become better at expressing their needs and emotions, they learn self-regulation skills. However, this dyadic regulation never entirely disappears. There is a time for both types of regulation (self and dyadic) throughout a person's life. Attachment is not a one-way street. As the caregiver affects the infant, the child also affects the caregiver. Daniel Stern (1985) refers to the "attunement" of the caregiver: where the parent is sensitive to the verbal and non-verbal cues of the child, and is able to put himself/herself into the mind of the child. Thus attachment is central to the capacity of emotion regulation.

Emotional regulation skills, the skills for expressing emotions and the skills for managing relationships gradually develop from infancy to adulthood. Attachment theory appears to be at the root of all relationships. How we got along with our early caregivers tends to be the script we follow throughout our lives. Think of how you got along with your early caregivers. Was it safe? Did you feel secure? Was it smothering? Was it consistent? Was it unpredictable? Was it fair? These early relationships probably are still present in your current relationships with your loved ones. In fact their influence is seen in how you relate to others generally. The early development of secure attachments to caregivers is important for the later development of emotional competence. Children who receive social support during times of stress from their attachment figures show resilience in the face of adversity.

Although changes over time can influence the attachment status of a child, there is a strong continuity between infant attachment patterns, child and adolescent patterns and adult attachment patterns. Changes in attachment status can occur in either direction -secure to insecure, insecure to secure. In fact, the term "earned secure" has been used to describe individuals who experience malevolent parenting (and therefore expected to have an insecure attachment status), but have risen above those experiences and who are assessed as securely attached (Main and Goldwyn, 1993). However, for the majority of individuals, the manner in which they learned to manage anxiety early on in life will continue unless their circumstances change or other experiences intervene. For many people, the coping mechanisms may become more sophisticated, but the net result will essentially continue. Adults assessed as having an insecure state-of-mind with regard to attachment have greater difficulties in managing the vicissitudes of life generally, and interpersonal relationships specifically, than those assessed as securely attached (Shaver and Mikulincer, 2002).

Emotions and Emotional Competence

Emotion is a phenomenon that vastly differs from thought. The limbic system is responsible for basic emotional processes. Human brain anatomy results in two important processes: (a) the ability to have feelings and emotions and (b) the ability to regulate them. However effective regulation of emotion is a complex process.

Emotions provide the very first evaluation of events in terms of how they effect our well-being (Frijda, 1986; Zajonc, 1980). We automatically feel sad, afraid, or happy without conscious thought. Then we engage in a second-level evaluation ( Taylor , 1989) in which we evaluate whether our emotions are adaptive and healthy. Thus we need to reflect on our emotions and decide what to do, whether to act on our emotions or redirect them or try to transform them. Thus for instance when a person sees something that is coiled and snake-like in darkness, the same information is carried through two pathways- the shorter amygdala pathway that transmits signals more than twice as fast as the longer neocortex route. It is clearly adaptive to respond quickly if the coiled object is a snake truly. Fear-induced flight produces safety. Thus emotions are not a nuisance to be ignored. Emotions are signals worth listening to. They offer messages that one is in danger or that one's boundaries are being invaded. There is no external signal that tells people that others are thinking, or what others are thinking. Unlike thoughts, emotions are visible in one's face and voice and set up themes around which relationships are organized. Sadness is about loss, fear is about threat, anger is about goal frustration or unfairness, and jealousy is about perceived betrayal or displacement. Emotional preferences keep people from being overwhelmed by too much information by narrowing the options to be considered.

Yet better functioning results from the integration of neocortical cognition into emotional response. Integrating the prompts of the emotional brain with the guidance of reason will lead to the greatest adaptive flexibility. This represents integrating the head and the heart. Thus emotion involves a regulatory system, of which reason and reflection are important parts. This integration of reflection and emotional arousal is a mark of being more civilized.

The above discussion maybe summarized as follows.

  • Emotions are a signal to oneself

  • Emotions prompt and organize us for action

  • Emotions give us important information about what is going on in a given situation

  • Emotions signal to others and are a means of communication

  • Thought puts emotion in perspective and helps make sense of our emotions

  • Emotions are fundamentally adaptive

  • Emotions enhance our intelligence (and thus also learning)

 

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