Wright Foundation | May 21, 2019

Understanding Emotional Development

Most of us studied human development in school, where we learned the various stages humans go through physically as they make their way from infant to adult.

Just like humans physically grow and develop into adults, we also go through emotional development as we mature.

But there’s another side to our development—our emotional development and growth.

Understanding the origins of our emotional development helps us understand where our feelings, beliefs, and emotions come from. As we work to increase our emotional intelligence, we can dig into our foundation.

Each of us has a set of core beliefs that shape our emotional development throughout life. Here’s how to understand the pattern of emotional development so we grow into more emotionally intelligent human beings.

How Emotional Development Begins

As babies, we’re driven by instinct. Our emotions become wired into who we are as we grow. Our neurons are in place when we’re born, but they aren’t yet connected. As we develop, we start to form connections with our parents, other children, and those people in our lives like grandparents, friends, aunts, and uncles. Our emotional development begins.

We start to recognize expressions and learn to mirror emotions back to the people around us. This is part of the communication process, but it’s also where we start our emotional development. You see, as babies, our ability to express emotions starts as soon as we’re born. When babies are upset, they cry. The way our parents soothe us determines how we’ll deal with emotions and care for ourselves later on. The mothering nature of our mom serves as a kind of external cortex of the baby’s brain.

As babies, we’re very attached to our mothers and look to their emotions as we start to form our own emotional development. Studies have been conducted on this infant and mother emotional bond. In one particular study conducted by Dr. Edward Tronick at Harvard University, mothers were directed to present blank, unreactive, unemotional faces to their infants.

At first, the infants’ response was to try to get their mothers to smile back at them or respond. Quickly, the infants became frustrated because they couldn’t sense the emotional connection with their moms. In fact, many of the infants became extremely distraught because they were so used to mom reacting and communicating through expression.

As We Grow, We Continue to Desire Connection

Our desire to emotionally connect with other humans is carried with us into adulthood. We long for human emotion and human interaction. We want to engage and connect with others. While most of us don’t have a perfect relationship with our emotions, we continue our emotional development as we get older. It’s up to us to work on closing the gaps in our neuropathways.

When we were babies, we started with a foundation of core beliefs, ideas, and emotions. We refer to this core structure as our “matrix.” Our beliefs, our experiences, and the ideas instilled in us by our parents all contribute to our matrix. It’s how we learn how safe the world is, how welcoming the world is, and how we coexist and interact with others.

Before language or critical thinking, we were forming our beliefs about the world around us and our place in it.

We may learn to believe “I’m enough,” or “I can take care of myself.” We may also learn to believe untruths such as “I’m not enough,” or “I’m not capable.” These limiting beliefs are carried with us in our matrix and may later hold us back as adults.

As toddlers and small children, we have a huge drive to explore the world and discover. We also have a drive to stay close to our parents, get comfort, and be safe. We’re learning how to express our feelings and understand our boundaries.

Researchers discovered children hear the word “no” every nine minutes as they’re in the toddler phase (we’ve all heard of the terrible twos). It’s tough to make sense of the world and understand our personal power and potential when we’re constantly being inhibited and told no. Many of the limiting beliefs we may form at that time are because we’re small in a world that is large and dangerous.

As we become older and more capable, growing into our adolescent and teenage years, we emotionally mature. We start to become our own person where we make choices, test our beliefs, and see what sticks (and what doesn’t). Yet, this core matrix is still with us being reinforced with our interactions and experiences.

Our matrix is still part of us as adults. It’s the reason why we may encounter certain people or situations that just bug us for no apparent reason. We may feel ill-at-ease or uncomfortable in a certain spot because it triggers part of our core operating system. This may not even be identifiable to us on the surface.

As we continue to grow and work on our emotional development, we can start to work on these areas in our core makeup. We can rematrix ourselves and strengthen our emotional intelligence throughout our lives.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

We all feel feelings. It’s part of our human experience. For many of us, understanding the feelings and the reasons behind those feelings is confusing and hard to pin-down. You may not know why you’re feeling a certain emotion and may even struggle with identifying the emotion fully.

When we question what we’re feeling, one of the first areas to examine is what your body is doing. Are you feeling tension in a certain area? Are you feeling hurt in the pit of your stomach? Are your eyes welling up with tears? Our body often responds to our emotional state before our brains identify fully what’s going on.

Although many of us may worry certain feelings should be avoided (like sadness, hurt, or anger), it’s important to remember there are no “bad” or “wrong” feelings.

Our emotions simply are what they are. The five primary emotions are fear, sadness, anger, joy, and hurt. Typically, we can distill our emotional state down to one or two of these areas.

From there, simply being able to identify and name the feeling is very powerful. As I like to say, we name it to tame it. Once we identify our feeling, we bring our brain back online to better deal with what we’re experiencing.

Each of us has inner power and strength we may not even realize. When we tap into our inner strength, we acknowledge what we’re feeling and we can start to assess the direction to take. It brings us out of the frantic state where we aren’t really sure what we’re experiencing.

One couple I was recently working with was fighting over the way they planned to deal with insurance coverage for the husband’s upcoming surgery. Both husband and wife were upset, arguing, and feeling emotionally scrambled. Once they began to talk about the situation, it came to light that the underlying emotion was really fear. The husband was scared about undergoing the surgery and the wife was fearful about the possible outcome.

After identifying the fear, it instantly became much easier to manage and address. We could discuss why they were both scared and what strategies they could use to address the fear. The issue wasn’t the insurance at all. That was simply a method for displacing their true emotions.

None of us are perfect at dealing with our emotions and many of us are still at the early stages of our emotional development. Starting to identify, talking about, and allowing ourselves to fully experience our emotions is a big step in the right direction.

As we identify our own emotions, we may also become more sensitive and empathetic to the emotions experienced by those around us. We become more emotionally intelligent.

Emotional development is a lifelong process. We continue to grow our emotional intelligence as we age. Emotional intelligence comes from experiencing new learning opportunities, from experimenting, and playing and growing. With each interaction, we’re given a set of data that we interpret and draw conclusions from. As we emotionally develop as adults, we can look at our life experiences as a chance to get more in touch with our emotions: fear, hurt, anger, sadness, and joy.

For more on developing your emotional intelligence, please visit the Wright Foundation. Join us for an upcoming weekend of More Life Training, where you’ll learn new approaches and tools you can use for building your best self.

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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.