Emotional Competency

Explore the Logic of Passion

Life's Guidance System
Travelling your path through life

Observations of the world around us combine with our values, beliefs, long- and short-term goals, needs, and motives to provide us direction as we travel through life. Both foreseen and unexpected events happen that we need to accommodate as we live our life each day. These events often trigger our emotions and create stress. We appraise events based on what we know at the time. We then experience emotions and often undergo stress based on that appraisal, and we cope with each situation. As we cope we may reappraise and modify our beliefs, goals, and values.


  1. The system that guides us through life.

A Typical Story

Joe is a teenager with typical goals of going to college and getting a good job. He realizes these long-range goals require doing well in school, making friends, and getting along with his parents. Unfortunately he failed an important math test today.  Instantly, as soon as he saw the failing grade he felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He then felt sadness, fear, anger, guilt, and shame in rapid succession. These emotions continue to swirl through him. He is also feeling stress. The failed test represents an important loss that Joe needs to reconcile. He begins to consciously appraise what happened. To cope with his stress and negative emotions, he begins by searching for someone to blame. He is angry at the teacher for her poor presentations, difficult-to-understand explanations, covering too much material too fast, and preparing such a difficult and unfair test. As he thinks through this more carefully, however, he recognizes that other students in the same class did better than he did, he had difficulty with the homework but did not ask questions or request help, and he did not study for the test. Now that he takes responsibility himself for the failure more than he blames the teacher, he is no longer angry with her, but he begins to feel sad that his goal of doing well in school has been set back, he is afraid he may have jeopardized his chances for getting into his favorite college, he feels shame for not doing his best in preparing for the test, and he feels guilty for letting his parents down. Because Joe believes the failure is due to an uncharacteristic lapse in his studies, rather than explaining it in terms of his permanent and personal inability, he is optimistic and decides to cope with this setback by applying his own resources to solve the problem. He gets busy reviewing the test with the teacher, getting extra help with the topics he does not understand, and studying harder for the next test. He feels more hopeful now.

Like all of us, Joe uses a complex system of values, goals, appraisals, and emotions to guide himself through life as events unfold by him, around him, and to him.

The Integrated Guidance System

A complex system works constantly to guide us through life. It is shown at a high level in the following diagram and described below.

Life's Guidance System

Your Worldview

We each have our own ideas about how the world works. Taken together these form our worldview. We rely on our worldview to interpret what we observe and to decide what to do. We constantly explore the world and directly observe phenomenon, every day. This evidence provides us with an important, but incomplete, basis for choosing our beliefs—what we accept as true. The process we use to choose our beliefs is our Theory of Knowledge. We often base decisions on various rules that are convenient simplifications of our beliefs. Because direct evidence is incomplete and often conflicting we rely on other sources including consulting authorities, asking friends, reading, books, and consulting our own intuition to decide what we believe. As we live, develop, and mature we also establish our own set of values—our concept of what is more or less worthy. Our values reflect what we regard as important. We combine these values with our theory of knowledge to form our own opinions, decide what is important, and to further prioritize and select our beliefs.

Our worldview develops, adjusts, and matures as we develop, learn, and mature. It changes slowly and provides a stable structure for making decisions and living our lives. It is a result of our self-spiral and forms an important part of who we are.

Meeting Needs

Our life and health depend on meeting certain needs. Meeting these needs influences and even constrains what we consider worthy. Our needs constrain our values; our values reflect what we regard as important. We establish goals—our desired outcomes—as we plan to meet our needs. Our beliefs establish additional goals. Our motives—conditions that stimulate us to move—cause us to act to meet those goals using appropriate tactics.

We can organize our actions into the following four distinct levels of purpose. We are motivated to carry out various tactics according to some plan to meet our goals to realize a value.

Level of Purpose Characteristics Why
Values Intrinsic worth. Why we act. Because of its intrinsic worth.
Goals Desired outcomes; the end state.  To realize a value.
Plans A design or scheme of action steps, typically leading toward a goal. To meet the goal.
Tactics Acting to carry out our plan. To carry out the plan.

If the results seem disappointing, it is helpful to reexamine our actions and trace the connections among all four tiers of this hierarchy to assess the alignment of our actions with our values. Improving this alignment can improve the results.


As we live our life events happen around us, to us, and because of us. Most of these are never noticed or are immediately ignored. However we are constantly observing, scanning for important events, and appraising—explaining events in the environment, thoughts that cross our minds, and awareness of our own physical state. We pay particular attention to events that advance or thwart our goals; they are what we regard as important. Our motives cause us to act and create our own events, often to advance our goals or to cope with problems.

Some events such as eating lunch are often emotionally neutral, but are needed to provide our bodies with air, water, and food. These resources in the form of nutrients sustain our physiology. When they are readily available they are consumed with little thought, but struggles to obtain them during times of shortages are highly emotionally charged events.

The Emotional System

Whenever we appraise an event and determine it is important to us, several systems within our body are activated. We appraise the event within the context of our goals, values, and beliefs to determine the personal meaning and importance the event has for us. This immediately stimulates one or more specific emotions. The importance we attribute to the event determines the strength of the resulting emotion. At the same time, an appraisal of the impact of the event on us induces stress—our resistance to loss. The first appraisal is instantaneous and emotional. Other appraisals are slower and cognitive. We begin to cope—responding to the loss—both emotionally and cognitively to solve problems and relieve the stress by applying a variety of resources available to us. The coping attempts to provide a solution to the problem that triggered this response. The coping also focuses on our emotions and helps to restore us to a calm, neutral, non-emotional state. Both stress and our emotions stimulate hormone secretion and activate our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). This directly activates our physiology—the state of our body. Our physiology, of course, provides many of our coping resources. Our appraisal also depends on somatic markers—physiological feedback directly into our decision making process.

This emotional system can be defined somewhat more crisply using design engineering terms. An event occurs that presents us a problem to be solved or an opportunity to be seized. The appraisal stage begins to define the problem. During the appraisal we study the triggering event to understand it better, we evaluate its impact on our goals, we scan the environment looking for constraints and solutions, and we create a problem statement and solution requirements. This begins the coping stage where we design a particular solution and specify needed actions. Implementing and carrying out the designed solution—executing the coping plan—requires dedicating resources. We refer to consuming these resources as stress. Stress applies available resources according to the coping plan, design, and specification to solve the defined problem. The resources come from our physiology, the funding source. Results are then examined and the solution is reappraised to determine if the actions being taken adequately address the original problem or opportunity. We make adjustments to reduce the resource requirements (stress) and better address the actual problem. The process can continue to refine, improve, and adjust.

Emotions add their own colorful dimension through this design, development, and problem solving project. They urgently cheer, jeer, scold, admonish, cajole, plead, alert, warn, threaten, advise, inspire, and prod us along as we work to solve problems.


An important outcome of the coping process is a reappraisal of the original event and our reaction to it. This may result in our rethinking and modifying our values, beliefs, goals, and even the evidence we consider important.

Characterizing Affiliations

We are a part of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of relationships that have very different characteristics. Some relationships are very casual, for example with the cashier at the store or a neighbor we hardly know. Some are very substantial, for example with our best friends, family members, or intimate partner. Conversations center in different regions of the above chart based on the characteristics of the relationship.

We easily talk about events with anyone. Opening questions like: What did you do today? or What about the weather, sports, news story, etc. are the basis of small talk.  Talking about events is safe because we don't expose our emotions, goals, beliefs or values. The bond is superficial.

Common goals form the primary bond at work or on various teams such as committees, sports teams, projects, or task forces. In these groups we tend to talk about the team goal, the immediate task, and how we are going to approach solving particular problems. The bond is task oriented.

We share our emotions with our more intimate friends. Love—limbic resonance—is based on seeing our emotions reflected in our intimate partners. The bond is relationship oriented.

Common beliefs form the basis for faith-based groups. People can confidently talk about their beliefs with people of the same religion because they know they are among people who also share the same beliefs.

Political parties often affiliate people who share particular similar values. Ideologically based groups as varied as the KKK and Mothers against Drunk Driving are based on some common values or beliefs strongly shared by the members.

The phrase “strange bedfellows” often refers to people who come together temporarily to advance a particular goal, despite having very different values or beliefs. The bond is instrumental.

Scientist often share a common Theory of Knowledge, usually based heavily on the scientific method.

The most complex relationships, those that often have the strongest and longest lasting bonds, are based on shared events, goals, emotions, beliefs, and values. 


  • “If you don't know where you're going, any path will take you there.”


Stress and Emotion: A New Synthesis, by Richard S. Lazarus

The PDMA Handbook of New Product Development, by Milton D. Rosenau, Abbie Griffin, George A. Castellion, Ned F. Anschuetz 

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