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Emotional Self-Efficacy

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Just as youth must learn to express their thoughts and ideas through written and oral communication, youth must also learn to identify, understand, and express their emotions in healthy ways. This includes the ability to understand the impact of their emotions on their thoughts and behavior, and the ability to delay or inhibit impulsive reactions to powerful, intense emotions. Once these skills are developed youth acquire confidence in themselves, knowing they "have what it takes" to master difficult challenges without becoming consumed by emotions, or acting out destructive impulses. Collectively, these emotional skills are referred to as emotional self-efficacy and youth that lack emotional self-efficacy may by unable to form and maintain positive interpersonal relationships. In addition, the lack of emotional self-efficacy may interfere with their ability to achieve important life goals, such as finishing school or maintaining a steady job. Thus, the failure to develop emotional self-efficacy can have life-long consequences.

upset teenEmotional self-efficacy is marked by the ability to manage emotions internally, rather than externally. Younger children will typically "act out" their emotions by throwing temper-tantrums and screaming to express their displeasure; or by dancing and twirling around to express their delight. In contrast, adolescents who have developed emotional self-efficacy will cope with their emotions internally by consoling and soothing themselves, congratulating themselves, and/or problem-solving a difficult situation.

Moreover, emotional self-efficacy is demonstrated by expressing emotions in a manner that is socially acceptable and appropriate to the circumstance. For instance, if someone were to receive a job promotion, it would be perfectly fine to jump around and dance with joy while at home, but not fine to behave this way in the boss's office.

Finally, emotional self-efficacy involves taking ownership of one's feelings and understanding that emotions do not reflect objective facts. In other words, feelings represent a personal and subjective experience that result from a qualitative interpretation of events. Therefore, everyone is responsible for their own emotional responses because each person has their own unique, subjective interpretation of the world around them.

The following example illustrates the importance of emotional self-efficacy: Suppose 17-year-old Omar, receives a D+ on his history exam. If Omar has already developed emotional self-efficacy, he will acknowledge his feelings of disappointment and will worry about receiving such a poor score. But, he will take responsibility for his negative feelings because he will attribute the poor score to his own performance; i.e., he will not blame others, such as his teacher, for "causing" him to perform poorly, nor will he believe that his teacher is the reason for his bad feelings. Omar may become worried about how this poor test score is going to impact his final grade, and he may envision his parents' reaction to such a poor grade. Perhaps Omar will feel guilty because in his heart, he knows he didn't study very much. Next, Omar might try to comfort himself by reviewing the fact that all his other test grades were just fine, and he might conclude that if he had studied some more, he would have done much better. Then Omar may begin to think of ways to solve the problem of the poor test score. He may think about what he needs to do for future exams. He might decide he must tell his friends that he can no longer participate in video game marathons on nights preceding a big exam. He may also decide he should buy his girlfriend a nice gift to compensate for the several dates he will miss with her while he's grounded at home. In this example Omar recognizes that his negative feelings are his own, and are not caused by other people. He takes responsibility for his own feelings and his behavior that that led up to those feelings. And, he is able to correct the situation, in order to help himself feel better. This is what emotional self-efficacy looks like.

Now let's contrast Omar's response to Peter who has not yet reached emotional self-efficacy: First, Peter will likely experience the same initial emotions as Omar when he receives a poor test score (disappointment, guilt, and worry). However, Peter will not cope with these emotions the same way that Omar did. Peter will be unable to identify each of these different, uncomfortable emotions; instead, he will only be able to identify a single primitive feeling of anger. Next, Peter will most likely try to blame his teacher for the poor grade. He may subsequently complain to his friends about how much of a "witch" she is. When Peter's parents confront him about the grade and ground him, he might yell at them about the consequences being "unfair." He may even punch a wall in his bedroom out of anger. He will not take responsibility for the poor grade, nor will he attempt to figure out how to improve his grade in the future. In this example Peter does not recognize his negative feels are his own, but instead believes they are caused by someone else (his teacher). Therefore, he does not take responsibility for his feelings, nor is he able to recognize his own actions caused these feelings (not studying for the test). In addition, he makes no effort to find a way to help himself feel better, since he incorrectly believes that other people are the cause of his bad feelings (his parents and his teacher).

It is evident from these two examples that emotional self-efficacy enabled Omar to cope with an uncomfortable situation and to learn from that experience, while still feeling good about himself and remaining confident in his ability to handle difficult situations. On the other hand, Peter's lack of emotional self-efficacy limited his personal growth and resulted in Peter feeling badly about himself, his parents, his teachers, and to question his abilities. In addition, without emotional self-efficacy, Peter blamed others for his poor performance. Thus, it is unlikely that Peter will respond any differently the next time a difficult situation arises, and so a negative cycle can develop. But Peter's caregivers can help him turn this situation around.

 




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