Emotional Styles

I had been looking for a way to supplement my basic batterer intervention curriculum (anger and stress management, communication and conflict-resolution training, CBT exercises) with information that would help my clients to improve their overall functioning long after they have finished the program, and in particular their ability to properly regulate emotions and maintain healthy relationships.   In this respect, I have found the book by Richard Davidson, The Emotional Life of Your Brain (Penguin Books, 2013), to be immensely useful.   How we go about getting our needs met is described from a neuroscientist’s perspective, based in studies of how behavior is related to specific brain functioning.  Compared to other theories on personality, his concept of  Emotional Styles is easier to understand and more suited to the work we do with partner-abusive clients.  The table below is central to the materials I have put together, based on Davidson’s research, for my programs here in the San Francisco Bay Area, United States.  We go over this table in group, after each clients has completed the Emotional Styles questionnaire.  Afterwards, we discuss how our program’s standard material, as well as suggestions by Davidson, can help improve their functioning in the various categories.

The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style


Description, Brain Basis, and Impact on Emotion Regulation/Relationships

Resilience How slowly or quickly you recover from adversity.  Marked by greater left activation in the Prefrontal Cortex (a center of intention and self-control), and  by inhibitory signals to the Amygdala (a center of flight-or-fight responses).  Low resilience is associated with depression, intense emotions (such as anger), and impulsive behaviors. Individuals low in resilience get discouraged easily, or obsess over minor failures, and give up on long-term goals.
Outlook How long you are able to sustain positive emotion.  Individuals with a positive outlook have high neuronal activity in the Ventral Striatum, where neurons release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation, desire and positive emotion, as well as endogenous opiates (“runner’s high”).  Activity in this part of the brain is increased by signals from the Prefrontal Cortex.  Individuals with a negative outlook are more likely to be depressed, avoid social relationships, and to be unmotivated to pursue goals.
Social Intuition How adept you are at reading faces and body language and picking up social signals from people around you.  High social intuition is associated with high activity in the Fusiform Gyrus, and low levels of activity in the Amygdala.  Low social intuition can lead to isolation, poor interpersonal communication, anger, increased conflict and aggression, and depression.
Self-Awareness How well you perceive bodily feelings that reflect emotions (in addition to beliefs, values, motives, etc.).  High self-awareness is characterized in the brain by high levels of activity in the Insula, which is connected to the “visceral” organs – e.g., heart, lungs, stomach, sexual organs.  Low self-awareness is associated with difficulties in accurately gauging levels of stress, such as increased heart rate, as well as identifying emotions.  People who have poor self-awareness are less likely than others to take care of themselves.  They are more at risk for depression, feeling overwhelmed by their emotions and engaging in impulsive or aggressive behavior.
Sensitivity to Context How good you are at regulating your emotional responses to take into account the context you find yourself in.  Excellence at determining context is associated with high levels of neuronal activity in the Hippocampus, a part of the brain that is also associated with the transfer of short-term memories into long-term storage.  Individuals who have poor sensitivity to context have experienced some sort of trauma in the past (e.g., have grown up in an abusive or highly dysfunctional home, experienced serious assaults or accidents).  They tend to react to mild or moderate stress or provocation as though they were being re-traumatized.  In intimate relationships, this would include reacting to being yelled at by punching the other person, or interpreting a partner’s request for space as an indication of betrayal or abandonment.
Attention How sharp and clear your focus is, as determined by patterns of neuronal activity in the prefrontal cortex. Individuals who are high on the attention dimension are able to detect a high degree of detail in the environment without being overwhelmed, but can also focus their attention on something specific if they need to without shutting out everything else entirely.  Individuals who are at the low end, who tend to be unfocused, can miss important social cues, or hyper-focus too much, causing miscommunication and relationship conflict.