Emotional Capital

Rick Lavoie nicely presents a way to look at emotional state as something quantitative. Our actions affect our self-esteem, giving us more “emotional poker chips” for positive interactions, and costing us “chips” when things go sour.

Emotions obviously cannot be quantified with an exact value, but they can still be seen as a volume which goes up and down. The lack of an exact measurement does not stop us from understanding the basic dynamics. We can talk about money the same way, also without needing any exact numbers. A parallel lesson in basic money management would sound like this: “Everyone has some money in the bank. Some have more, and some have less. You add money to your account when you provide other people with goods and services. You lose money when you spend it on goods or services. You need to always make sure that you have enough money in your account to cover your spending.” The lesson is clear, and the exact countability of money – and the amorphous nature of self-esteem counters – is irrelevant for understanding this basic idea.

I think that Rick Lavoie unfairly limits his idea to self-esteem, instead of expanding his talk to cover all emotional relationships. Every relationship can be seen as stacks of poker chips, where each side needs to consider how many chips they have to “spend”. If you are in a relationship with someone and you have never done anything for them, you cannot ask them for any special favors – you don’t have any “chips” in that relationship balance. This feeling would easily be expressed as “I don’t owe you that”, and is easier understood when we see all relationships as requiring an emotional balance which can be drawn against.

Lavoie gives an example in his talk of a father who puts down his difficult kid every morning, which he describes as taking away his self-esteem “chips”, which the kid needed to get through the rest of the day. In this example, there is another type of “chip” which the kid does not have – those chips which represent his connection to his father. The father wants something from his kid, but the account is empty, because every morning he takes “chips” away by putting the boy down, instead of increasing his balance by providing a pleasant and reassuring morning schedule. The father presumably expects his son’s devotion as part of the natural order, and will never understand how nature became perverted and his son grew up hating him. The hatred would just be the natural reflection of a badly overdrawn emotional account, and would be exacerbated by the fact that this emotional account is the most important one to keep in surplus.

Self-esteem is probably the most important emotional “account” because it is the one we draw against ourselves. Whenever we want to take a chance in life, we need to invest the self-esteem chips, as Lavoie describes. Lavoie talks about it as “self-esteem chips”, but it is more correctly the self-esteem balance. The currency of the account is emotional capital. We lose emotional capital from the self-esteem account – from our own personal emotional store – when bad or unpleasant things happen to us, and when we do things that we do not want to do.

The same emotional capital is kept in balances for all our relationships. We have neighbors we speak to occasionally. That is a low-balance account. We exchange pleasantries and will do occasional favors, but don’t expect anything big from each other. We have the people we deal with every day. We expect more from them, and invest more effort in generating more emotional capital between ourselves. We have close friends, with whom we have built up over the years a very significant stock of emotional capital, and we expect to be able to draw on that if one day we need a really, really big favor, and we likewise expect to extend such a favor if they will us ask us for it.

When an emotional balance goes too low, we act as Lavoie describes. We will either be reckless with the relationship, or we will be very hesitant to invest in it, hoping to preserve what little there is. Either way the relationship cannot survive without an infusion of emotional capital from the other side, which will justify the demands of emotional capital which they are making on us.

Someone who is unattuned to the balances of their relationships will overdraw them, exactly as people will spend too much when they do not look at their bank account balance. People will often not realize how much they are taking, emotionally, from the other side in the relationship, and then when they are rebuffed one day they cannot understand why. More often people will take the relationship for granted and not build up the emotional capital they will need later. (In marriage in particular there is a different problem, that people try very hard to build up the emotional capital in the relationship, but they fail to understand the relationship dynamics, so all their effort leave them drained of emotional capital, but the joint account is also empty.)

Often the emotional cost of what we do for another is completely subjective, and depends on how much we care about the relationship. Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, and they were in his eyes as a few days, so much did he love her. He did not focus on how much he was investing, and justify such a massive investment because he cared enough about her. If he had considered the magnitude of the investment, and maybe even magnified it because of all the future uncertainties, he would have done it anyway, but then they would have begun their relationship with an empty emotional account. Instead he looked at it as a minor investment, because his love for her justified ranking seven years of work as a completely reasonable effort.

The biggest mistake anyone can make in a relationship is to think that the emotional connection can be taken for granted, as part of the relationship description. It is romantic to think that emotions are too strong and too special to be assigned a number, or to think of them as something that can get used up. The romantic thoughts will not build a relationship, and will not save it when the other side feels emotionally overdrawn. Having a bank account does not let you spend freely, and having a relationship does not grant you unlimited expectations.