Think positive! Just get over it! Avoid toxic negativity! Can we really manipulate our emotions like that? Harvard psychologist and bestselling author Dr. Susan David explains emotional agility, a revolutionary way of approaching difficult emotions.
One of the topics that come up most with my clients, no matter who they are or what they’re struggling with, is the question of how to handle difficult emotions. I’ve seen many people work hard to “manage” or “get over” their emotions, treating them as if they are dials on a control panel that they can calibrate just right, if only they tried hard enough.
But what if there's a whole different approach to emotions that doesn't require wrestling with them? That's where the idea of emotional agility comes in.
I talked to the psychologist who coined the term “emotional agility,” Dr. Susan David, Ph.D. She's one of the world's leading management thinkers and an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist. Her Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, is heralded as a management idea of the year and winner of the Thinkers 50 Breakthrough Idea Award. Dr. David's TED Talk on the topic went viral with over one-million views in his first week of release.
Today, Dr. David shares fascinating takeaways and tips (as well as a few brilliant metaphors) about the concept of emotional agility through the lens of her own experiences as a teenager who lost her father to cancer as well as research into the science of emotions.
Here's an abbreviated and paraphrased transcript of our conversation. As always, I encourage you to listen to our complete conversation. Just click on the audio player above or listen wherever you get your podcasts.
What is emotional agility?
Emotional agility is the set of skills we need to be with ourselves in healthy ways—the ability to be with our thoughts, our emotions, and our stories in ways that are compassionate and curious so that we learn from them. According to Dr. David, it also means being courageous, “because often we face ourselves or our situations in a way that requires us to take courage. [Emotional agility] is being healthy with ourselves in these ways so that we can connect with the reality of our present situation.”
Research shows that when people set happiness as a goal, they actually tend to become less happy over time.
There's a trend encouraging us to “think positive” and cultivate positive emotions while banishing negative thoughts and emotions. But research shows that when people set happiness as a goal, they actually tend to become less happy over time.
“We live in a culture that tells us to keep calm and carry on, be positive, feel positive vibes only, and believe that everything happens for a reason," Dr. David said. "But when we do this—when we push aside the reality of our human experience—we actually falter. And the reason we falter is we develop an internal struggle with ourselves. Instead of being able to face the situation, we now are spending time and energy trying to pretend the situation doesn't exist and to rationalize.”
Instead of being the Holy Grail, happiness is experienced as a byproduct of living a “coherent and value-connected” life, in which we are in touch with ourselves and love who we are, even if not every aspect of ourselves.
When we push aside our difficult emotions, we don't develop the skills to deal with the world as it is.
“I'm not anti-happiness!” Dr. David says, “All of our emotions are helpful ... When we push aside our difficult emotions, we don't develop the skills to deal with the world as it is. Instead we try to deal with a world that we wish could be.”
What role does language play in processing emotions?
Dr. David shared her personal experience with trying to push away difficult emotions when her father died. She coped by writing about her feelings in a notebook. I asked her to explain more about how this experience and writing exercise shaped her.
“[My father] died on a Friday, and I recall going to school on the Monday [with] this idea that I just needed to get on with it, to be positive,” Dr. David recalls. “I became the master of being okay. I didn't drop a single grade. I was asked how I was doing and I would always just shrug and say, ‘You know, I'm okay.’ But in truth, I was struggling. What happens when we push aside our difficult thoughts and feelings is we don't get rid of them.”
Dr. David explained that our culture tells us to think everything will be fine and everything happens for a reason as a way of rationalizing or denying the reality of our pain. She recalls that her teacher gave her a notebook and the assignment to just write about her feelings.
[My father] died on a Friday, and I recall going to school on the Monday [with] this idea that I just needed to get on with it, to be positive. I became the master of being okay.
“It was remarkable. I did away with all of these ideas of how I should feel and instead started to face into how I did feel. And for me, that was pain and loss and anger, regret—all of the things that come with grief. It was so simple, but as so many simple acts are, it was a revolution for me ... because it started to really help me to recognize that ... I'm resilient.”
There's a lot of research supporting the idea that when we put emotions into language, we start to process them. Whether we do this through writing or talking to someone like a therapist or friend, putting our feelings into words helps us generate insight into our experience that allows us to move forward.
“That doesn't mean you wanted the bad experience to happen,” Dr. David explains, “It doesn't mean you wanted the relationship to end, or to lose your job... It doesn't mean we wanted the experience, but the experience happened. And we can face that and we can come out of it in a way that has enabled us to learn about ourselves, our priorities.”
Resilience isn't about "getting over" difficult experiences
Often, people speak of resilience as the ability to “get over” a difficult experience. Dr. David seems to have a much different definition of resilience, so I asked her to explain more about her approach.
Resilience is actually about integration—being able to sew the quilt of our experience into the larger pattern of our lives.
“Resilience is actually about integration,” she said. “When we've got a part of ourselves, of our history, that feels separate from us ... we get so stuck in it that it actually takes over our day, our lives.” Instead, she said, integration is “being able to sew the quilt of that experience into the larger pattern of our lives.”
Integration means you acknowledge that a bad experience happened but recognize that the experience doesn't define you. On the other hand, when you push something aside and try hard not to deal with it, then you're being defined by your avoidance of the experience.
Emotional agility is when we approach our experiences in ways that are accepting, compassionate, curious, and courageous. It is about what we need to do in the present situation, instead of about fighting it. “This allows us to actually be in the world in a way that is ... wholehearted, connected ... as human beings,” Dr. David said.
How should you cope with difficult emotions in the moment?
First, Dr. David suggests, realize that the emotion doesn't define you.
“When [you] say something like, ‘I am sad, I am angry,’ what you are doing is defining yourself by the sadness,” Dr. David explains. “If you imagine a sky...the cloud is the cloud of sadness. The cloud is the cloud of anger. But we are all big enough ... and beautiful enough and complex enough as human beings to have a full range of experiences and a full range of emotions. And so you are not the cloud. You are the sky.”
If you imagine a sky, the cloud is sadness. But we are all big enough and beautiful enough and complex enough ... to have a full range of experiences and emotions. And so, you are not the cloud—you are the sky.
Defining our whole selves by the difficult emotion of the moment turns that emotion into a directive. It's like having someone tell you to leave the room because you’re angry, or shutting down because you’re hurt. But our thoughts don't own our actions. Our emotions don't own our actions. We do! Instead of letting the emotion be the director, ask yourself, “Who do I want to be right now? What are my values telling me?”
Then, proceed with gentle acceptance. Don’t push aside, rationalize, or judge the emotions, or say, “I shouldn’t be sad, or angry.” We can only be healthy and whole as human beings when we accept the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.
Finally, the most important thing is self-compassion. “A lot of times people misunderstand self-compassion,” Dr. David says, “They think that self-compassion is about being weak or lazy or lying to yourself. But actually, self-compassion ... is creating a space for yourself that is gentle.” Within this space, we can take more risks, because we know that if we “fail,” we will still love ourselves.
We can only be healthy and whole as human beings when we accept the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.
“And so, actually paradoxically, people who are kind to themselves ... are more honest with themselves and they are more likely to achieve their goals.”
How should we approach difficult thoughts?
Thoughts are stories. Some of our stories were written on a mental chalkboard in grade three. "Stories about whether we are creative, good enough, what kind of love we deserve ... and we are hooked," Dr. David explains. “The way we become unhooked from them is to start recognizing them for what they are. They are thoughts ... and they are stories. They are not fact. They are not directives, and we are under no obligation to listen to them.”
Thoughts are stories. They are not facts. They are not directives. We are under no obligation to listen to them.
To get unhooked, start to observe your thoughts and stories for what they are. Instead of, “I am being undermined in this meeting,” say to yourself, “I'm having the thought that I'm being undermined in this meeting.” Instead of “I'm not good enough,” say to yourself, “I'm noticing the story that I’m not good enough playing in my mind.”
When we start to do this very simple but powerful linguistic thing, we decouple ourselves from the thought or story.
What's the purpose of understanding thoughts and emotions?
“Our emotions are beautiful and they help us to thrive and adapt in a world that is ever-changing,” said Dr. David. Emotions contain signposts to the things we care about.
“So I'm not just suggesting that we ‘get over’ our difficult emotions,” says Dr. David, “Our emotions contain these incredibly beautiful beacons to things that we care about. For instance, if you’re feeling bored in your job, that boredom might be a signpost that you value learning and that you don't have enough of it.”
I often think of grief as being love looking for a home.
“Emotions are data, but not directives,” she explains. The data that might be, “I feel guilty as a parent,” which points to, “I value presence and connectedness with my children and I don't feel that I've got enough.”
Grief is also data. Dr. David says, “I often think of grief as being love looking for a home. So, 'I'm noticing this grief' may be actually creating space where you are actively remembering and thinking of someone you lost, which is profoundly powerful and just what you need right now."
How can emotional agility help us thrive in uncertain times?
“So often, our suffering is directly proportional to how much we try to control stuff that's uncontrollable,” Dr. David said. “So the more we try to control, [for example,] what one or another politician says, or whether someone slighted you at work, the greater our level of suffering.” So we need to be wise about what we try to control. That applies not only to what other people do but also to our own thoughts and emotions.
It’s not the time to white-knuckle our way through life. It’s the time for us to wisely choose what we let go of.
“Our thoughts and feelings exist for a reason," said Dr. David. "We have thousands of them every single day. And just because you had a so-called negative thought doesn't mean you're going to manifest a so-called negative reality. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Instead, we can control how we connect with people and the choices we make. We can also let go of the idea of “being right.”
Dr. David explained, “I may be right, but is my response serving me? Is it bringing me closer to being the person, the parent, the spouse, the partner, the human being that I most want to be?”
“It’s not the time to white-knuckle our way through life. It’s the time for us to wisely choose what we let go of.”