Despite the difficulties of our times, many people squash what Susan David, award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist, refers to as “so-called negative emotions,” such as grief, sadness, and frustration.
But people who are open to the reality of human experience are better able to foster innovation, creativity, and the wholehearted capacity to be themselves, says David, author of the number-one Wall Street Journal bestseller, Emotional Agility.
And given the enduring challenges in both our work and our family lives, emotional agility may be more important than ever.
David defines “emotional agility” as a process that enables us to navigate life’s twists and turns with self-acceptance, clear-sightedness, and an open mind.
It is the opposite of emotional rigidity, which she defines as getting hooked by thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that don’t serve you.
Emotional agility, she says, makes room for all thoughts, stories, and emotions, including the so-called negative ones.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong or damaging about having a so-called negative thought like I’m an imposter,” says David. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a so-called negative emotion like grief, stress, anxiety, or frustration. And there’s nothing inherently damaging about having a story about who we are and what we’re capable of.”
The danger comes, she says, when we allow these thoughts and emotions and stories to dictate to us what we should do next.
Using the pause between stimulus and response
Victor Frankel, the late psychologist, and Holocaust survivor, famously wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
When we are emotionally rigid, there is no space between stimulus and response, says David. But when we are emotionally agile, we can move into and stay in that space.
“Our emotions are designed to help us address and adapt to stress,” she says. So, when we experience thoughts, emotions, and stories, we need to know these are just normal ways of being. They are the way our bodies prepare us to respond to the world appropriately. There’s nothing wrong with them no matter what social media tells us when they implore us just to be positive.”
How to cultivate emotional agility
- Show up to how you and others feel with acceptance and compassion.
- “One of the great myths about self-compassion,” says David, “is that it involves being weak or lazy or letting yourself off the hook. But what we know is that people who can be this way with themselves are more honest, courageous, and risk-taking.”
- As leaders, we also need to show up with acceptance and compassion for others, according to David.
- But when we feel stressed, we often harden our expectations of ourselves and others. So at times like that, David recommends trying to soften the edges. Of course, this doesn’t mean not having expectations of others. But it does mean seeing what people are genuinely experiencing.
- Develop the ability to step out of your emotions.
- “Emotions are data. They are not directives,” says David. “Just because I feel a strong emotion doesn’t mean I’m right. Just because you feel undermined doesn’t mean you have to shut down. We own our emotions; they don’t own us.”
- To step out of your emotions, David recommends using more precise language to describe what you are feeling.
- “Often, we use very big labels to describe what we’re feeling,” she observes. “‘I’m stressed’ is the one I hear most often. But there is a world of difference between ‘I feel stressed’ and ‘I feel depleted.’ ‘I feel stress’ and ‘I need more support.'”
- So, try to label your feelings with greater accuracy. This will help you better understand the cause of your emotions and what you need to do about them.
- She also recommends not defining yourself by your emotions. Instead, just notice your thoughts and emotions and stories for what they are: thoughts and emotions and stories.
- Recognize that your emotions contain signposts to who you most want to be in the world.
- “Life is always asking us, ‘Who do you want to be?'” says David. “Emotional ability is about having a lifelong correspondence with your values and heart.”