When you go to the gym, you most likely work on agility, right? The ability to move quickly, be flexible, and adjust to strenuous situations.
But when was the last time you worked on emotional agility?
When things don’t go our way, it’s easy to let our emotions take control. Whether it’s a breakup, a failed job interview, or a loss on the field, it’s challenging to keep our feelings from spiraling out of control. When things don’t go our way, we often respond with:
Why is this happening to me?
I don’t deserve this!
What am I going to do now?!
These emotions only worsen in situations where we’re triggered by something that has affected us before. For instance, if you’ve had friends betray you in the past, it’s easy to feel defensive if a friend behaves in a way you weren’t expecting.
While these emotional reactions are natural, they aren’t always constructive. Sometimes, our emotional responses can cause more pain than the problem itself. They keep us stuck in the past, and we end up repeating the same emotional habits repeatedly.
This is where emotional agility comes into play. When we can learn to become emotionally agile, we can respond to situations rather than react defensively.
I am so excited because today, we have my friend and repeat guest, Dr. Susan David, on the show. Dr. Susan is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and an award-winning Harvard medical school psychologist. She’s the author of the bestselling book, Emotional Agility, which describes the psychological skills critical to thriving in times of complexity and change.
In this interview, Dr. Susan and I talk specifically about what emotional agility is and how to develop it to live a better life. She also shares her knowledge on how to respond in moments when we feel entirely triggered and overwhelmed. Lastly, we dive deep into the science behind values and why they’re so important.
At this time in history, when everybody sees so many people overwhelmed, overstressed, scared, and confused, this episode will be instrumental in helping you take back not just your emotions but your life, too. If you’re ready to start this journey, then let’s dive in!
Susan David, Ph.D., is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist. Her #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling book Emotional Agility, heralded as a Management Idea of the Year and winner of the Thinkers 50 Breakthrough Idea Award, describes the psychological skills critical to thriving in times of complexity and change.
Dr. Susan challenges a culture that prizes positivity over emotional truth and explores how we deal with our emotions, shaping everything that matters: our actions, careers, relationships, health, and happiness. Dr. Susan’s TED Talk on the topic of emotional agility has been seen by more than 8 million people.
She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and a guest on national radio and television. Named as a leading thought leader on the Thinkers50 global list of top management thinkers, Dr. Susan is a sought-after keynote speaker and advisor. She has clients that include the World Economic Forum, EY, United Nations, Google, Microsoft, NASDAQ, and many other national and multinational organizations.
Dr. Susan trained as a clinical psychologist and completed her Ph.D. and post-doctorate at Yale University on emotions research. She is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is a Co-founder of the Institute of Coaching (a Harvard Medical School/McLean affiliate).
It was a huge honor to have the incredible Dr. Susan David back to share her knowledge with all of us! After reading this post, make sure to check out her previous appearance on the School of Greatness — Episode #604.
Dr. Susan’s father got diagnosed with cancer when she was young. He went away peacefully on a Friday, and she thought that the next few days would be dedicated for her, her mom and her other siblings to grieve over their loss. When Monday came, though, their mom told them that they should keep everything normal. She went to school and told everyone that she was okay when in reality, she was dying inside. That was the start of Dr. Susan’s strenuous journey with false positivity.
However, some good came from this experience — Dr. Susan believes that nobody needs to suffer from pretending that they’re okay and always happy, and that’s a message she’s sharing with the world. This is particularly true during this pandemic situation when everyone feels the need to grasp some sense of control over the vulnerabilities and uncertainties that they’re going through.
But if false positivity doesn’t work, what works instead? In her years of working as a psychologist, Dr. Susan suggests that the answer lies in emotional agility.
“Emotional agility is our ability to be healthy human beings. Every day we have thousands of thoughts that tell us we’re not good enough. We also have emotions about loneliness, anxiety, and stories that we tell ourselves about who we are in the world. And all of these things give us stress, ambiguity, and complexity. They become more pervasive and gain a greater level of hold on us. So, emotional agility is the psychological skill that helps us to deal with the inner world of ours in a fundamentally healthy way.”- Dr. Susan David
According to Dr. Susan, all these three factors — stories, thoughts, and emotions — are interconnected. For example, if our partner broke their word, it infuriates us. This leads to experiencing negative emotions, and we have a thought that turns into a story. We end up feeling angry at such moments. Usually, someone would tell us, or we might even say to ourselves, to not get mad or frustrated and to think positively. For Dr. Susan, this approach simply doesn’t work.
“What most of us don’t know is we have this amplification effect where the person actually thinks about the thing that they’re trying not to think about around 40 times. Instead of doing this, we first need to recognize that having difficult thoughts, emotions, and stories is actually normal. We should remember that life’s beauty and its fragility are interwoven.” – Dr. Susan David
And isn’t that true? How many times have we reminded ourselves not to think about a purple elephant, but in the end, we get that image stuck in our heads?
In another scenario, you may find yourself trying hard to get perspective and not obsess over things that are causing your suffering. You might not shun those emotions away, but you try to quickly find the gratitude at the moment and figure out how this will benefit you.
For Dr. Susan, this is a perfect example of what emotional agility is. It’s not false positivity because it doesn’t gaslight, doesn’t avoid, and doesn’t invalidate your feelings. The process involves acknowledging the weight of your emotions, feeling those emotions, and seeking gratitude. This is different than suppressing your emotions. According to Dr. Susan, trying to push emotions aside takes cognitive resources, making you quickly triggered or enraged by an act of another person.
Another benefit of emotional agility is we get freed from our emotions and other people. We avoid the feeling of being a victim, which is the result of emotional rigidity.
“Rigidity by definition is when you have these negative emotions and experiences. But instead of noticing them in a way that’s flexible and light, we get too clenched into them. So what we can do is either hold onto them and let them drive us, or we can notice them in a way that’s curious and compassionate. It all lies on our values which is the cornerstone of our emotional agility.”- Dr. Susan David
Emotional agility involves us learning to refocus our attention on our vision and purpose — that it’s okay to say to yourself that, “Maybe I’m going to feel sad for some time, but I can always focus on the next moment of my life.” Pretending that everything’s okay won’t help anyone in the long run.
“So if you have those negative emotions, avoid a forced or toxic positivity mindset. Write your feelings on a piece of paper. Now, turn it over and write what you’re grateful for, write what you think you should be focusing on and be positive about it.” – Dr. Susan David
By working on our emotional agility, we’re actually inviting a very different conversation with the self. We are able to increase the level of our health and happiness.
As we’ve learned, these two things — false positivity and rigidity — are the enemies of emotional agility. With the benefits of practicing and gaining emotional agility, how can one learn to develop power over their emotions? Dr. Susan explained that it should start with treating our emotions as data.
“Remember what I said about that side of the piece of paper where you’ve written the emotion you’re experiencing? That emotion is signaling you about your needs or about what matters. For example, if you’re feeling bored, it might be signaling that you need more growth in your work. If you’re feeling lonely, that could mean you need to feel more connected. All these feelings are signposts that we might need to follow to get us into a palace where we want to be.” – Dr. Susan David
There are other practical pieces of advice that Dr. Susan talked about controlling our emotions, and I’m excited to share them all with you!
To take back our control over our emotions, Dr. Susan discussed the importance of avoiding these mechanisms: bottling and brooding.
“Bottling is the example of forced positivity. … It is when you have a challenging emotional experience and are pushed aside and often with really good intentions to get on with your day or your life. However, over time bottling is observed to be associated with lower levels of wellbeing, more burnout, and hitting walls more often. On the other hand, brooding is where we get stuck in our emotions. We are so focused on what we feel or why we think if we’ve been wronged that it’s unjust. It could be feeling victimized by our Twitter feed or other things. It looks very different to bottling, but it’s just as unhealthy.” – Dr. Susan David
By not engaging in these practices, we’re able to process our emotions better and keep ourselves from becoming victims.
Have you ever noticed the beautiful relationship between a child and a caregiver? In optimal situations, the caregiver provides a “security base” for the child. According to Dr. Susan, this is a psychological term that refers to an individual’s knowledge that a person has their back. They feel that this base allows them to grow, be curious, explore, and move forward in the world.
“If we take that idea and apply it as adults, our security base is ourselves. It’s us who have our own back[s]. It means that we can’t rely on other people to provide that feeling. Thus, it means that we need to be compassionate and kind to ourselves. It means not invalidating ourselves or telling ourselves that we shouldn’t feel what we feel. It actually allows us to explore, take risks, and be vulnerable. It allows us to give love or put our hand up for a business opportunity because you know that if something goes wrong, you’ll always be forgiving and kind to yourself.” – Dr. Susan David
Dr. Susan also calls this “gentle acceptance,” which is the idea that there is no right or wrong way to feel or think about any situation. To do this, however, one needs to connect with the inner child inside of them.
“For every single person, there is a child inside of you that is saying, ‘See me, love me, hold me, and listen to me.’ In our lives’ busyness, we often get so stuck in our goals, we go to our autopilot and forget to nurture that child inside of us that had hopes and dreams, and that is still there and has needs. We also forget that we need human touch to remind ourselves that we are here.” – Dr. Susan David
Lastly, connecting to our inner child is needed to achieve gentle acceptance because it allows us to find our way forward in the world. Dr. Susan shares how the African term “Sawubona” applies in this situation.
“Sawubona literally translated means. ‘I see you.’ And by seeing you, I bring you into being. So when we stumble upon ourselves, what this does is it actually galvanizes us.” – Dr. Susan David
By seeing yourself, it means that you look at your humanity. This doesn’t just include the great things that you’ve done but also your flaws and shortcomings and embracing them as well.
When we’re feeling discomfort or have gotten ourselves into our argument, we tend to use one word to describe the multitude of emotions we’re feeling during the situation. We simply say “we’re stressed” or “we’re angry.” According to Dr. Susan, one should go beyond such terms and use other words to describe what we’re feeling. She calls this emotional granularity.
“This thing called emotional granularity is extraordinarily powerful. What it does in the moment of saying, ‘I’m depleted’ or ‘I need support,’ is [activate] the readiness potential in your brain. It’s the part of you in your psychology that helps you understand the cause of the emotion and what you need to do in response to that emotion. … This means that instead of saying simply, ‘I’m angry,’ you can think of other words to describe your emotions. If you’re a new boss of a team, you can say, ‘I’m in a new role, and maybe I’m not angry. Maybe I’m actually scared. Maybe my team’s not angry. Maybe my team, because they’ve had a prior bad experience, is distrustful.’” – Dr. Susan David
By labeling and identifying your emotions, you create a psychological space between yourself and the feelings. You take back your power over your emotions and come up with better, wiser solutions.
Another way to take back control of our emotions is to know that they’re merely a part of us. The common mistake that most of us make is we allow our emotions to identify ourselves. So Dr. Susan said that when we say something like, “I am sad, I am angry,” what we’re doing linguistically is saying that … “100% of me is that emotion,” which isn’t good. It’s essential to use different language verbally and internally while speaking to ourselves when we’re expressing our feelings and emotions.
“There’s an extensive body of research that shows that simply doing positive affirmations doesn’t actually work. So what do we want to do instead? The first is to find the ability to both feel a feeling but to also rise above it. If you’re angry, acknowledge it, but think about the consequences of what being angry might cause you. By doing so, you’re moving from the feelings or emotions into doing in psychological terms. That’s called the meta-view, the ability to helicopter above your emotions. This is when you say I’m noticing the thought, the emotion, the feeling for what it is, but it’s a thought, it’s an emotion, it’s a feeling for what it is.” – Dr. Susan David
As a former athlete, this reminds me of when I would doubt myself before a big game. I would step into an alter ego, and I would say, “Well, what would the best version of myself or this former great athlete in my position do? How would they show up?” I realized that talking to myself in this way triggered a different being inside of me. It made me want to show up differently at that moment, so I didn’t crumble to my emotions and feelings. I learned how to acknowledge those emotions but also rise to something more significant at that moment. And I believe that if I can do it, you can too!
Dr. Susan and I talked extensively about how values are the cornerstone of emotional agility. So how do values impact us on a deep, personal level? Dr. Susan explained:
“Values are often seen as being these abstract ideas, such as things that are written on the walls and businesses. However, what we don’t know is they are protecting us against what is called social contagion. Social contagion is the idea that certain behaviors become normal over time without even aware of them. … There has been large scale epidemiological studies showing that if someone in your social network put[s] on weight, stop[s] exercising or get[s] divorced, your likelihood of doing those things increases.” – Dr. Susan David
According to Dr. Susan, social contagion impacts us because it can lead us to engage in behaviors that are not reflective of who we want to be. She also believes that values can keep us steady even when things are tough. If you’re writing a book or taking on a challenging project, you’re going to face difficulty, and it’s your values that will keep your eye on the prize.
I believe in this, too. I think that without our values, we have no guide. We have no direction, and we have nothing that we’re working toward. That’s why I think sports for me was so beneficial because it gave me specific, practical tools as an athlete. I learned to set goals. I learned to work hard. In times I thought I would give up, I was reminded of my values and committed to the process of training hard.
Speaking of goals, Dr. Susan shared two types of goal-plans: the have-to-goals and the want-to-goals. Have-to-goals are derived out of a sense of shame or obligation. However, they are effective for us to ramp up resistance and our ability to keep moving. A want-to-goal is a goal that is derived out of a sense of values. “What is important to me?” “What do I hold to?” “What am I trying to create here?” It’s a type of intrinsically derived goal because it is personally meaningful to you in every aspect and leads to more sustained behavior change.
So how are values essential in reaching our goals? Dr. Susan explained:
“The most effective changes we need to achieve our goals are in the tiny tweaks we make. It’s about focusing on the interaction and tweaking it up a little. For example, think about putting our hands up for the projects we’re doing at work. Even if we can’t change our job, these little tweaks can help us use ourselves toward showing up every day. They can make us feel that our work [is] a little bit more values-aligned or values connected. … So they’re small and meaningful ways that we can truly shift the cadence of our day-to-day experience.” – Dr. Susan David
To know these values, we to identify them first so that we’ll have something to stand on and fall back on. So how can we do that? The answer goes back to connecting with our emotions!
“I’ve mentioned earlier the importance of using a piece of paper to write our emotions. I said that they are signposts that give us directions. These difficult emotions are not barriers, but they are beacons to the things we care about. One significant way of starting to do this is when we feel a difficult emotion, we should ask ourselves what this emotion is signalling on what we care about because very often our difficult emotions will be showing our values.” – Dr. Susan David
Dr. Susan provided an excellent explanation of our values’ science and its powerful connection to our emotions. By building the skill of emotional agility, we can look at the most challenging but worthwhile tasks we’ve achieved every day. We can take these emotions of discomfort and turn them into sources of growth.
Maya Angelou said, “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it,” and Gever Tulley said, “Persistence and resilience only come from having been given a chance to work through difficult problems.”
Friends, everything that I’ve learned today is massive! Understanding our emotions is indeed a powerful tool for taking control of our lives!
If you find everything that we talked about today valuable, please tag Dr. Susan, @susandavid_phd, and me, @lewishowes, on Instagram with a screenshot of the episode and your key takeaways. Please also go to Apple Podcasts, give it a five-star rating, and don’t forget to subscribe!
Before we end, here is Dr. Susan’s definition of greatness,
“My definition of greatness is being able to be with yourself in a way that feels connected and whole.” – Dr. Susan David
Remember, you have the gift of breathing, of being alive, and having another moment in this world, even though you are in pain or have traumatic memories. By honing your emotional agility, you can always go beyond the stress and difficulty of a situation and find some gratitude and good in every situation!
If you’re ready to learn how to master the art of emotional agility and regain control of your emotions, don’t skip Episode 1,089 on The School of Greatness with Dr. Susan David!