INSIDER: Emotional Agility

December 1, 2017

Austin Taylor, MBA Candidate

“One of the keys to a happy life is knowing yourself. In Emotional Agility, Susan David offers us a groundbreaking way to recognize our feelings and gives us the tools we need to avoid the emotional ruts that keep us from reaching our bigger goals. This book is a revelation for anyone looking to make lasting change in their life.”
– Gretchen Rubin, New York Times Best Selling Author of The Happines­s Project.

Book Cover of Emotional Agility

Emotional rigidity arises when we become captive to our self-denigrating emotions, and are tossed about by the waves of the world around us. A lack of flexibility and adaptability prevents the emotionally rigid from stepping out and achieving their well-intentioned goals in life.

Emotional Agility enables you to become flexible with your thoughts and feelings so that you can respond optimally to everyday stresses, which is the key to emotional wellbeing and personal success. The emotionally agile understand that life is full of difficulties, but acting according to your own personal values enables you to pursue happiness and achieve your largest and most significant goals.

THINK POINT #1: Don’t Become Emotionally Hooked

Becoming hooked occurs when you are trapped by your own emotions and thoughts. For example, an emotion may arise which indicates a fear of public speaking. Fear in this situation is a healthy thing, motivating you to do well and indicating that you value performing well. If we allow it to, fear of public speaking can quickly develop into a thought that “I’m no good at public speaking,” and then morph into the misguided belief that “I’m the worst public speaker in the world.” Fear becomes a negative influence when you let that emotion take control and listen to the emotion as a fully true statement without questioning it. At this point, the healthy emotion of fear has morphed into a hook, and the mind will persist in this self-denigrating talk until you consciously take control, dispel the lie, and unhook.

Each emotion we feel has a distinct design and purpose to help us live a healthy and productive life. When emotions arise, we should address them, seeking to understand their purpose, and then take control of our response.

While any taking action to respond to our emotions may be a step in the right direction, there is a good and a not-so-good way to do so. Two examples of an unhealthy way to address our emotions include bottling and brooding. Bottling occurs when you suppress your emotions by pushing them to the side and ignore the purpose of the message which our emotions are trying to convey. While bottling feels like taking control, in reality these bottled emotions will eventually boil to the surface in potentially harmful ways. Brooding happens when people are aware of their emotions and feelings, yet let their emotions overwhelm them. Brooders become hooked by uncomfortable feelings – and rather than address the discomfort – stew in their misery. If you obsess over a negative feeling you once felt or constantly look back to that negative experience, you are brooding.

Bottling and brooding are like putting a bandage on a large wound. As short-term solutions, bandages fail to address the source of the emotion and do not provide a long-term option for growth and wellness.

THINK POINT #2: Unhook by Showing Up and Stepping Out

The emotionally agile are present in their emotions, and seek to align their response and behaviors with their core values. Showing up occurs when you face your emotions head on, with curiosity and kindness to self. Rather than dodging your emotions as a bottler, or wallowing in your self-loathing as a brooder, the emotionally agile seek to understand their emotions. With that understanding of themselves, they learn to accept their strengths and weaknesses. Showing up to your emotion such as the fear of public speaking requires acknowledgement of the emotion without letting it control you. Rather than believing the thought that, “I’m the worst public speaker in the world,” someone showing up to and acknowledging her emotions would simply think to herself, “I feel afraid of public speaking right now.” With self-compassion, you can show up to your emotions, acknowledge your prior mistakes and imperfections, and then move on to better and more productive things.

Once you have identified your emotions, stepping out occurs by detaching yourself from the emotional stimuli and the response, and seeing your emotions for what they are -- just thoughts and emotions. By pausing before reacting, stepping out allows you to taking control of your behaviors and respond in a way that coincides with who you really want to be. To step out from your fear of public speaking, you would acknowledge the thought that “I feel afraid of public speaking right now” and seek to insert a logical response, rather than succumbing to your negative self-doubt and getting hooked.

THINK POINT #3: Walking your Why

Before you can logically shape your responses, you must become attuned with who you are and who you truly want to be. To walk the life you desire to live, you must understand why you want to walk that way in the first place.

Walking your why occurs when you live by your own individual set of values, which are the beliefs and behaviors that give you personal satisfaction, purpose, and meaning. Success should be a personal measure founded upon your own values. While some place value in wealth and fame, others value simplicity and order. Values are freely chosen, not imposed. Values are ongoing rather than one-time goals. Your values should be a broad guide to your path of fulfillment instead of rules that constrict your destiny.

Stock photo visualization of a man climbing a staircase

When difficulty, stress or fear arises, a decision must be made. Choice points will arise like a fork in the road: you can choose to pursue your values and growth, or linger in the misery of complacency. Following your values in each and every difficult situation will require courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is showing up to your fear, stepping out of that fear, and facing it head on. Walking your why happens when you make the logical choice to pursue your own values rather than succumbing to the pressures to conform to the desires of others. Whatever it is you value, walking your own personal why will enable you to thrive in the moment and lead to a feeling of personal accomplishment and success.

THINK POINT #4: Moving On: The Tiny Tweaks and Teeter-Totter Principles

Once you have unhooked from the negative emotions, identified your values, and begun walking your why, how do you perpetually stay on the path to growth and change? The most effective way to transform your life is through tiny-tweaks, rather than drastic alterations. The tiny-tweaks principle encourages you to seek small, achievable changes in lieu of pursuing large and drastic change in one fell swoop.

Tweaking your mindset starts with questioning your beliefs that are set in stone, such as the feeling discussed earlier that, “I am the worst public speaker in the world.” Adopting a growth mindset in which you believe you can change allows you to chase after your dreams and reach your full potential. An individual with a growth mindset would say, “I may be afraid of public speaking right now, but I want to learn how to be great.” By making the active choice to learn, experiment, practice, and grow, change can be achieved one step at a time.

Tweaking your motivations is a powerful way to pursue change and growth. If you currently feel like you have to or must improve your public speaking, change will be hard-fought and difficult to achieve. Tweaking your motivation to improve from a have to motivation into a want to motivation taps into the power found in your own free will and autonomy. With a willing heart, your actions will align with your internal desires rather than fighting the internal tug-of-war that occurs when you feel you must change but do not truly desire to do so.

The teeter-totter principle encourages a balance of comfort and challenge, finding a place where you are living on the edge of your ability, while neither overconfident nor overwhelmed. Choosing challenge over comfort is not an easy task. With clear values and achievable goals in mind, emotionally agile people will embrace a healthy level of stress and seek to continually push boundaries, not because they have to, but because they want to achieve personal success.

THINK POINT #5: Thriving in Your Current Work Position

Fulfillment in your personal life doesn’t come from conforming to the values of others that are imposed on you, and the same is true in your work life. With practice and finesse, you can mold your professional life to meet your values rather than having your work shape you.

Whether you are in a career you love or a position you hate, seek to find value in the everyday tasks around you. For the emotionally agile, work provides more than just a pay check. Work provides a sense of identity and purpose, regardless of what others think of your position.

According to the author, “We can use emotional agility to make the most, every day, of the job we have now. That’s how we ensure we are not just making a living, but also truly living. … The bottom-line, take-home message brought to you by emotional agility is this: Denying stress, bottling it, or brooding about it is counterproductive. Avoiding stress is impossible, but what we can do is adjust our relationship to stress. It doesn’t have to own us. We can own it.”

Recommended Reading

David, Susan (2016), Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, New York, New York: Avery, Penguin Random House Publishing.

About the Author

Austin Taylor, MBA Candidate
Baylor University
Austin Taylor is a graduate student from Austin, Texas. Austin is currently seeking an MBA degree with a specialization in Healthcare Administration and plans to work in the healthcare industry. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies with a focus in Politics and Diplomacy from Texas A&M University in 2014. Before beginning graduate school, Austin interned for a Federal Magistrate Judge in the Eastern District of Texas. In his free time, Austin enjoys spending time with his wife, Jessica, and volunteering in the community.