Emotional Agility

By Susan David



Susan David is a psychologist and executive coach who has studied emotions and how we interact with them for more than two decades. This summary will help you become more aware of your emotions, learn to accept and make peace with them, and increase your emotional agility. It won’t turn you into a perfect person that never says the wrong thing, but it will help you come to terms with even your most difficult emotions and help you enjoy your relationships and achieve your goals.

Emotional agility is when you can be flexible with your thoughts and feelings which helps you respond well to situations. It’s not about changing your thoughts, but instead about loosening up and calming down.

By opening up that space between how you feel and what you do about those feelings, emotional agility has helped people with many different troubles: negative self-image, heartbreak, pain, anxiety, depression, tough transitions, and more. Emotional agility will help you become dynamic. It will help you tolerate high levels of stress while remaining engaged, open and responsive.

In order to get the most of this summary, you will need to face your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours with curiosity and kindness. You will need to acknowledge them for what they are – just thoughts and emotions. Emotional agility will help you live the life you want and reincorporate your most troubling feelings as a source of energy, creativity and insight.

The Stories in Our Minds

Every day, we tell ourselves a story about who we are, what we do, and how we feel. Unfortunately, sometimes these stories are incorrect. For example, if you invite a friend for dinner and they are busy, it’s easy for you to change the narrative to “they’re never there for me. They don’t even like me,” when the reality is likely far from that. We need to recognise that the voice in our head is an unreliable narrator.

The problem is that so many of these voices are automatic. And when our thoughts blend with our emotions, we tend to make quick, gut decisions – even when it isn’t always for the best. Sometimes our snap impressions are wrong. However, once they are established, they can be hard to change. Being emotionally agile means responding to the world as it is instead of how we perceive it to be. It means going beyond your conditioned emotional response to act in a way that aligns with your true values. Ask yourself who is in charge – the thinker or the thought.

Some people bottle up their unpleasant feelings. The problem with this is that it doesn’t get at the root at whatever is causing the pain. So ignoring it may make it go away for a little bit, but it doesn’t get rid of the deeper issue. And the suppressed emotions will inevitably surface.

Another way of dealing with unwanted emotions is to brood. Brooders tend to stew in their misery and hold on to it much longer than they should. Brooding doesn’t have to be a solo activity – when you vent to a coworker about your annoying boss, you are still holding onto your anger. With brooding, emotions become more powerful and can be detrimental in the long run.

The best way to deal with emotions is neither to bottle nor brood, but to be present and accept your current emotions. We must face up to, make peace with, and find an honest and open way to live with them.

Nobody is perfect. But we should accept ourselves exactly how we are and forgive ourselves for our mistakes. This begins with recognising our thoughts without believing that they are always true.

We can’t change our circumstances or ourselves until we accept what exists right now. We need to give ourselves permission to be exactly who we are, and to the world for being exactly how it is. We don’t need to like the things we don’t like, but we must accept them for what they are. Then we can change.

Treat yourself with kindness and compassion. Treat yourself like a wounded child. If a child ran up to you crying, you wouldn’t berate them or blame them. You would comfort them and take them in your arms.

You will make mistakes. And that’s okay. But doing one bad thing doesn’t make you a bad person. Show some self-compassion and get to work paying your debt back. Then learn from your mistakes and do better in the future.

There is a common misconception that self-compassion makes you weak or lazy. This is not the case at all. People who are more accepting of their own failures aim just as high as self-critical people. The difference is that self-compassionate people still love themselves if they don’t meet their goals.

Unfortunately, we live in a time now that makes it incredibly easy to peek into other people’s lives. We see snapshots on social media of fancy dinners and extravagant vacations, and it often makes us feel badly about ourselves, even if we are happy with our lives. Social comparison may make you feel less self and life satisfaction. To combat this, do your best to focus on your own life.

Accept yourself for who you are, as you are, instead of striving to be a version of somebody else. The only person that gets to decide your value is you.

Words Can Help

Learning to accurately label our emotions is crucial to emotional agility. First of all, ignore the labels of “good” and “bad” feelings. All feelings are normal, and you should let them be when you notice them. Learning how to accurately label your emotions can be transformative. People who can identify the spectrum of emotions do better at managing the ups and downs of life.

When you notice emotions, ask yourself what the purpose that emotion is playing. For example, you only feel guilty about things you care about. If you feel guilty that you’re working late instead of spending time with your children, use that as an arrow to point you toward the people you love and the life you want to lead.

In one study, participants were divided into two groups. One group was told to write for twenty minutes each day about emotionally significant events. The other group was told to write about everyday things – their outfits, or meals, or the cars they see drive by.

After the study, psychologist Pennebaker found that those that wrote about emotionally charged episodes experienced a noticeable increase in their physical and mental well-being.

They were happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Even months after, they had lower blood pressure, better immune function, and fewer doctor visits than the control group. They also reported higher quality relationships, better memory, and more success at work.

Applying words to emotions is a remarkably helpful way to deal with stress, anxiety and loss. Take some time to write about your emotions. If writing isn’t your cup of tea, talking into a voice recorder can have the same results. Try to look at it from a new perspective, and understand the difference between the thinker and the thought.

Often we get caught up in our emotions and it blinds us to the reality of the situation. Taking a step back can be useful to see the situation for exactly what it is and show us how we can learn from it.

Another way to separate the thought from the thinker is to actively practice mindfulness. To do this, make an effort to be fully present in every moment. Pay attention to what your mind is doing without judgment. Mindfulness has countless benefits, such as improved competence, health, moods, focus, and health in general.

Being mindful of your emotions will help you correctly label them. It will help you see the world through multiple perspectives and have higher levels of self-acceptance, tolerance and self-kindness.

Think about an insecurity you have. Write it down, or say it ten times. Now, mix up the words or read it backwards. See that these sounds turn to meaningless jumble, and acknowledge that you are creating space between the thinker and the thought. Acknowledge the thought, but do not let it call the shots on your feelings or behaviours. Emotional agility means having unsettling thoughts or emotions, but still acting in a way that serves the life you want to live.

Walk Your Why

Walking your why is the art of living by your own personal set of values in order to gain meaning and satisfaction. It’s not always easy to identify what you value. Values aren’t universal, and we often make the mistake of looking at the people around us to help make decisions about our own life. What is “right” for one person isn’t necessarily right for someone else.

To identify your values, ask yourself what really matters to you. What relationships do you want to build? What do you want your life to be about? If all of your stresses and anxieties were gone, what new things would you pursue?

Use the answers as a guide to show you what you value. And then use those values to guide your life, and to walk your why. Knowing your values will help you be more flexible and open to new experience. Moving toward your values isn’t always fun or easy. Sometimes you will have to make hard choices, or do hard things to get yourself closer to your values. But even if your choice turns out to be wrong, you can still take comfort in knowing you made the decision for the right reason.

To help us do more things that align with our “why,” we should reframe the way we look at it. Positioning decisions to things that we want to do instead of things we have to do will make us far more likely to do them. We pursue our want goals because they reflect our values and interest. And these goals are freely chosen by us.

Alternatively, our have to goals are imposed on us by a sense of obligation or by others, and it is harder to keep up with them.

You can eat healthy because you feel anxious about your looks, but you are far more likely to commit to a healthy diet if you are doing so because you view good health as an important quality that helps you feel good and enjoy life. Reframe the way you approach decisions, and you will do more things that align with your why.

The Real World

Emotional agility will allow you to be your authentic self for everyone, every day. Take ownership of your own development, career, creative spirit, work and connections. Accept your self with compassion, courage and curiosity. Welcome your inner experiences, and learn from them. Do not hold yourself to unrealistic, perfect standards. Open yourself up and walk into your fears with your values as your guide. Being emotionally agile will change your life.