Modern Absurdity//

Emotional Flexibility: How to Hold Everything at Once

A critical skill for trying times.


Life is messy.

Though there may be times when everything is clicking and going well — or the reverse: times when everything seems downright awful — we almost always find ourselves somewhere in the middle. Good stuff and bad stuff all at once. We set a personal-record in a 5K or even a marathon; get promoted at work; get married; or have a child the same week that forest fires destroy the lives of thousands; policies roll back basic rights for large parts of the country; mass shooters murder in cold blood countless innocent people; or a close family member dies. Should we feel guilty if we still feel a little happy during these periods? Should we feel guilty if all we feel is sad?

Life is Messy. Though there may be times when everything is clicking and going well — or the reverse: times when everything seems downright awful — we almost always find ourselves somewhere in the middle.

There is no “right” answer; thoughts and feelings are highly personal and almost impossible to alter, let alone control. And yet there is a concept, emotional flexibility, that can be helpful during complex times. Emotional flexibility describes the capacity to produce context-dependent responses to life events, and to respond flexibly to changing emotional circumstances. In a nutshell, emotional flexibility is about holding everything at once — happiness, joy, and enthusiasm at the same time as anger, sadness, and frustration — and being able to feel differently at various points throughout the same day and perhaps even the same hour.

Emotional flexibility is integral to living a considered, thoughtful, and whole life. It’s also a hard trait to practice. Far easier and requiring a lot less mental effort is to simply say “everything sucks” and focus only on the negatives (a quick route to depression) or to ignore the tragedies in your life and the world and focus only on the positives, pretending everything is hunky-dory (a quick route to delusion). But those endpoints — depression or delusion — are not good places to be. They are extremes when in reality the human experience is lived on a wide and murky spectrum.

In a nutshell, emotional flexibility is about holding everything at once — happiness, joy, and enthusiasm at the same time as anger, sadness, and frustration — and being able to feel differently at various points throughout the same day and perhaps even the same hour.

Embracing the murkiness — and cultivating the emotional flexibility required to do so — yields large dividends. Resilience comes from deliberately practicing joy, even during awful times; happiness is intensified by experiencing and feeling deep sadness.

Emotional flexibility is also freeing. It says that you can still enjoy a long run through the woods on the same day something terrible happened in the world. It also says that you can feel sad and down even though there may be a lot that is good in your life. On many days you should feel all of these emotions — because all of these emotions exist.

How to become more emotionally flexible

The first step is giving yourself permission to feel what you are feeling, and to not feel bad about it. The second step is to practice being present in all that you do. The more present you can be the less baggage you carry from the past or from thinking about the future. If what you are doing/thinking about is making you sad, be sad. If what you are doing/thinking about about now is making you happy, be happy. The more you can be in the moment — and be with your feelings in that moment — the fuller your life.

One last note: While it’s completely normal to feel down/sad at times, it’s not normal to feel down/sad all the time. Nor is it fun. A great first line defense for getting out of a rut is exercise. If you force yourself to move your body, your mind often follows. You should also seek connection with others and try to spend time in nature. If self-treatment doesn’t work, seek professional assistance. When you’re really feeling down, the strongest thing you can do is ask for help.

If you enjoyed reading and want to keep the conversation going…

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Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine and author of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.

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