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Learning to be Emotionally Agile: A Q&A with Susan David, author of Emotional Agility

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Thrive Global: What does it mean to be emotionally agile?

Susan David: Emotional agility is the ability to be with yourself, your thoughts, your difficult emotions, sadness, fear, and anger in a way that is curious and compassionate, but without allowing yourself to be derailed by those emotions. Internally, the way we deal with our thoughts, our emotions, and the stories that we tell ourselves every day—“Am I good enough? Am I loved? Am I cut out for a particular job?”—ultimately enable us to thrive. How we deal with ourselves drives everything—our career, our relationships and every facet of how we love, live, parent and lead.

TG: You note in your book that we all get “hooked” by our thoughts. Can you describe what this means?

SD: All of us have ways we want to be in the world. We want to be present and connected parents. We want to be effective with our loved ones. We want to be inclusive leaders. And yet what so often happens in our day-to-day lives is that we get hooked by our thoughts, our emotions and our stories, whereby they dominate our actions in ways that are misaligned with our intentions and values.

TG: What does that feel like in the moment?

SD: Being hooked is when you allow your thoughts to drive your behaviors. For example, “I’m so stressed when I get home from work that I’m going to take my phone to the table and not spend these precious moments that I have with my child and my family,” or “I’d love to take a leap in my career, but I’m not going to because I’m not good enough.” That’s the opposite of being emotionally agile. That’s being emotionally inagile.

TG: How can you overcome feeling hooked?

SD: In the book I talk about core fundamentals of how we can develop greater levels of emotional agility. The key here is often doing the opposite of what society tells us. Society tells us to think positive and chase happiness. But what that can mean is that we often move into this space where we fundamentally invalidate ourselves. We bottle our emotions, we push them aside. And so the first part of emotional agility is what I call ‘showing up.’ The idea is that you can be with your emotions in a way that notices them, that is compassionate toward them, and that recognizes them. Our emotions contain very important signals about things we actually care about. Our emotions are data, not directions, and they are data that are worth noticing and feeling and recognizing. I then talk in the book about how you can create really effective distance between you and your emotions. Who’s in charge: the thinker or the thought? Who’s in charge: my Facebook feed, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, or me, the person who gets to choose intentionally what I do with my time and my life?

TG: You mention that we’ve been told as a society to “Be positive. Be happy.” But you note in the book that bad moods aren’t a bad thing. Can you elaborate?

SD: What’s really interesting is that people who strive to be happier, who set goals and expectations around happiness, actually tend to become less happy over time. There’s a large body of research showing that setting happiness as a goal actually undermines happiness. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that it denies an aspect of our humanity. Charles Darwin wrote a lesser-known book than On the Origin of Species, which was called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Here he described how our emotions are critical to our survival. They help us recognize who to trust and who not to trust; they help us calibrate our actions. I’ve never met a parent who, at some level, wasn’t concerned about ‘How should I be present?’ I’ve never met someone whose idea was stolen at work who wasn’t concerned about issues of equity and fairness. When we push those emotions aside in the service of being happy, having a positive attitude, or thinking positive, what we are not doing is effectively mining those emotions for the values that underpin them and developing resilience with those emotions. People will say, ‘Do away with the fear. Conquer fear. Get rid of fear,’ but fear is a normal human emotion. Courage is not an absence of fear. Courage is fear walking. Courage is about noticing your fear and choosing to move in a particular direction that is aligned with your values.

TG: What can somebody do today to be more emotionally agile?

SD: A core part of effective change is the idea that tiny tweaks or microsteps make a real difference. We don’t need to move countries to change our lives. We can make real changes in our everyday lives. For example, imagine that you want to be more present with your children, or that you want to be a more inclusive leader. We know that if you cultivate small habits, microsteps, around those desired changes, it makes a real difference. In Emotional Agility I talk about the psychology of habit-change. There’s this idea called ‘piggybacking.’ Imagine that you’ve already got a habit: when you come home from work you always put your keys in a specific drawer. At the same time, you’ve recognized that you’ve stopped being present with your children and that you’re more focused on your phone than you are on them. What you might do is take that preexisting habit (putting your keys in the drawer) and piggyback a new habit onto it (by putting your cell phone in the drawer as well). That’s an example of a tiny, value-aligned tweak that we know can have a multiplier effect.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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