How To Be More ‘Emotionally Agile’ This Year

Photo: Alexandra Gavillet
In 2017, Amazon.com voted Emotional Agility its ‘Book of the Year’. It also won the ‘Books for a Better Life Award’ in the Psychology category and was listed among Business Insider’s ‘8 Books That Will Change Your Life’. When you consider that 2017 was also the year anxiety and depression among workers hit a record high, with nearly a third more diagnoses than in 2013, the runaway success of the book makes perfect sense. As our anxiety grows, so our cynicism over ‘self-help’ books diminishes and we find ourselves desperate for compassionate advice, in the affordable (£9.99) form of paperback therapy.
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Written by Susan David, a Harvard psychologist with 20 years' experience who has a PhD in clinical psychology and a postdoctorate in ‘Emotions’ from Yale, this book is legit – and tearfully reassuring. From remodelling your idea of success to breaking negative thought patterns you’ve carried with you since childhood and which hold you back in the workplace and in your relationships, Emotional Agility is David's psychologically evidenced theory and practical guide on how to handle yourself.
After nodding our way emphatically through the book, we arranged a long-distance call with Dr David, who lives outside of Boston with her family, to talk about navigating difficult emotions, how to overcome insecurity, and why being in a bad mood is good for you.
What does the term ‘emotional agility’ mean?
It’s all about taking steps that are in the direction of our values. All of us have good intentions about who we want to be – in our relationships, as parents, as leaders, about our health – so what is it that gets in the way of us living our lives according to our good intentions? Well, our thoughts, our emotions, our stories – the stuff inside of us that creates a very big gap between our intentions and our reality. So emotional agility is about interacting with ourselves, it’s about developing the skills to help us thrive in a stressful, changing, challenging world.
In the book you talk about getting ‘hooked’ on a thought, what does that mean? How does a person get hooked?
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Getting hooked is where there’s no space between stimulus and response. For example, we're in a meeting and we feel undermined and so we shut down, or our partner says something we don’t like and so we leave the room – these are particular ways of reacting, rather than choice-based responding. Hooked is when our thoughts, emotions and stories start to drive our actions rather than other parts of ourselves, like our values and our intentions and who we actually want to be, so we start to become dominated by our thoughts, emotions and stories in ways that aren’t helpful to us and don’t serve us. Often, as children, we get given stories about who we are, what we’re good at, what we’re not good at, what we deserve; we get given these messages by our parents, our teachers and also by our culture. Our culture messages things about what women are capable of and what they’re not. Our culture messages things about the kind of people we should be. Social media tells us the kind of holidays we should be on. And then we might get hooked for example by watching TV and feeling angry about what we’re seeing because we feel a sense of injustice, and that might lead you to vent and be really upset about the thing, but not actually take any action in accordance with your values. The definition of getting hooked is when you end up feeling rage in a way that doesn’t serve you, and doesn’t allow you to embody your values.
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How do you unhook yourself from whatever it is you're obsessing over?
We live in a world that tells us we should or shouldn’t feel particular things, that tells us we need to be happy all the time, that we should always have a positive attitude, and then we start judging ourselves for having bad emotions, and then we fail to realise that our emotions and our thoughts are actually a critical, beautiful part of who we are. The emotions that we feel strongly are flashing lights signalling that we value something. So you start to unhook, first by showing up to your emotions. When we're hooked by emotions, we do one of two things: either we bottle those emotions and just say, ‘I’m upset but I’m going to ignore the situation or the person I’m annoyed with’, or we brood on our emotions, which is when you go over and over it, obsessing about it, and feeling victimised. Bottling and brooding look very different – one is pushing the emotions aside and the other is obsessing over them – but both of these ways of reacting are associated with lower levels of happiness. So the first thing is showing up. The second thing is starting to step out of your emotions, for instance, labelling your emotions. Often when we're upset, we say, 'Oh, I’m just stressed’, but there’s a world of difference between stress and upset, or stress and disappointment, so labelling emotions correctly is really important. Then the third step is ‘walking your why’, which is having the capacity to think: Who do I want to be in this situation? As opposed to: What is my emotion telling me to be? And then the fourth part is moving on and making changes to your life according to your values, according to who you want to be.
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One thing that makes me, and a lot of young women, feel insecure is comparison with other people on social media: ‘Her life looks better than mine in pictures, therefore she’s better than me.’ How does social comparison work from a psychological point of view?
Social comparison is one of the most toxic psychological processes that we engage in. It’s very, very challenging. We're starting to see rates of anxiety, depression and suicide increasing and there are many reasons for it, but one of the reasons is there is this constant social comparison. There is a very subtle psychological process known as social contagion; we’ve all experienced it, it’s getting in an elevator and one person is on their phone, so suddenly everyone in the elevator gets out their phone. Or you go into a meeting and one person is cynically rolling their eyes and then everyone starts feeling cynical. As social beings, we often pick up on cues from other people, without even realising that it’s happening. Imagine you are trying to be healthy and you go on an aeroplane and the person sat next to you buys chocolate – you are 30% more likely to then buy chocolate, just because the person next to you is doing it. The same goes for divorce! If someone in your social network gets divorced, you are statistically more likely to get divorced. Social comparison and social contagion happened long before social media, it’s just that on social media we’re exposing ourselves to comparison constantly. Ten years ago, you might have bought a magazine and wanted to be like the celebrity in the magazine, but on social media, that celebrity becomes thousands of people, constantly coming at you through different streams and platforms.
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So how do we protect ourselves?
Well, the idea of having values may seem cheesy but if you have a strong sense of who you want to be in the world and what is important to you, that can really protect you from social contagion. Another thing that helps is self-compassion – recognising that, yes, there are all these people on social media doing all these things, but you are on your own journey and you’re doing the best you can with what you’ve got. And another thing that helps is recognising your user habits, like if you’re checking social media 50 times a day, start checking it more intentionally, at set times, not just as a mindless activity or reflex.
I like the values thing in theory. But what about in that moment, where you leave the house with your values and you feel good about yourself and you know who you want to be, and then you arrive at a situation – a party for example – and suddenly you feel insecure, and who you wanted to be disappears, and you’re just left with that familiar narrative of ‘I’m not good enough’. What can you do to regain control over your emotions in the moment?
Okay so maybe you’re going to a social event where there are people you want to impress, or maybe it’s an important work event, and then what happens is you go into that tailspin and your mind says, ‘I’m not good enough, I thought I was but I’m not' and then maybe you start shutting down, and you stop interacting as much, you start feeling self-conscious, you don’t speak up even though you have something to say, and so on. This is a perfect example of hooked behaviour, because your thoughts, emotions and stories are driving you, rather than your choices. So to be emotionally agile in that situation, first just notice that you’re feeling smaller. Notice the thoughts and don’t push them aside, don’t say to yourself, 'What an idiot that I’m having this thought, what’s wrong with me', that will just make you feel worse. Instead, be compassionate to yourself and say 'Okay, this is a new environment, there are lots of new people.’ So that way you show up to your emotions, and then you step out of them by creating a space between you and your thoughts, because if you just say to yourself, ‘I’m just not good enough’, you start treating that as fact, whereas if you notice it and step out of it, you acknowledge that it’s just a thought, it’s not a fact, and then you move on by thinking ‘Okay I’m having this thought but I’m here to see my friends that I care about and I’m going to continue to be present in this conversation' or 'I’m having the thought that at this work function, I’ve got nothing to offer and I’m a fraud, but I’m here to make connections and to build my network and to expand my knowledge, and that’s what I choose to do'.
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I always think, if only I were more confident, then all of my hang-ups and hooks and problems would disappear. Do you think confidence has anything to do with it or is it emotional agility that will help you navigate?
I think action has everything to do with it, so when you say to yourself, 'If only I was more confident…’, that’s waiting for some magical world in which you haven't had the past life experiences that you’ve had, where whatever has knocked your confidence in the past or shaken your confidence doesn’t exist, and you’re waiting for something to change in order for you to move forward effectively. Confidence is not something that should either drive you forward or hold you back. What should drive you forward is taking actions that are value-concordant; in other words, you can still feel a lack of confidence and feel you’re not good enough, but you can notice all these things and you can still choose to do what matters in the situation. What will happen is that your confidence will increase because you’re not waiting for the thoughts to go away or for the stories to go away, instead you’re saying, ‘The thoughts are here, the stories are here, but they don't own me, I own them, and I am still choosing to put my hand up for this project even though I feel scared, even though I feel a lack of confidence, I’m still going to do it’. That’s how you live a life that feels meaningful and full, where your confidence takes care of itself.
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That’s very comforting, to realise it’s your actions that drive your life, not your thoughts…
It’s revolutionary. We have thousands of thoughts every day but thoughts in and of themselves do not matter; what matters is whether you are able to notice your thoughts, learn from them and still choose to do what matters to you in your life.
I like what you say in the book about how being in a bad mood can be good for you. Can you talk about how negative emotions can serve us?
Our culture tells us that negative emotions are bad. Last week I spoke at TED Women about how we live in a world where normal, natural emotions are seen as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, where happiness is ‘good’ and anger or sadness is ‘bad’. We almost live in a world where being positive has become a form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to be positive. Women who are angry because they’re being sexually harassed are told to stop being so angry. But our emotions have evolved to help us. We don’t have strong emotions about things we don’t care about; if you have a strong emotion, it tells you there is a value underneath that difficult emotion, and if you open yourself up to that difficult emotion, you can learn an enormous amount about yourself and about others and about how you want things to change in the world and in your relationships.
When you talk about success in the book, you give the example of a Hollywood producer who is objectively very successful but actually, his wealth and lavish lifestyle don’t sit well with him, so he gives lots of his money away and he starts living a more humble life, and he is much happier that way. Do you think we should start trying to see success differently, not just as getting to the top, earning lots of money, getting married, having children?
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There’s a very particular societal version of success and we take on that version without even realising we're doing it; we start aspiring to a particular life. I’ve seen this in therapy a lot, people turn around and they say, ‘My God, I can’t believe I’ve spent 20 years in a career that I hate, but I did it because this is what was handed to me as what success looks like, and I’m deeply unhappy.’ And so what happens is, unless we are attuned to ourselves and our emotions, we can land up in a place where we've followed a path and then realised with horror that the path we are on is actually not the path we want to be on. So how do we start navigating this? First by being open to our emotions. When we start feeling a sense of dissonance or discomfort, we tend to just push it aside, whereas actually there’s so much value in saying 'Okay, what is this telling me?' Often the emotions are telling you that the path you’re treading may not be the path for you. The Hollywood producer, Tom, was living this particular life, but he started having this niggling sense that it wasn’t actually what he wanted, and he didn’t change everything in one day, he just started to listen to his values and make small changes that reshaped the way he was living. And I think that ultimately it’s about trying to understand who it is that we want to be in the world and then trying to connect in those ways. So we can start by putting our hands up for different things, by volunteering for things we’ve never done before, and doing these kinds of things can start shaping us in very profound ways, and we meet new people, and we have new interactions, and ultimately we feel more concordant with the path we’re trying to tread.
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Do you find it exhausting working in emotions?
[Laughs] No, I love it. I find it endlessly fascinating.
Emotional Agility, published by Penguin, is out now
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