By Susan David, PhD and Psychologist on the Faculty of Harvard Medical School, 2016

“Our thoughts and emotions contain information, not direction”. Powerful words. Yet how often do we allow out thoughts and emotions to direct our actions, without pausing to reflect on whether it may have negative implications for ourselves or others. In Emotional Agility, Susan David asks us to consider “Who’s in charge – the thinker or the thought”. Her point being that if we want to be emotionally agile in all areas of our life i.e. able to choose our response, and not get hooked by thoughts and feelings that don’t serve us, we need to be able to follow four basic principles:

  1. Showing Up – facing thoughts, fears and behaviour willingly and with knowledge and curiosity (and knowing they’re not true)
  2. Stepping Out – Detaching from, and observing, our thoughts and emotions. It allows the possibility of choosing how we respond, rather than reacting automatically.
  3. Walking your why – using our core values as a compass to help us make the right decisions
  4. Moving on – making small deliberate tweaks to how we respond to thoughts and feelings.

She uses two terms to explain ineffectual handling of emotions – the Bottler and the Brooder. Problem is, the Bottler tends to ‘leak’ (you know when you explode about a minor incident, when you’re really upset at something else?). And the Brooder gets obsessive, giving the emotion more power, which is exhausting and counter-productive. They are emotionally rigid postures which “deprive us of being in the present, creative, fully engaged and agile”.

Using real life examples, David shares tools to support emotional agility, including:

  • labelling our emotions (Showing up)
  • using writing to create a distance between the ‘feeler and the feeling’, or applying the mindful practice of non-judgmental curiosity/observation (Stepping out)
  • checking our potential response against our value ‘compass’ (Walking your why)
  • believing we can ‘tweak’ our beliefs, motivations, habits for the better, and shifting our language from ‘want to’ rather than ‘have to’ (Moving on).

I like that David encourages acceptance of our emotions, seeing our raw feelings as “the messengers that we need to teach us things about ourselves and prompt important insights”.

Although her work doesn’t offer ground breaking research, David leaves you believing that greater emotional agility is attainable.

Where can you see this being useful in your life?