How to Go From Emotionally Fragile to Emotionally Agile with Harvard Psychologist Dr. Susan David
Yes, sometimes our emotions can drive us crazy. But did you know that they are also an incredible source of data, a way to learn how to be in the world? In this week’s blog and podcast, I speak with author, speaker and Harvard-trained psychologist Dr. Susan David about how our emotions are an important source of data, the difference between emotional fragility and emotional agility, how to sit with uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, ways we can become more emotionally resilient, and how to help children learn to process and manage their emotions.
Our emotions are critical for helping us adapt and thrive in the world. They tell us what is important and what is necessary for us. They help us choose how we want to be in the world. As Dr. Susan points out, we need to learn how to be effective in how we handle our emotions (including the negative ones!) if we want to be successful in how we love, learn and lead.
All our emotions are important, not just the positive ones. We live in a society that tells us “positive thoughts only”, “stop being so angry” and “you have to be happy all the time” but this is not possible or good for us. When we focus too much on trying to be happy, we can become unhappy. As I always say, we must deal with our stuff. We need to embrace, process and deal with our negative and uncomfortable emotions. We cannot escape or ignore them—trying to do so will make us sick and very unhappy.
Too often, we see learning how to deal with our emotions as a “soft skill”. In reality, it is one of the most fundamental life lessons we can learn—a cornerstone of human resilience, motivation and purpose. Our emotions are signposts to the things we care most about. When we embrace our feelings, we can move ourselves towards what we value most. Loneliness, for instance, shows us that we value connection and companionship, while anger can show that we value justice and fairness. When we recognize this, we can move towards what we desire most.
This does not mean, however, that we should just accept our emotions as is. Emotions are data telling us what is important in our lives, not directives telling us what to do. Just because you feel guilty, for example, doesn’t mean you are guilty or a bad person. An emotion is a signpost to explore how you feel and why, not to shut you down or keep you stuck.
As Dr. Susan describes in her new book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life,we need to develop emotional agility, not emotional fragility. We own our emotions; they don’t own us. This means that we need to learn how to see and understand the data behind our emotions and our incredible power to choose and grow. When emotions are just treated as facts, there is no space to choose—they keep us stuck and take us away from what we value. There is no freedom to grow. When we learn how to be with our emotions in ways that are compassionate and curious, on the other hand, we can create a space between us and our emotions, which allows us to bring other parts of ourselves forward. When we show up with curiosity, we won’t be in a constant struggle with ourselves. We can learn how to accept what we feel and start looking at what it is pointing us towards.
We can start doing this by:
1. Recognizing the context. Emotions don’t really take us by surprise; we all get into patterned ways of being that make us feel a certain way. We need to learn to stop and take the time to think about what are the patterns or ways of being in our lives that are not value-connected. What keeps us stuck rather than moving us forward? Say, for example, you are frustrated. Is it perhaps because you have been getting stuck scrolling through social media instead of using your time wisely? How can you change this?
2. Showing up with compassion. We don’t need to be constantly proving our worth; we are often way too hard on ourselves. We need to learn to be self-compassionate and to be okay with telling ourselves that “this is tough”. When we are kind to ourselves, we encourage our capacity to be honest and explore our emotions. We give ourselves permission to be curious and learn. Not only does this help us better deal with our emotions, but it also allows us to have more compassion and empathy for others.
3. Avoiding big emotional labels. Be careful of saying things like “I am stressed” or “I am tired”. We need to go deeper and get in touch with our full range of emotions—this is what Dr. Susan calls emotional granularity. We can do this by thinking about other ways we can describe our emotions, which allows us to move towards what we value, or to go from emotional incapacity to emotional agility. When we think deeply about how we feel, we can better understand the cause and the solution, which activates our readiness potential.
4. Not identifying yourself fully with the emotion. Avoid saying things like “I am sad”, “I am angry” or “I am not creative”. When we do this, we fuse ourselves with the emotion/thought/story, which can quickly take over our lives. We should start noticing thoughts, emotions and stories for what they are: data points, not facts. If you find yourself doing this, say things like “I am noticing I am feeling…”. See the emotion as a signpost pointing you towards what you want to become or what you value most. Be curious and explore how you feel. Remember, there is nothing inherently wrong with having a thought or emotion. What matters is how you respond.
We need to take a similar approach with our children. We need to help them experience their emotions as inherently valuable. We cannot just fix the pain or take it away. They need to experience negative AND positive emotions to grow and develop their mental resilience. This is an incredibly important life skill. In fact, learning how to listen to and deal with emotions is the most critical skill-set we can give to our children!
We can do this by:
- Showing up. Be present and sit with your children’s difficult emotions. Listen and acknowledge how they feel. Say things like “that feels tough” or “I see that this is happening”.
- Helping them label their emotions. Teach them about emotional granularity. Help them explore what they feel. This will help them later on in life—the data shows that when a child is better able to understand and deal with how they feel, they experience greater levels of wellbeing and resilience later on in life and can self-regulate better.
- Teaching them about their power to choose. Show them how their emotions point towards their values, intentions, and who they want to be in the world. If they feel sad, for example, show them how to figure out the “why?” behind the emotion. This will teach them how to manage their feelings and develop a grounded compass of ethics, which will help them treat themselves and others with respect.
For more on emotional agility, parenting and mental health, listen to my podcast with Dr. Susan (episode #191), and check out her website, TED talk and new book. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
2:18 What is internal psychology and why is it important?
4:00 The problem with positivity
7:18 How emotions help us understand our values
11:08 Emotions are data, not directives
22:00 Children and emotions
36:03 When do emotions start getting toxic?
38:38 How can you start practicing emotional agility?
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