Editor's Choice

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life

September 29, 2016


Susan David has written a beautiful book about the power of embracing the full spectrum of our emotional lives.

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David, Avery, 288 pages, $27.00, Hardcover, September 2016, ISBN 9781592409495 

I’m a bit of a worrier. And I actually used to worry a lot about that. I don’t anymore. The only time I think twice about it when I tell someone I’m worried about something, and they kind-heartedly tell me tells me “oh, don’t worry about it” or “don’t stress yourself out about it.” I’ve come to accept my worries and tendency toward melancholy as part of my reaction to the world around me, and have learned not to dwell in or on it. Sometimes I worry that I don’t worry about it anymore. I wonder if, rather than becoming more comfortable in my own skin and thoughts, I’m becoming complacent. Susan David, in her new book Emotional Agility, has helped me untangle these thoughts and feelings.

If there’s one fault I find with business books (and one danger in reading only business books), it’s that they can create an echo chamber of optimism and ambition. You’re constantly told that you need to stay positive, dream big, be happy, do what you love, change the world—and when you fail to live up to that, it can be devastating. And we all fail to live up to that from time to time. It’s impossible to be what an old friend once referred to as an emotional Florida—constantly sunny, smiling, successful. Nor, Susan David tells us, should we try to be:


We are wired to feel negative at times. It’s simply a part of the human condition. Too much stress on being positive is just one more way our culture figuratively overmedicates the normal fluctuations of our emotions, just the way society often literally overmedicates rambunctious children and women with mood swings.


“The paradox of happiness” David writes, “is that deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself.” Negative emotions are not only okay, they are natural, healthy, and productive. There is a reason that most of the emotions that made their way down to us through evolution—David names joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, contempt, disgust—are “negative” emotions. They are useful:


Our so-called negative emotions encourage slower, more systematic processing. We rely less on quick conclusions and pay more attention to subtle details that matter.


Yet, as in the movie Inside Out (which I couldn’t help thinking is even more brilliant as I was reading this book), most of want Joy running the show. We pursue happiness, think of it as the ideal, how we should be. But there are real benefits to experiencing what we think of as negative emotions. According to research, they: 

  • Help us form arguments.
  • Improve memory.
  • Encourage perseverance.
  • Make us more polite and attentive.
  • Encourage generosity.
  • Make us less prone to confirmation bias.

The key to harnessing the power of our emotions is to create space between how we’re feeling and how we react to it. The negative thoughts and voices in your head are like internet trolls in comments sections telling you you’re not smart enough, not thin enough, not talented enough. You should not let them stop you from writing the story of your life. They are just thoughts, not the truth. You do not have to let them control your actions or your life in an immediate, negative way. What we need is to develop some emotional agility.


Emotional agility means having any number of troubling thoughts and emotions and still managing to act in a way that serves how you most want to live.


David walks us through the four steps of emotional agility: Showing Up, Stepping Out, Walking Your Why, and Moving On. She teaches us how to be honest about our emotions, how to put some space between them and our reactions to them, how to make more intentional, mindful, and meaningful decisions instead of reactionary and mindless ones. Doing so allows us to observe happening around us in a more dispassionate manner while still being passionate about it, to gather more insight about the world and gain more flexibility in how we react to it. Once we develop that emotional agility, we have a choice of what we want to do instead of what we feel we have to do. We can choose to want to do what we feel we have to do, and that makes a huge difference.

The starting point is accepting that we are imperfect beings living in an imperfect world. Accepting our flaws and shortcomings doesn’t make us complacent. It makes us courageous. It takes guts to own up to our flaws—to still get up and show up with them everyday. The first step toward change, to improvement or overcoming, is acknowledgement and acceptance.

For those interested in the straightforward business application, I should probably tell you that there's a whole section about "Emotional Agility at Work." But the entire book is going to help, because so much of business today has to do with emotional agility, with being able to look beyond your own feelings and thoughts about the world and seeing it through others' eyes, to consider others' needs and meet them. It's about seeing the imperfections in the world and working to address them. And part of showing up is knowing that it's always going to be a work in progress, that there will always be something to work on—that, perhaps, the struggle is the blessing. One of the most beautiful and profound passages in the book is:


We want life to be as dazzling and painless as possible. Life, on the other hand, has a way of humbling us, and heartbreak is built into its agreement with the world. We’re young, until we’re not. We’re healthy, until we’re not. We’re with those we love, until we’re not. Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.


One of the greatest human triumphs is to choose to make room in our hearts for both the joy and the pain, and to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.


We all want to be happy. We think it’s how we should be. Yet, when we try to live up to how we think we “should” be, we fail to fully live our lives in the moment. Don’t deprive yourself of the power of negative emotions. Don’t deprive yourself of progress. Accepting your “negative” emotions will allow you to get curious about what’s causing them, be more self-compassionate, and allow those emotions to change you in a healthy and productive way. It will allow you to be more authentically happy, without feeling a need to be happy all the time.

Why would you question anything if you were constantly happy? Why would you push yourself, or challenge the status quo? Why would you challenge or try to change anything­—institutional, organizational, or individual—if you were constantly happy? When we accept our “negative” emotions and examine them, it makes us less likely to accept whatever is causing them, and gives us a sense of agency to do something about it.


The broader view we gain by stepping out means learning to see yourself as a chessboard, filled with possibilities, rather than any one piece on the board, confined to certain preordained moves.


I’ve always worried about the future. I’ve told friends, since early high school, that I couldn’t wait to be an old man. I cherish the idea of being white-haired, looking back on it all, not so much future left in front of me, worry-free—perhaps smoking a pipe in a comfortable chair on a country porch in Wisconsin with a brandy old-fashioned sweating on the table next to me. Here’s what I’ve come to learn: I’m still going to worry, even then, because thankfully there’s a future beyond me. I will be thinking of my children, and I’ll think of the imperfect world they are inheriting with all its wonders and joy and pain. I'd worry about the future of that world even if I didn't have children it it. But, you know what? I think I might be happy then, and whole, and fulfilled. And I’ll hope that my children can be, too. I’ll set aside Susan David’s Emotional Agility for them to read when they’re older. I think it will help.

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