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4 Simple Steps to Emotional Agility, According to Psychologist Susan David

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Award-winning psychologist Susan David on the power of emotional agility

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Summary: How can you lean into your emotions instead of getting derailed by them? Emotional agility. Award-winning psychologist Susan David shares four steps that can help.

The problem with emotions is that it’s often a rollercoaster. At times, it can be a world turned, if not upside down, if not lying on its side. And no matter how hard we try, none of us are immune to it. 

So what can serve as our metaphorical yaysayer, hyping us up and reminding us of how awesome we truly are? Why, emotional agility, of course.

It’s one thing to be nimble physically. However, when you can master it emotionally, it’s like sitting at the front of the rollercoaster with your arms up and screaming, “Whee!

It’s like the question Susan David, an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist, poses in her book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life: “Who’s in charge — the thinker or the thought?

And as long as you’re willing to work with it instead of against it, there’s a lot your emotions can teach you about yourself.

What Is Emotional Agility?

Looking at the phrase closely, the word “agility” means to think and understand quickly. Now, throw “emotional” in there, and it’s all about being promptly aware of your emotions as they come up to say “hi,” accepting them as they are and learning from them.

We have thousands of thoughts and feelings every day. And what emotional agility helps us with is essentially having the ability to be with our thoughts and feelings. 

Unfortunately, many of us are taught that difficult thoughts and feelings have no place in the real world. “Stop crying,” “You’re overreacting,” or even “Go to your room until you can learn to calm down.” So we learn to ignore, suppress, or repress.

This goes against basic biology, according to Susan in a Harvard Business Review article. She explains, “All healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt, and fear. That’s just our minds doing the job they were designed to do: trying to anticipate and solve problems and avoid potential pitfalls.

Is it the same as emotional regulation?

While they both stem from emotional intelligence, there are differences between emotional agility and emotional regulation.

  • Emotional agility is using your emotions as information to help guide you instead of controlling them or changing them. It’s essentially a radical acceptance of your thoughts and feelings.

    For example, if your spouse left a mess in the kitchen, you may feel the urge to stomp over and give them a piece of your mind. Emotional agility, however, teaches you to take a step back, assess your feelings and thoughts, and instead devise a solution that doesn’t end up in a lovers’ quarrel. 
  • Emotional regulation is the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses. In short, it’s learning how to control your emotions by increasing positive emotions or decreasing negative ones.

    Going back to the spouse example. You might regulate the emotion by distracting yourself. Maybe you go for a run, take a cold shower, or grab your keys and head out the door for some wine o’clock with your friends.

While regulating your thoughts and feelings can be beneficial in some situations, emotional agility allows you to give your emotions the respect and consideration it deserves.

Co-workers talking using the power of emotional agility

Why Should You Be More Emotionally Agile?

There are those who’re able to seamlessly rise above challenges and there are those who get derailed by them. The kudos goes to emotional agility, meaning the former can embrace their emotion’s uniqueness rather than shoving them, especially the difficult ones, aside.

What can happen if you’re not emotionally agile

When it comes to our emotions, here’s the problem: People go about life with low vibrations not because they have undesirable thoughts and feelings, like anxiety, stress, fear, distress, and so on. Rather, they get hooked by them, like fish on a line.

Susan explains it happens in two ways:

  1. They treat their thoughts like facts and avoid situations that evoke them. For example: “It was the same in my last relationship…My love life is just emotional damage.
  1. With the help of their hype men, they challenge the existence of the thoughts and try to rationalize them away. Additionally, they may force themselves into similar situations, even when those go against their core values and goals. For example: “Just put a profile up on Tinder — you’ve got to get over this slump.

In either case, they are paying too much attention to their internal chatter and allowing it to sap important cognitive resources that could be put to better use,” Susan writes.

How emotional agility can serve you

To “unhook” yourself from your emotions, it’s important to learn how to develop emotional agility. And there are some upsides to it:

  • Enables you to be fully present
  • Helps you see things from the perspective of others
  • Encourages open communication
  • Bolsters empathy and compassion
  • Enables you to make decisions with clarity

As you may know, your mind and body are connected. When you allow yourself to be consumed by your emotions, it can have an effect on the organs in your body. And so, according to studies from the University of London professor Frank Bond and others, emotional agility can help alleviate stress and, as a result, the health conditions that are caused by it.

4 Practical Steps to Emotional Agility With Insights From Susan David

There are steps you can take to be more emotionally agile. And in an episode of The Mindvalley Podcast, Susan explains a four-step process that can help you use emotions to support your outcomes rather than dictate them.

You can tune into her full conversation with Vishen, the founder of Mindvalley, here:

1. Showing up

Recognize your patterns. Allow yourself the curiosity to feel your feelings and think your thoughts without judgment

It may seem uncomfortable at first, as it’s been taught to us to shove aside emotions instead of embracing them. But face them anyway; it clears the path for positive change and enables you to acknowledge your emotional range.

Susan David’s insights:These emotions contain very often gifts. They often feel uncomfortable but they are often signaling things that we care about our needs and our values.

2. Stepping out

Label your thoughts and feelings. For example, if you experience a moment of melancholy, you may say, “I am sad.” According to Susan, this indicates that 100% of you is this primary emotion, and there’s no space for your values, intentions, wisdom, curiosity, etc. But this can’t be farther from the truth. 

One of the emotional agility exercises Susan suggests is to instead say, “I’m noticing sadness” or “I’m feeling sadness.” Doing so allows you to see your emotion simply as they are instead of who you are. “Unhook” is the word Susan uses to describe it. 

And this objective view can help you better understand what causes these feelings and thoughts so you can be more autonomous over your actions and decisions.

Susan David’s insights:When we use a very big broad brushstroke to label what we’re feeling, our body and our psychology don’t really know what to do with that. When, instead, we use accurate labels” — instead of stress, you can say you feel depleted and unsupported — “and what that already starts to do is ready your body and your psychology to move in the direction of ‘how can I get more connection or care or rest or support?’”

3. Walking your why

Accept your feelings and thoughts by walking your “why” — your purpose in life. And your emotions often act as a guide for your values and needs.

When you notice and name your emotion, you learn more about what you value. For example, loneliness shows that you value connection and intimacy.

By knowing your “why,” you’re able to create goals that are centered around “want to do” instead of “have to do.” So when you’ve “unhooked” yourself and are deciding on the action to take, ask yourself whether it reflects your core values and needs.

Susan David’s insights: When we connect more with the heartbeat of our ‘why,’ the heartbeat of our values, it keeps us grounded in a very complex world.

4. Moving on

Act on your values. That includes making small but significant tweaks to your habits to align with your core values.

For example, say you value connection, but you notice the feeling of loneliness. It could be a sign of a lack of intimacy and connection. You might recognize that you’re in a relationship with someone you love, yet you feel lonely because you’re both busy with work and your children.

So making a small change, like giving them an intimate hug in the morning before you zip off to the office, can be a step towards emotional agility.

Susan David’s insights: When we become open to all of our emotions, we start recognizing that we can walk with fear in the one hand and courage in the other and that there is a bothness and an allowability of both of these at once.

Woman looking up to the sky and smiling with emotional agility

Great Change Starts With You

Life can be a rollercoaster, for sure. However, that doesn’t mean your emotions have to be. 

You can learn more about how you can befriend your thoughts and feelings in Susan David’s Emotional Agility. You can also head over to Mindvalley and learn from experts in mastering your emotions, like:

  • Tapping Into Emotional Mastery Quest with Jennifer Patridge. You may feel triggered by certain people or situations, and that can leave you feeling helpless, weak, or unworthy. Jennifer teaches tapping methods to help you attune to your emotions and energy to harness your self-awareness, personal power, and emotional freedom.
  • Rapid Transformational Hypnotherapy for Abundance Quest with Marisa Peer. Your mind has been programmed by society to play in your comfort zone. However, with Marisa as your guide, you can learn groundbreaking neuroscientific processes and transcend these barriers to living life in a more abundant and fulfilling way.
  • Duality Quest with Jeffrey Allen. If you’ve wanted to flip your life from struggle, stress, and frustration into inner confidence, healing, prosperity, and joy, this program is for you. Jeffrey guides you in how to reconnect with your energetic system and be attuned to your intuition so you can have greater clarity, healing, and abundance.

As Susan says in her book, “The ultimate goal of emotional agility is to keep a sense of challenge and growth alive and well throughout your life.” And with it lies your greatness.

Welcome in.

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Written by

Tatiana Azman

Tatiana Azman is the SEO content editor for Mindvalley and a certified life coach. She brings a wealth of experience in writing and storytelling to her work, honed through her background in journalism. Drawing on her years in spa and wellness and having gone through a cancer experience, she's constantly on the lookout for natural, effective ways that help with one's overall well-being.
Picture of Tatiana Azman

Tatiana Azman

Tatiana Azman is the SEO content editor for Mindvalley and a certified life coach. She brings a wealth of experience in writing and storytelling to her work, honed through her background in journalism. Drawing on her years in spa and wellness and having gone through a cancer experience, she's constantly on the lookout for natural, effective ways that help with one's overall well-being.

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