Every day thousands of thoughts pass through our mind. Most of them are not statements of facts but judgments, criticisms and desires intertwined with our expectations, emotions and feelings. Some of those thoughts are positive and adaptive as they help us feel better or achieve our goals. Others are maladaptive and become obstacles to our well-being or the achievement of our goals.
Modern society tells us that difficult thoughts and feelings have no place. It encourages us to delete them. However, it is unrealistic to expect “negative” emotions to go away. In fact, it’s not even convenient. We all have an internal flow of thoughts and emotions that generate doubts, fears, frustrations…
The problem is not those “negative” thoughts and emotions but getting caught up in them. The problem is that we respond too rigidly to a world that is constantly changing, responding in a maladaptive way. The antidote? Emotional agility, according to psychologist Susan David.
What is emotional agility?
Emotional agility refers to our ability to experience our thoughts and emotions in ways that allow us to reveal the best of ourselves. It is a process by which we assertively recognize, name, label, and manage emotions in order to move forward in a manner consistent with our values and goals.
Emotional agility is what allows us to navigate life’s changes with serenity, clear ideas and an open mind. It helps us resolve our internal conflicts so that we can be successful in what we set out to do and better face life or day-to-day challenges. “When we are emotionally agile, we are flexible with our emotions to respond optimally to everyday situations,” according to Susan David.
Obviously, emotional agility does not imply being constantly positive or optimistic. Quite the opposite. Instead of becoming obsessed with pursuing happiness, emotional agility encourages us to accept all kinds of positive emotions and the very fragility of life.
Trapped in our mind
Trying to completely eliminate “negative” emotions would be to prevent our mind from doing the job it was designed to do: anticipate problems to avoid possible difficulties. Actually, the problem is not the “negative” emotions but getting hooked on them.
As Susan David wrote, “Rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic. When we are emotionally rigid, we get hooked on feelings and behaviors that don’t serve us.” Uncertainty, for example, is often stressful, but we often make it worse by holding on to our expectations or trying to control everything.
We usually get stuck in those emotional states in two ways:
• Confusing ideas with facts, which generates maladaptive emotions that end up confirming that harmful reality.
• Rationalizing thoughts and emotions, so that we end up paying too much attention to them and generate negative affective states.
In fact, extensive research shows that trying to ignore or suppress thoughts and emotions only serves to amplify them. In a classic study in psychology, Daniel Wegner asked participants to avoid thinking about white bears. However, when the ban was lifted, those people thought more of white bears than those who had not been banned. This is known as the rebound effect.
How to go from rigidity to emotional agility?
To develop emotional agility, Susan David proposes a series of steps that will help us stop repressing our difficult emotions and open up to them to use them to our advantage.
• Recognize our mental patterns
The first step to developing emotional agility is to realize that we have become trapped in certain thoughts and emotions. It’s hard, because probably many of those thoughts have become mental habits and emotions in automatic reactions to them, but there are some telltale signs.
Susan David explains that a red flag is when our thinking becomes rigid and repetitive, like when we fall into recriminations and criticisms that seem like a broken record, because we repeat the same messages to ourselves over and over again. Another sign is when some emotions become the dominant reaction, such as anger, frustration, or sadness in a wide range of situations. Before embarking on the change, we need to realize that we are stuck in a rigid and maladaptive mental pattern that keeps us from our goals and affects our well-being.
• Label thoughts and emotions
When we are caught up in certain thoughts and emotions, our attention to them simply takes up everything, leaving no space to examine them consciously. Labeling what happens to us is a simple strategy to get out of this loop, while allowing us to assess the situation more objectively.
Just as we call a table “table”, we can also label our thoughts and emotions as such. For example, instead of repeating to ourselves overwhelmed “I can’t handle everything” we can tell ourselves “I’m thinking that I can’t handle everything and that’s stressing me out.” This simple change, labeling the idea as a thought and the affective states as an emotion, allows us to assume a psychological distance from what is happening to separate the facts from our reactions. That will give us perspective and help us calm our emotions.
• Accept the thoughts and emotions
The opposite of control is acceptance. Emotional agility means not being carried away by every thought or emotion, but simply paying attention to them with a curious and detached attitude. Take 10 deep breaths and see what happens. This exercise may give you some relief, but it won’t make you feel good like magic. In fact, you may realize how upset, frustrated, or sad you are.
The important thing is to make peace with those feelings, instead of running from them, ignoring them, or trying to suppress them because they are not supposed to exist. We must leave space for those affective states from which we really try to escape. Accepting their presence, without fighting them, will reduce their impact. Little by little, we will realize that those emotions that bothered us so much dissipate more quickly.
• Act according to our values
When we free ourselves from the trap of our thoughts and emotions, we expand our options. We go from automatically reacting to circumstances to acting consciously, deciding the next step, in a way that aligns with our values and goals. In fact, emotional agility goes far beyond understanding and accepting our emotions, it involves using them to our advantage.
For example, think of a difficult situation. Bring to mind all the thoughts it generates and notice the emotions it triggers. Instead of just thinking that you are angry or frustrated, ask yourself questions like: why am I feeling this way? What does frustration tell me about what is important to me? What does my anger tell me about what I value? Treat emotions for what they are: inner compasses, signs that tell you that something is wrong because you have taken the wrong path. Then, think about what you can do to feel better, in tune with your values and goals.
The “magic” of emotional agility is that it brings balance to our lives. It encourages us to assume a proactive and more compassionate attitude towards ourselves, so that happiness and well-being are side effects.
David, S. (2016) Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Nueva York: Avery/Penguin Random House.
David, S. & Congleton, C. (2013) Emotional Agility. In: Harvard Business Review.
Wegner, D. M. et. Al. (1987) Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression. J Pers Soc Psychol; 53(1): 5-13.