“The beauty of life is inseparable from its fragility,” said psychologist Susan David, perfectly summarizing the importance of emotional agility. We laugh and we cry. We love and we hate. We fight with someone, but when he leaves we miss him. Life flows, continually going from happiness to sadness.
If we don’t learn to flow with those states, we will get stuck. We will end up “bottling” emotions such as anger, sadness, nostalgia or frustration. Those emotions will hurt us, they will undermine our well-being from the shadow and they will come to light in the worst way. To avoid this we need to develop emotional agility.
What is emotional agility and why is it so important?
We all have a more or less clear idea about how we want to feel, relate and live. We know what kind of parents we want to be or what kind of relationship we would like to maintain. We also know how we would like to feel and what goals we want to achieve in life.
However, day-to-day problems keep us from those goals and prevent us from being the person we want. The endless traffic jam on the highway, the subway delay, the misunderstanding with our partner at the very beginning of the day or a bad day at work can make us feel bad. If we don’t metabolize those emotions, but rather accumulate them, we get trapped in the spider web they build in our minds.
Susan David referred to the concept of emotional agility to refer to the “Ability to be with yourself in a courageous, curious and compassionate way.” Emotional agility allows us to be alone with our thoughts, emotions and the stories we build without them taking us away from our goals or taking away our mental balance.
Therefore, mental agility implies understanding emotions and thoughts as “mere” information. They are not springs that push us to act, but only information that we must use intelligently. The key lies in developing the agility necessary to move from one affective state to another, without getting caught up in those that limit or hurt us.
How to develop emotional agility?
Recognizing the mental patterns in which we get stuck
The first step in developing emotional agility is to notice when we have gotten caught up in our thoughts and feelings. Every day we say an average of 16,000 words. That means that many thoughts pass through our minds. Most are not facts, but evaluations and judgments intertwined with emotions. Some of those thoughts are positive and helpful, like praising ourselves for a job well done or encouraging ourselves before taking on a challenge. Others are negative and limiting, such as when we tell ourselves that we will be ridiculous or that we will not be able to achieve something.
It’s hard to recognize these thoughts and the emotional states they generate because many of them have become part of our inner dialogue, but there are some telltale signs. One of those signals occurs when our thinking becomes rigid and repetitive. For example, we may notice that we return to the same ideas over and over again, like a broken record.
Another sign that we are following a mental pattern is that the problem we are experiencing is familiar to us. If that story has repeated itself in the past, it means that we are stuck in a mental loop that leads us to continually make the same mistakes. When we realize we’ve gotten stuck, we can take the next step.
Labeling thoughts and emotions by calling them by name
When we’re stuck on a story, the attention we give to our thoughts and feelings fills our mind; It leaves no room to examine what is happening or what we are feeling. A very simple technique that can help us see the situation more objectively is to label what is happening. Just as we call each object by its name, we can label thoughts and emotions.
In fact, a study conducted at UCLA found that finding a word to define the emotional chaos we feel is such a powerful self-control tool. Thus we can move from an “emotional state” to a “rational state” and prevent negative emotions from growing excessively.
With this technique, the thought “I’m not working hard enough” becomes “I’m thinking I’m not working hard enough.” Similarly, the feeling that gnaws at us becomes “rage” and the apprehension that grips us becomes “anxiety.”
Simply labeling what we are experiencing forces us to use the rational part of our brain, allowing us to take a step back and see the situation with more perspective. We can understand that those thoughts and feelings that overwhelm us are really no more than transitory sources of information that may or may not be useful. It helps us understand that “Our emotions are data, not directives. We can learn from them, but we don’t need to obey them or let them dominate us”, as Susan David pointed out.
Accepting what we feel, without judging it
Most people develop emotional rigidity because they fight their feelings. When we feel something that overwhelms us or that we consider negative, instead of facing it with emotional agility moving towards other situations, we get involved in an internal struggle wondering if we should feel that way, recriminating ourselves for it or even trying to suppress it. Obviously, this generates a rebound effect because nothing is fixed as intensely as what we want to avoid.
Instead, the opposite of fighting is acceptance. We must understand that it is not necessary to act every time we feel or think something, however intense it may be. Emotions are only there to convey a message to us or send us an alarm signal. Instead of fighting against them, we must take a deep breath and observe what is happening at that moment to try to understand it.
Noticing that we are angry, sad, or stressed may not make us feel better. The key is to avoid the impulse to judge or reject those feelings and accept them. The more we accept what happens to us, the more we can distance ourselves and understand that thoughts and emotions flow and change like the weather. If we don’t hold on to them, sooner than later they will pass away.
Acting with the sight set on the person we want to be
Most of the time we act moved by circumstances. That turns us into leaves moved by the wind of life and keeps us from our goals. However, a person with emotional agility is capable of detaching himself from his affective states and thoughts in order to expand his options.
Loneliness, pain, anxiety, fear… everything hurts. But they also open a window to our inner world. Emotional agility also involves adopting a curious attitude to ask ourselves: Why do I feel this way? What is frustration/anxiety/fear telling me about my values? It is about understanding the deeper meaning of emotions to align them with our goals in life.
At this point, we can decide how to act. But before taking the plunge, we must ask ourselves some questions that we don’t normally think about: Will that answer be useful to us in the short and long term? Will it help me go in the direction I want? Will this step help me become the person I want to be?
It is about not forgetting that the flow of thoughts and emotions flows without ceasing. We don’t have to get stuck in them, but use them to achieve our goals and become the person we would like to be.
David, S. & Congleton, C. (2015) Emotional Agility. In: Harvard Business Review.
Lieberman, M. D. et. Al. (2007) Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science; 18(5): 421-428.