Susan David: Emotional Agility
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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Susan David. Susan David is an award-winning psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, cofounder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, and CEO of Evidence-Based Psychology, a boutique business consultancy. She’s the author of the number one Wall Street Journal bestselling book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. I’m so happy to have Susan David as a guest on Insights at the Edge, because I think the topic she addresses (emotional agility) is such an important topic in our time—how we become fluid and learn to embrace every emotional experience that we have.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Susan and I spoke about not labeling emotions as negative, but the value instead of describing them as “tough” [or] “difficult,” and how we can work skillfully with tough emotions without bottling or brooding. We talked about the importance of getting granular with our emotions—what Susan calls “emotional granularity”—and how this ability to accurately articulate our emotional experience allows us to relate to ourselves and others more meaningfully. We talked about a few ways we can teach our children to increase their emotional agility and their ability to move through tough emotions.
We also talked about the problems with positive thinking (according to Susan, it just doesn’t work) and how chasing happiness does not deliver the same results as focusing on what leads to fulfillment. Finally, we talked about a quote from Susan’s work on emotions: “Discomfort is the price of a meaningful life.” Here’s my conversation with Susan David.
Susan, I’m thrilled to have this chance to talk to you about emotional agility. You have a PhD in emotions. I think a lot of us feel like we’re in kindergarten when it comes to working with our emotions. So, let’s get started. First of all, how do you define emotional agility?
Susan David: Well, firstly, I’m so grateful to be with you and speaking with you. The way that I think about emotional agility is that it is approaching our inner world with an orientation that is courageous, curious, and compassionate—and I can deconstruct what I mean when I say that—and yet still taking action that is concordant with our values. What this allows us to do is to have any number of troubling thoughts, emotions, or even stories, and yet still managing to act in ways that’s sort of how we most want to as human beings.
TS: Now, I mentioned that for a lot of us, having a PhD in emotions seems like a long journey to make. Even when I hear a word like “emotional agility,” I think for a lot of people there’s a sense that we get lost in our emotions. They overwhelm us. Maybe we spin around having the same repetitive thoughts about a difficult challenge in our life. Help me understand how we move—and maybe this will involve being courageous, curious, and compassionate—from being in an emotional swamp to being agile?
SD: I think that’s such an important question. The way that I think about emotional agility and its real world impact is that how we ultimately deal with our inner world—our thoughts, our emotions, and our stories—drives everything. It drives how we love, it drives how we live, how we parent, and how we lead. How we navigate this inner life of ours really dictates so much, and this becomes a fundamental skillset whether you are a parent, or whether you are a leader in an organization—or both, or any of the above.
Really, I think a core part of emotional agility is that we live in a world that has a very particular narrative about emotions, and that narrative often goes something like this: There are positive emotions and negative emotions. There are good emotions and bad emotions. When you have a bad emotion, you need to push it aside. You need to be positive, you need to have a good attitude, because what you think and what you feel attracts your reality.
What we know from the research is that not only is this orientation not supported, but that actually it will end up being counterproductive—that when people have a feeling that they’ve got a good emotion or a bad emotion, what it can often lead to is then becoming judge-y about this so-called “bad emotion.” “I feel angry, I feel sad, I feel anxious. I shouldn’t feel these things.” It often results in then doing what I call “bottling” emotions—so, kind of push those emotions aside.
What we know at the time is that it is not an effective recipe. People who do this or people who have this orientation towards their emotions in this way become lower in terms of their resilience, they actually become less happy and less positive over time, and they’re unable to pursue their life in a way that’s concordant with their values.
So, the first part of emotional agility—and it’s not the full story. The first part is really letting go of the struggle that so many of us have with our emotions, in which we somehow say, “These are good or bad, they’re positive or negative,” and recognizing instead that our emotions have evolved to help us as a species to survive, to adapt, and to communicate both with the world around us as well as with ourselves. When we cut off these so-called negative emotions, we actually lose our capability to be effective and to be adaptive.
TS: In your book, Emotional Agility, one of the things I really liked was you talked about not using the language of negative emotions, but that we could call emotions that are challenging “tough emotions” or “difficult emotions,” and just get rid of this word “negative.” And I thought that was very helpful as a language switch.
SD: I think it’s interesting, because when you start saying that something is negative, it’s an immediate judgment call. That automatically in our lives implies that this is somehow a bad thing. Whereas when we recognize that we’re going through a tough time or we’re having a tough experience here, what it starts to also do—it starts to acknowledge our humanity and our self and our compassion in the process, and starts to help us to try to dig through and uncover a little bit of what it is that we can learn from that experience. This becomes, as it turns out, critical in the emotional agility and becoming emotionally agile.
TS: Now, you mentioned that our emotions exist in our body, mind, and our humanity to help us survive and adapt—that there’s been an evolutionary function that emotions have played. Can you help people understand that? I think that’s a very important insight.
SD: This is critical. If we think about one of the emotional experiences that is most often seen as being a bad emotion . . . so, think about something like anger. We will often see this emotion as being, “It’s bad, and I shouldn’t have it.”
Yet, we tend not to get angry about stuff that we don’t care about. Now, it doesn’t mean that because you feel angry, you’ve got a right to feel angry, you should act on the anger, and that you are right and the other person is wrong. But what it does indicate is that you are feeling angry and that this is something that you care about.
Often beneath the most difficult emotions are signposts to things that we care about, our values. It may be that you turn on the news and you feel a sense of rage and anger rise inside you. That might be a signpost that equity or fairness or justice is important to you. Or you might be angry because of the way you’re being treated in an organizational context. That might be a signpost to you that collaboration is important to you, and you feel you’re being sidelined.
So, beneath this difficult emotion is so often a signpost to something that we value. It doesn’t mean we need to act on the emotion, but when we understand the value that’s underneath it, what it does is it allows us to then shape our environment and shape our actions in ways that are adaptive. So, we can start saying, “Well, are there ways that I can be bringing myself differently to the meetings so that I’m not sidelined?” Or, “Is this the right organization for me?”
There are a whole range of questions that we start asking ourselves when we become curious about the emotion, and when we start surfacing the value that’s underneath it. In a way, that really enables us to create something of our lives that feels sustainable and connected and authentic.
TS: Now, in terms of this evolutionary view, it’s very clear with something like anger—and I think it might also be very clear just intuitively to our audience with something like fear. You know: “Yes, I’m feeling afraid because something might attack me.”
But when we get into some of the other emotions, it’s not as obvious to me. I wonder if you could help me understand that. You mention in your book that different experts categorize emotions differently, but one categorization might be that there are seven basic emotions. And you include in this list joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, contempt, and disgust. I noticed when I looked at something like “contempt,” I thought, “Huh, what’s the adaptive value of something like contempt?”
SD: Contempt, or even another one that often comes up is guilt. What is the adaptive value of guilt? Contempt often allows us to understand or to see something that is different from our expectations. So, different from what we think might be a moral or a just or an effective way of navigating something. You might see a person doing this time and time again. So, we have a response to the person that starts to create a sense of like, “Gee, this is something that I see in front of me that’s not helpful.” Contempt is most often in relation to someone else. “That’s not helpful and it’s not what I want to be.”
What you start to do is actually a very important aspect of starting to shape our moral character, our sense of what’s important to us. Experiencing and understanding what’s beneath that emotion is just a critical input into then how we move forward.
The same with guilt—and a lot of people will beat themselves up over experiencing guilt. “The guilty parent” is the most typical answer. I talk about in my books how I travel a lot for my work. I’ll end up sometimes being in a hotel room, and I’m away from my children and I’m working, and I feel guilty. The function of guilt is that it allows us to reorient our actions in ways that may be able to bring us closer to what it is that we want in our lives.
If I feel guilty, it doesn’t mean that I’m a bad parent—that that guilt is fact. But what it does start signaling to me: that my children and parenting in a way that feels present is important to me, and that I’m maybe doing less of it at the moment than I would like to. Being able to connect with that signal that’s underneath that allows me then to maybe shape future engagements in a way that brings me more to home, or it allows me when I’m connecting with my children to be more present on the telephone rather than doing something else at the same time. That guilt is really important.
The function of guilt at a societal level is that it’s a moral emotion in many ways. When you feel guilty about something that you’ve done, that guilt actually helps us as a society to often have a sense of, “This isn’t the way we want to be. We don’t want to treat people in this particular manner.” It’s a very, very powerful way of enabling people to survive and thrive at a societal level.
TS: What’s your advice for people who are trying to decode the signposts of whatever it is they might be feeling? How do you suggest people start really understanding the messages?
SD: The first aspect of this is what I touched on a little bit earlier, which is really giving way to the idea that there’s good and bad. Kind of just drop the rope and start saying to yourself, “What is it that I’m feeling?” This is this idea that when we show up to our emotions in a way that is compassionate and in a way that’s curious, you start surfacing a whole lot in terms of what that signpost is than if you came to that emotion with, “I shouldn’t feel this, it’s a bad emotion.” So, being able to be compassionate and curious around that emotion becomes a really important aspect of showing up to emotions.
We also know from the research on emotions that there are other really important ways that we then move forward with that information. For instance, a lot of times when people experience something, they may use very broad brushstrokes to describe what they’re feeling.
An example that I talk about in my TED talk is how people often will use the word “stress.” You know: “I’m stressed, I’m stressed, I’m stressed.” And we’ll use this often day in and day out to describe what our experience is. But if you take that experience of stress and you start trying to become a little bit more nuanced—”What is this thing that I’m calling stress?”—because there’s a world of difference between stress versus disappointment or stress versus that knowing dread of, “I’m in the wrong career.”
What we know is that when people label their emotions in a more granular way—what’s called “emotion granularity”—that this is actually critical to being able to surface your values, because you’re digging deeper and you’re starting to say, “I’m disappointed. Why am I disappointed?” Or, “This dread is X. Why have I got this feeling?” What emotion granularity does is it allows us to understand the exact cause of our emotions and it also allows us to start activating what’s called “the readiness potential” in our brains. There’s research that shows that when we are more granular, there’s literally change at the [inaudible] level that allows us to start setting goals and moving forward in effective ways.
Just the showing up—this starting to perspective-take, this labeling—moves us into the space where we are no longer immersed and stuck in our emotions. Of course, there are other ways we can do this as well, but rather we’re starting to take more of an observer perspective of our emotions and saying, “What is this emotion telling me? What am I trying to surface here? What’s at stake here. What’s important?” From that, we can very frequently—most frequently—come up with a sense of why it is that we’re having this particular reaction.
TS: Just in a confessional moment here just briefly, for me, emotions weren’t very welcome in my home. We moved to thinking and just kind of pushing our way through in being effective and responsible no matter what. What we were feeling wasn’t given a lot of language or a lot of attention.
So, when you say something like “emotional granularity,” what lights up in me is that’s a skill I want and not a skill that I was taught. There are some books at Sounds True—The Language of Emotions by a woman named Karla McLaren—and other people who help us start developing this language of emotions. But for people who are new to this idea of, “I want to develop this language to be able to pinpoint and be articulate—emotional granularity,” how do they do it?
SD: That’s a great question, and I speak about this at some length in my book. I’ve also—if you’re interested—I’ve got an article that I wrote for Harvard Business Review that we can link to in the show notes, which really describes this in a lot of detail. I can give you an example which is a very, very simple example, but it’s a practical example.
I was working with a client. This individual is a consultant. I was working with him [inaudible] another time, and he really, really struggled in this space. What he would tend to do—and it describes a little bit about what you are alluding to but in a different context—is he would describe everything as “angry.” So, he would say, “I’m angry with my team. My team is angry with me. My wife is angry with me.” Everything would be angry.
I started to say to him, “You know, when you say your team is angry, there is no space for anything else. What if your team is actually concerned? What if they are anxious? Then you’ve got a different story that’s starting to be generated, and a story that is maybe more expansive or more helpful. Maybe what we do is we start saying the first emotion that we’re experiencing or the first emotion that we’re saying it is is ‘angry.’ But what are two other options?”
We just started to play this game of, “OK, it’s angry, but what are two other options?” Sometimes I would literally print out a list of emotion words in Google and present it to him and say, “What else is the team feeling? Are they feeling disappointed? Are they feeling let down?”
We started this process, and at the time I became very good friends with him. He invited me for dinner one night, and his wife was there. She, completely unsolicited describes how this had created the most dramatic shift in their relationship, because she said to me that sometimes there would be instances where he would come home from work, and he would see her and he would assume that she was angry because she was maybe not speaking to him, or that she was angry because she wasn’t engaging with him in a way that he wanted. Yet, when he started to dig a little bit deeper and they started to have these conversations about, “Are you angry, or what are two other options?” she was able to say, “Actually, I feel unseen. Or I feel unheard. Or I feel like you’re jumping to solutions.”
So, this is a very, very simple strategy, which is just “What are two other options?” It doesn’t necessarily matter at this point, “Is the label the rushed label or the wrong label, or is it the most accurate label?” All we’re doing is we’re starting to move into the space of, “What are other options here?” In that, we start to actually finesse and hone our capability in this area.
TS: I mentioned, Susan, that in my own upbringing, emotional granularity and the languaging of emotions in a nuanced way wasn’t taught. What would we need to do to teach children—whether it’s parents or educators—the language of emotional granularity from the ground up?
SD: This is such an important question. A lot of what I talk about in my book and a lot of what I think about is the necessity of emotional agility when it comes to raising children, because the first two aspects that I’ve spoken about are just kind of showing up and then stepping out, which is this more observer perspective. The other aspects that I talk about in the book are about walking your why—becoming very values-oriented and becoming clear about your values—and then also making tweaks and changes to your everyday habits that allow these values to surface in more robust and practical ways in the work that you do and in your life.
This of course is a critical thing for children. We know that depression is now the leading cause of disability globally, outstripping cancer, outstripping heart disease. We are seeing rates of depression and anxiety and suicide increase in very young children in ways that are pretty shocking. What becomes really critical is this whole skill of helping children to become comfortable with discomfort, because they are moving into a world that is changing and complex, and that their capability in this area actually becomes an essential cornerstone to their ability to thrive in the future.
The kinds of things that I think are critical [are]—often with very good intentions as parents, when our children come home from school and they’re upset about something (the child might say something like, “Mommy, no one would play with me”) your heart breaks because you never wanted your child to experience that rejection. So often what we do then, with great intentions, is we jump in and we take away or try to take away that difficult emotion. “Don’t worry, I’ll play with you. I’ll phone [inaudible] parents. We’ll organize a play date.” We try to protect them from that experience, and we do it with great intentions.
But what this teaches our children is that, number one, difficult emotions are to be feared. Number two: some emotions are bigger than they are—need someone else coming in and saving them from the emotional experience. Then number three, they don’t learn critical skills that we know are essential to resilience and essential to lifelong thriving.
Of course, I’m not being causal here—you know if someone is experiencing depression, it’s because they were raised without those. But what we do know is that these are fundamental skills.
The first thing I would say is: be super aware as a parent—and I don’t do this perfectly by any stretch—but be super aware as a parent of trying to protect your child in a way that takes away that emotional experience and doesn’t allow them to sit with the emotions for a little. Because what happens when a child is allowed to sit with their sadness?
They learn, number one, “This is what sadness feels like.” Number two, they learn, “Gee, this sadness isn’t going to kill me.” Number three, they learn something that is fundamental, which is sadness passes [and] emotions are transient. They also learn that they are able to do things that help them to move on from their sadness. This is learning that doesn’t happen if we jump in.
What I would say is, number one, allow your child to feel their sadness. Number two, try to help them to label their sadness. “What is it that you’re feeling? Are you feeling rejected? Are you feeling sad? Are you feeling lonely? What’s going on for you?”
We know as young as two and three years old that children are able to develop this skill. So, when you’re reading picture books to your kids, “What is Jack in the book feeling? Why do you think he’s feeling this way?” These are questions that help our children to develop this skillset.
There’s a third part, and I think this is a critical part. It’s when we are with our children who are experiencing a difficult emotion, that emotion (again) is a signpost of something that they care about. Imagine your child says, “He didn’t invite me to his birthday party. Now I’m not going to invite him to mine.” That child is hooked by the emotion. They’re using their emotion in a way that doesn’t allow space, doesn’t allow thought, and it doesn’t allow intention.
Now, if we start saying, “Well, what are you feeling about this?” and then also, “Let’s label the emotion, and what this emotion is signaling to you is that friendship is really important.” We can then start asking our child, “What does being a good friend look like to you? What does friendship look like? What are the important qualities of friendship?” Why this is important is because so often—again—what we do as parents is we’ll jump in and we’ll say, “But you’ve got to invite him to your birthday party because you’ve invited everyone else,” and we tell our children what to value.
When you step back and you say, “What does your being upset signal to you about what’s important? And how do you want to bring yourself to friendship?” we do something absolutely critical for our children, and that is we start to develop their moral character—their sense of character, their sense of integrity. This is essential as children grow up, because of course when we’re faced with peer pressure, we need to be able to separate what I’m feeling—which is, “I might be tempted to take these drugs”—from what I actually do. We need to be able to label and understand what the temptation is, and we also need to have the moral fortitude and the character separate from what our parents are telling us—because they’re not going to be there at that age—to decide who we want to be in this situation.
Those are some very practical strategies that are essential to helping children with emotional agility.
TS: You mentioned depression as the number one illness of our time, but you said, “Let’s not make any simplistic connections here.” But how do you see our inability as a culture to work with tough and difficult emotions and labeling them as negative as being part of this epidemic of depression? What do you see as the connection?
SD: Depression, of course, is complex. There are complex biological, psychosocial, and other aspects that impact on depression and the overall experience of depression. But I do think that when we think about difficult emotions, life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility. We’re all young until we’re not, or healthy until we are not, or in relationships that are loving until that relationship is no longer working.
So, the need for us as a society to be able to have skills to deal with the world not as we wish it to be but as it is, become fundamental. I think in a way that this, again, very well-intentioned drive to positivity actually paradoxically undermines our resilience because what it does is it leads us to ignore, not learn from our emotions, not become comfortable with difficult emotions. And so I think it plays a role.
When look at children, for instance, who become less resilient over time, we know that there are often typical ways of dealing with emotions—either bottling those emotions, pushing them aside, or brooding on those emotions, in which we dwell on them and dwell on them, and they become fact. The child is not able to develop more of an observer, courageous, curious perspective about emotions and move forward with those emotions productively. I think that there is actually an undermining of resilience and an ill effect in our mental health that comes about through this societal view of emotions.
TS: I want to talk a little bit more about this tendency to brood. It’s easy for me to understand how if we just bottle our emotions, they’re just stuck inside of us and that’s not helpful or useful. We have to show up and face them and work with them. If we’re brooding, what’s the difference between reflecting, thinking, trying to understand, and brooding—going over it, really trying to understand what’s underneath it? What’s the difference between contemplation and brooding?
SD: The characteristic about brooding—and it’s interesting because bottling and brooding—pushing emotions aside versus dwelling on them—they look completely different. They look like the opposite ends of the spectrum, and yet when you examine the research on the long-term impact of these ways of dealing with emotions, the results are similar—which is that both bottling and brooding lead to lower levels of well-being, heightened likelihood of experiencing difficulties around depression as well as other aspects of mental health and wellness. There’s an increment and an impact on relationships, because of course when you push emotions aside constantly, it’s difficult to connect with people in an authentic way. When you brood on your emotions and you’re sort of stuck in your own world, it also becomes difficult for the relationship because there’s not a give and take of emotional experience.
That looks very different, and yet the impact is the same. And I’m not suggesting for a minute here that one should never dwell on emotions or never bottle emotions. If I’m going in for a job interview and I’ve had a very difficult experience the day before, I may want to just push that emotion aside and go for my job interview. I’m not going to go for my job interview and be on the table crying because this is how I feel.
What I’m talking about here is the tendency that we have to deal with emotions in one or another way. What is the difference between brooding on emotions versus healthy contemplation? Brooding on emotions is quite literally this experience of going over and over and over emotions in a way that doesn’t arrive at any sense of insight. There’s no move to labeling the emotion, there’s no move to understanding the value that’s underneath the emotion, and there’s no move to understanding, “What do I need to do in this situation that isn’t driven by my emotions?” You know: “I’m unhappy with my boss and I’m going to have it out with him.” But rather [it’s] driven by my values. I’m understanding I’m unhappy in this situation with my boss. What do I need to do that’s values-aligned?
When we are ruminative, when we’re brooding on our emotions, often we get stuck in this loop. There’s a lot of talk that goes on in the loop, there’s a lot of almost playing things out in our mind, but it’s from the position of the emotion. You’re swamped and you’re seeing the world from the perspective of your emotion.
The difference ends up being that when people are moving into healthy contemplation, they’re usually trying to ask themselves, “What is the emotion telling me? Why am I feeling this? What value does it connect with me? What do I need to do in this situation? What makes sense here? How does this actually serve me?” Those are the kinds of questions.
Interestingly, there’s brooding, but there’s also co-brooding. Co-brooding is when you’re really upset with your mother-in-law, for instance, and you go out with your best girlfriend and you have a big vent over lunch about your mother-in-law. Now, you might think, “Well, this is just me getting social support,” but again, co-brooding is where we get so stuck in the vent. What the research shows is that when you then go back into the situation with your mother-in-law, you are more likely to act out in ways that don’t serve you. You’re more likely to behave poorly and egging at the person, acting in ways that are not connected with who you want to be. You feel better about your friend, but you don’t necessarily move into the space of values concordance.
I think that this is a critical part of emotional agility, which is to use that wonderful Victor Frankl idea—that between stimulus and response, there’s a space, and in that space is our power to choose. It’s in that choice that lies our growth and freedom. When we’re hooked by an emotion, whether it’s bottling or brooding, there’s often no space between stimulus and response. “I’m upset, so I’m going to do such-and-such.” What emotional agility is about [is] being able to create the space that then your actions become infused with values and choice.
TS: Susan, you gave us a great example, of feeling guilty about traveling so much with your kids and not having so much time, and how you came to a values-aligned set of actions in terms of really valuing the time that you do have with your kids and being present. I’m wondering if you can give another example of an emotion that perhaps has been tough or difficult for you—that maybe you become caught in bottling or brooding—and how you were able to come through the other side with a values-aligned stepping forward.
SD: Great question. I mean, I talk about this actually in my TED talk—which is I grew up in apartheid South Africa. So, I grew up in a country and community committed to denial, essentially—because it’s denial that makes 50 years of racist legislation possible while people convince themselves that they’re doing nothing wrong.
What I describe in my TED talk is how I grew up in this context. And then at a young age (I was 15 years old), my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I described the experience of him dying and of me being bereft, but living in a world that basically expected me to be OK. When you live in a world that says, “If you’ve got cancer, just be positive. Or if your parents got cancer, just be positive,” you start learning just to be OK, even if it is closing off a part of you.
I described this really intimate experience that I had with my own grief—this idea that I was OK, and yet back home, we were struggling, and how I started to—as a 15-year-old—refuse to accept the full weight of my grief. [I] was binging and purging and really struggling with this emotional experience. My eighth grade English teacher handed out these notebooks with this invitation to write: “Tell the truth. Write like no one is reading.” I started to write. I started to journal about my experience and what I started to really connect with was the remarkable power of showing up into emotional experience and also being able to understand a little bit [that] my grief was signaling to me that I loved—that I loved and I’ve lost that love, but I loved.
My grief was signaling to me how I wanted to be in the world, which was not this closed off, in on myself, self-abusive way of being in the world. This is the kind of experience that we have with grief, which is the idea that there are these stages that we’ve just got to go through and if you’re not going through the stage in a predictable way, something’s wrong. Yet grief is unpredictable, and it’s only when we show up to our experience and we really try to be with that experience in a way that is curious, courageous, and compassionate that we can learn from it.
That, I think, is an example. And for me, that came through writing in the technical sense. But more than that, it actually came from me being invited by this teacher to see myself, which is such a powerful thing. I think in a world that is very focused on solution and output, we often deny ourselves this essential humanity, which is to see ourselves.
TS: In your book, Emotional Agility, you talk about the research of James Pennebaker about journal writing, and it was very compelling—that even short amounts of journal writing (20 minutes a few times a week) can make a huge difference. Can you share with our listeners what this research showed?
SD: Yes, super, super powerful. And it’s this: we imagine—all of us—that we have difficult experiences that we’ve gone through at some point. It might be a divorce or it might be a job loss or an illness with a child. All of us go through difficult experiences. James Pennebaker started to ask this question, which is, “Well, what does effective processing of emotion look like?”
So, what he does is this super-simple experiment: he divides the people—the subjects—in the experiment in two. The one group is the experimental group, and they are asked to write just for 20 minutes a day for three days—that’s all it is; 20 minutes a day for three days—about an emotionally difficult experience, like an emotionally evocative experience. So, that’s the experimental group.
The control group is asked to write about arbitrary stuff. In other words, they aren’t going into their emotions, they’re not processing emotions. They write about the cars passing on the street or the shoes that they’re wearing. And again, they write for 20 minutes a day for three days.
What this research finds is that just 20 minutes a day over three days, six months later, when you look at people’s physical health, they’ve been to see the doctor fewer times. Mental health: they’re doing better psychologically, and this writing even impacts on people’s goal attainments. In one study, which was remarkable, individuals who had been employed in one organization for many, many years but then were all laid off and were trenched—and half of the people wrote about arbitrary stuff—what they found is that the people who show up to their emotional experience and process it in healthy ways, that those individuals were rehired quicker than individuals who didn’t. And not just by a little bit. It was remarkable.
Really, what this starts to drive to is (again): what is a narrative that’s supported in our culture versus what do we actually know about emotional health and emotional well-being? What we know is that when we’re going through difficulties—and it doesn’t matter what that difficulty is—if we perceive it as difficult, when we show up to it in ways that are compassionate, we can learn from it, we can move forward, we can become intentional and values-connected, and that not doing those things actually undermines our resilience and undermines our ability to achieve the outcomes we want in our life.
TS: Just one question about doing this personal writing. This is information I’ve heard before—about the health value of journal writing. And yet I notice—and I don’t think I’m alone here—that when it comes to going into some painful experiences and I think, “OK, I’m going to write about them,” I then come up with something else I’m going to do. Like, I don’t know—I mean, I don’t want to exaggerate here, but I’ll not necessarily open the refrigerator, but go for a walk or something that doesn’t feel as hard as picking up pen and paper or opening the computer and writing about this terrible, painful experience. I don’t really want to go back into it and write about it, even though I know it will help me.
Can you talk to that person who has some kind of big hurdle to get over in order to just do what sounds pretty simple, but feels really hard?
SD: The first thing that I think is really important is: what we know from the research in this space is that it’s not writing per se. There’s nothing magical about picking up a pen and going—that is just a mechanism of doing so. But when we look at effective therapy or effective coaching, or when you’ve got a wonderful friend who you’re not venting with, but who really understands you and gets you and can help you to work through this, the power and the impact are the same. There’s nothing per se that is specifically about writing.
Really what it is, though—it’s about starting to put into language. Starting to put into language is what seems to be a powerful marker of these results.
I think the first thing—that then becomes, “Well, what do I do in this situation if I just am struggling to write?” is to not beat yourself up about it, but to rather do what works for you. For me, I actually still do journaling, but I love walking and I do my most effective thinking when I’m walking. Often what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to say, “What is it that I’m feeling? What is this thing about?” I’m just trying to label the emotions. I’m starting to understand, “What is this value that is being attacked here or traversed here in a way that is really getting to me? And how can I move myself into a space that is more values-aligned?”
Sometimes I’ll even use perspective-taking. So, we know that often when we’re experiencing difficulties, we see things very much from our perspective. What is the perspective that I have about the situation? I’ve found this in my work in organizations as well as in individuals. It’s really remarkable. You’ll sometimes say to someone, “You’re feeling really, really, really stuck in your job. What should you do? What are the next steps for you?” The person will say, “I don’t know, I’ve got no idea, I’ve got no idea what I should do. I am absolutely stumped.” Then sometimes you ask a question like, “Well, if you were having a conversation with the person who you most trust in the world and who most cares about you, what do you think that person would advise you to do as next steps?”
Suddenly, the individual says, “Well, I should do this and I should do that,” and they have five solutions and five suggestions because perspective-taking—moving out of the space in which I just see myself into the space in which I’m able to see things from another perspective—is so powerful. It’s what underpins empathy. It’s what underpins our ability to connect with an individual in front of me.
When I’m walking, it’s not necessarily that I’m sitting down with a pen and paper and journaling, but I’m definitely trying to go through a process where I’m not just stuck in this experience and the emotions are swirling about in my head. I’m trying to come to it with some kind of process that allows me to say, “What am I feeling? What’s going on here? What do I need to do? What’s values-aligned? What serves me? What serves the outcome here?” That is, I suspect, as helpful [as] 11 PM journaling.
TS: Susan, you mentioned that you grew up in apartheid South Africa and that that was an environment of denial of emotions, and that that’s part of what’s informed the passion that you have for your work today. I feel that throughout this conversation, there’s been some things that are under the surface bubbling, which is connecting the work we do ourselves with our own emotional agility, and the challenging times in which we’re living in, where people are having a lot of intense emotional responses to the political landscape today, to the challenges we have with environmental issues worldwide. There’s a sense that our emotions are rising. I want to give you the opportunity here to link directly the personal work of emotional agility with the challenging landscape of our times.
SD: I mean, there’s increases in people’s sense of anger, frustration, anxiety. We’re definitely seeing that at all levels of society. And of course when that happens, there’s also very often an other that is created. When I feel fearful, then I’m often doing that in relation to someone else. So, there’s often an “us” and “them” that’s created.
To again come back to this idea that between stimulus and response there’s a space, and in that space is our power to choose, and in our choices are our freedom, often when we’re experiencing—and this is on the political front—when I say, “Show up to your emotions,” I don’t mean that our anger is then the license to just do what we want and say what we want. I can show up to my son’s frustration with his baby sister and empathize with it and connect with it and see it without endorsing his idea that he gets to give her away to the first stranger that he sees in a shopping mall. OK?
So, there’s a difference between being able to show up to my emotions versus treating my emotions as fact and there’s something that we need to act on. After all, who is in charge here: the thinker or the thought? When we are most emotionally agile, it is the thinker that’s in charge.
So, from a political perspective, what we’re able to do is we’re able to recognize our anger, to see our anger for what it is, to understand our anger, and to understand the values that that anger points to. Then our responses and our reactions are not driven by the anger. So, it’s not a lashing out and a burning of pyres. But rather it’s about saying, “This is what my anger is telling me is important. What are things that I can do in my environment that are values concordant and that bring about the changes that are critical to me?”
This idea that values are somehow these abstract concepts is something that I talk about in Emotional Agility—the idea that they’re not abstract concepts, that values are qualities of action. If I value health, I may have a choice as I walk into a cafeteria as to, “Do I go towards the value?” which is to pick up a piece of fruit. Or do I go away from the value, which is to pick up the cake?
The same applies to values in the political sphere. If my value is one of seeing the other or if my value is one of justice, what are the things that I need to do in order to move that value forward within my community? This is where this becomes really critical. Again, it’s not the anger that’s driving the action, it’s the value that’s driving the action. It’s the way that we are able to bring the best of ourselves forward, when we’re able to mind the difference between how I feel in all my wisdom and how I want to act in a way that’s values concordant. You only get to the action if you’re able to understand what the value is and what the emotion is that you’re experiencing.
TS: Susan, before we end our conversation, there’s just one more area I want to go into. I think as you know, Sounds True publishes a lot of programs that help people develop a connection to a spiritual dimension of being. You’ve talked some about the power of having mindfulness and an observer mind. I think that that’s obviously so helpful in having a stimulus and then there’s a gap before there’s a response. What I’ve also noticed happens a lot for people who are on a spiritual path is they can start wanting to always feel good. This comes back to what we were talking about before.
SD: Yes. Positive vibes only.
TS: Yes, this bias on positivity. I wanted to hear more what you think the dangers are of this viewpoint. You know: “If I’m having these repetitive, difficult, negative thoughts, I’ll replace them with positive ones.” Let’s start there. I’m going to go for positive thinking, because isn’t that what spiritual people do? We think positively, right?
SD: It’s really fascinating. Firstly, I think that being mindful and being able to notice my emotions for what they are—notice emotions rather than seeing them as being facts—is critical. But really, where mindfulness helps us to cultivate emotional agility is it helps to create the space. It helps us to not be so immersed in our emotions, but rather to be able to step out of our emotions in ways that we can then choose values concordant to us.
So, I think that mindfulness plays a critical role, but it’s insufficient in helping people to then be concordant in ways that they want to live, because the other parts that come into this are values and habit change. These are other parts of the process that are critical.
But what’s really interesting is the idea that I’ve had a so-called “negative thought” and I’m going to simply replace it with a positive thought—it doesn’t work. We’ve done fascinating studies on asking people not to think about something or to simply push it aside for something positive. What’s really interesting is that when you ask people to do this, there’s what is called “amplification.” Amplification is the idea that when you try to push aside difficult thoughts or difficult emotions, they actually come back.
In experimental studies, in one minute, you will have 40 instances of that thought popping back in your head when you try not to think about it. It’s like that delicious piece of chocolate cake in the refrigerator and you’re on a diet, and you know that you cannot eat that chocolate cake. So, you push it aside—but what do you do? You think about it, you obsess about it, you dream about it, and all you want is the chocolate cake.
Trying to minimize or push aside actually doesn’t work if there’s what is called a “rebound effect.” This plays out in very, very interesting ways. You might say, “I’m really upset with my brother, and I’m just not going to say XYZ when he comes to Thanksgiving.” And then what do you find? You find that something pops out of your mouth at the dinner table and chaos breaks loose. It doesn’t work. It simply doesn’t work.
So, this is where this noticing with compassion and with curiosity is really important. It’s also where trying to understand our judgments about ourselves—and our judgments can actually engage us in a very unhealthy way of being, where instead of saying, “Gee, I’m feeling upset about this thing. What is it that this upset is about and how can I navigate this effectively?” Instead, what we might do is we might say, “Well, you know, I’m happy in my job. At least I’ve got a job, and I’m just going to keep going.” Five years later, you’re still unhappy at your job, pretending that everything is fine.
I’ve dealt with a lot of clients and worked with a lot of clients who’ve pushed aside their difficult emotions in the service of positivity, and what this stops them from doing is it stops them from being able to take courageous steps in their relationships, it stops them from being able to be authentic in their relationships, and it often keeps them stuck in situations that ultimately don’t serve them—in jobs or careers that don’t serve them.
Yes, it’s a very, very powerful question, and I think it’s a very powerful challenge to all of us to recognize that acceptance is the prerequisite to change. It’s only when you’re able to accept how things are and how we feel that we are able to move forward productively. Acceptance, very importantly, is not the same as passive resignation. It’s not passive resignation. It’s rather saying, “This is where I’m at. This is how I feel. Now, with this understanding, what can I do?”
TS: Here you are, living an emotionally agile life. Would you say it’s a happy life, it’s a joy-filled life? Or would you say it’s filled with all of the emotions, and there’s some happiness, there’s some joy, but there’s no bias towards happiness and joy? How would you describe that, Susan?
SD: I think that when people are more emotionally agile—and certainly what we know from the research is that they’re more accepting of themselves and more compassionate of themselves—they are able to actually move forward towards their goals more successfully. The reason that they do that is because they are more capable of dealing with the setbacks. They recognize that they’re still going to love themselves even if they have setbacks. Basically, what they do is they create a space for themselves in which difficult emotions and difficult experiences aren’t throwing them. Their proper capability to understand and move forward through that—whether they’re an entrepreneur or whether you’re a parent struggling with parenting or struggling with a situation that your children are facing.
So, emotional agility is really a process by which we are able to—instead of going through the motions of living our life day in and day out and then recognizing 20 years later, “Yes, I drive a nice car, but it’s actually not the car that I wanted. Well, I live in a nice house, but this isn’t the life that I wanted,” we’re able to develop instead a greater lifelong correspondence with our own hearts, with our own understanding, and with who we want to be in the world.
So, I think that when we look at the research on emotional agility, what it allows us to do is to experience the context that life presents, to be able to navigate those in ways that are curious and open-hearted, and to be able to deal with the challenges that any chosen path will put in front of us, whether success or failures or disappointments—but to be able to do that in a way that is thoughtful and intentional and value concordant.
TS: That all sounds beautiful, deep, and meaningful, but I didn’t quite hear the answer to the joy and happiness piece. What would you say your life is like now in terms of joy and happiness?
SD: Well—so firstly, I should not say that I’m that kind of arbiter of living an emotionally agile life every second of the day. That’s definitely not . . . but what I do have is I am a happy person and I like being happy, but I don’t chase happiness. I think that those are different experiences.
I think if someone chases happiness, one actually sets up oneself for disappointment. Whereas if one is moving through life in a way that is open to what might happen or curious about what might happen, but it’s also recognizing that the discomfort of raising a family or the discomfort that often comes about when you want to leave the world a better place, those kind of things can be meaningful. From my perspective, from a personal perspective, I don’t chase happiness, but I am happy.
What I do focus on is I do focus on values, and I do focus on meaning—which I think is very different from chasing happiness. If you say to someone, “Chase happiness—what makes you happy today,” often the answers are hedonistic answers like, “Well, I went out with my friends and I got drunk.” That’s not the experience of happiness. But I think for me, it’s much more about what is worthwhile. What’s worthwhile isn’t always “happy-happy,” but it feels worthy, it feels meaningful, it feels connected. That’s rather how I want to be.
And as I say, it’s not like I’m the arbiter of the really emotionally agile person. Of course I have arguments with my husband and my children and all the human things, because we are humans.
Yet, I think that when we let go of some of the assumptions that we have about what emotions are right and wrong, and what we should feel and what we shouldn’t feel, and we enter into a space of “What I do feel,” and we’re able to separate out what is the me versus what is the demand that everyone else is placing on me, then it’s fulfilling. The words that I would use are not “happy.” The words that I would use are “fulfilling,” “meaningful,” “worthy,” “connected.” “Joyful,” yes—but I’m not chasing happiness.
TS: Beautiful. We are just going to end with a quote from your work, which I wrote down. I thought, “This is a terrific quote.”
“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
Is that lifting you up, listener? I hope so—in its own kind of weird, strange way. “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
I’ve been speaking with Susan David. She’s the author of the book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Susan has also created a brief quiz you can take on your current ability of working with difficult emotions. You can access the quiz by going to her website, susandavid.com. And then at susandavid.com/learn, you can access this five-minute emotional agility quiz.
Again, my thanks to Susan David for her important work helping us turn to, embrace, and learn from all of our emotions.
SoundsTrue.com: Many voices, one journey. Thanks for being with us.