“Tough emotions are part of our contract with life.” ~ Susan David
Susan David’s recent TED Talk The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage is up there as one of my all-time favorite TED talks. Much of what she discusses are the benchmarks of living the life we desire and becoming resilient to the inevitable challenges we will face in life. She is a Harvard Medical School Psychologist and has coined this term of emotional agility which she describes as “a process that enables us to navigate life’s twists and turns with self-acceptance, clear-sightedness, and an open mind”. I encourage you to watch this talk as it is so insightful, but in the meantime, I want to bring to light and discuss a few key points below.
Susan talks about the reality that according to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability globally, and as we all know, the world is only becoming more complicated and uncertain. She points out that ‘the only certainty is uncertainty’ so we need to have tools to adapt to the stressors and hardships, namely through being emotionally agile. In a humorous part of her talk, she says that people often say to her, “I just don’t want to be disappointed” or “I just want this feeling to go away”. She replies: “You have dead people’s goals”, only dead people avoid stress and disappointment. Brilliant I say!
Another concept that she discusses is that of emotional suppression where the more you ignore certain emotions, the stronger they get. This is why denial is unquestionably an ineffective coping mechanism. Susan describes her own personal experience of her father dying when she was 15 and she mastered “the art of being okay” when really she wasn’t okay. She credits one of her teachers for opening her up to her difficult emotions through a journaling exercise where she was instructed to “write like no one is reading”. She talks a lot about the benefits of journaling, something I wholeheartedly agree with.
I also listened to Susan speak with Lewis Howes on his podcast, in the episode titled The Art of Emotional Agility, where she delved into the breadth of what emotional agility can do to transform our lives and work. Applying what she talks about from my own personal and professional experience, I have come up with the following 3 ways to know you are emotionally agile:
1. You can identify your emotions – Susan gives the example “I am noticing I am feeling sad” as opposed to “I am sad”. We are not our emotions, and if we can tap into how we are feeling, it is often a clue as to the experience. A good example of this is when we are involved in a conversation with someone who lifts us up (we may feel validated, joyful, excited, loved) versus one with someone who brings us down (we may feel frustrated, disappointed, uncomfortable, rejected).
2. You accept you will experience a range of emotions – If we go through life not expecting to feel tough emotions such as sadness, grief, fear, frustration, anger, etc., we are definitely heading for disappointment. As Susan so eloquently states, “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life”. A good example of this is someone who avoids opening their heart to love for fear of rejection, heartbreak and loneliness. Given that love is the greatest experience in life, to deny this force would be to deny the beauty of life.
3. You are guided by your values – In the conversation with Lewis Howes, Susan speaks to the importance of values and making small tweaks in our life to align with our values and ultimately a different way of being in the world. When we are in an experience that doesn’t align with our values, such as something we do or someone in our presence, we feel it. Even if we can’t label it, if we tap into how we feel (our intuition), it can usually be a clue as to a possible value mismatch, and in turn, we may figure out a way to correct it.
I believe Susan’s message on emotional agility will have a huge impact on how we view emotional wellness and mental health. It’s okay to not feel okay.
Susan David’s book – Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life