Emotional Agility by Susan David: Book Review

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Emotional Agility is a book everyone should read. It’s a book that takes the ideas about mindset and how to live a good life and gently turns them on their heads. You know, mugging me gently of all my faulty ideas.

I did a short summary of the TED Talk by Susan David, the author, but that was just about the Talk. I hadn’t read the book yet. Right after watching the video and writing about it I put the book on hold at the library and waited. It was worth the wait, but I wish I had read this book years ago. Again, required reading from birth.

Overview

If I were to boil the book down to one essential life lesson, it would be this:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Viktor Frankl

It is in that space that emotional agility lies – in the ability to open up about your feelings; all your feelings.

David gives a lot of ways to do this; that’s what the book is about. She takes us through building emotional agility as opposed to rigidity and uses examples from her own life and her career in psychology.

A lot of this hit home with me. Which is obvious when you see how many markers I put in the book. If I’d owned it, it would have been highlighted until it was more yellow than white.

All Emotions Are Useful

Notice I said “useful,” not “pleasant.” Of course, anger and pain and grief and boredom are not pleasant emotions, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful.

David says that emotions are indicators; data. They tell us information about ourselves and our surroundings. You notice you are feeling sad, now ask yourself why. What made you sad, and why did it make you sad?

Rigidity in emotions comes when we use the same old techniques we’ve used all our lives, often from childhood, that served well enough to protect us, but have long since ceased to be useful or even true. David says this is true especially if you’ve been neglected or abused in marriage or in childhood. Thinking people can’t be trusted or you’re going to be hurt was true and possibly helpful in your situation, saving you from immediate pain and danger. But once out of that situation, that thinking, that everyone is going to hurt you, is no longer always true, and no longer serves you best.

I have experienced this. I had a rough first relationship, and ever since, I’ve assumed I’ll be hurt again if I open myself up to intimacy. It’s not true, and it’s not helpful. Sure, I could get hurt, but living while accepting that as my only fate has brought me no joy and lots of anxiety.

David warns though that emotional agility does not mean controlling your thoughts or forcing more positive emotions. “…research also shows that trying to get people to change their thoughts from [negative to positive] usually doesn’t work, and can actually be counterproductive” (David).

That’s where the space between the thought and action comes in.

The Storylines in Your Head

It’s amazing how often I’m hearing about this. I heard it first in my meditation practice, and now again, David talks about the narrative we make of our lives.

We take the vast amounts of information from our environments and coalesce them into something cohesive; This is me, Audra, waking up. (I’m paraphrasing her own narrative.) I am in a bed. I live in Texas. I have to get up today and do yoga because I chose to be healthier. Later I will write a blog post because that’s what I do. I’m a writer. 

David says, “The narratives serve a purpose: We tell ourselves these stories to organize our experiences and keep ourselves sane.” The problem, she goes on to say, is that we get it wrong. We don’t have the whole truth of any situation. We can’t; there’s just too much going on and interconnecting every moment of every day. Stories help us navigate. Those who really go wrong we label psychotic or delusional (or anxious? hello), but in reality, none of us gets it exactly right. We invent our town truth about who we are, in other words.

David called the process of getting invested in our storylines being “hooked.” Getting hooked means getting caught by an emotion or behavior, whether good or bad. We get hooked and play out the storylines that have served us (well or not) in the past. That coworker snubbed me, she must hate me. I’ve never been popular, I must be so unlikeable. No, she’s unlikeable. What a bitch. 

When, in fact, that coworker might not be thinking of you at all, and honest communication could get to the real issue. The point is, being hooked is dangerous.

Fear Walking

One of the greatest things about this book for me, as someone who struggles with anxiety, was David’s idea of courage being fear walking. Courage doesn’t mean the absence of fear. We hear that a lot, in movies and books, but not enough.

We have to lean into our bad emotions, not pull away from them. We need to feel the fear, or the sadness, or the grief, and accept it. Telling a child not to cry when they get their first shot isn’t helpful. Of course they can cry, it’s scary and painful and that’s okay. It’s not okay for them at the moment, and we shouldn’t pretend it is. It will be okay, and they will discover that.

Let your inner child cry when things aren’t okay. That’s okay.

Social Comparison and Self-Acceptance

We all know the comparison game. It’s rife now, maybe more than ever, but even if Instagram and Twitter have made it blow up, it doesn’t really matter. Everyone since forever has been trying to keep up with the Joneses.

David’s advice? Keep your eyes on your own work. That old adage from school (one that I, as an elementary teacher, said a lot) is worth keeping in mind as we grow up. Don’t look at other’s work. Don’t compare it. They are not you. And especially don’t compare with someone way out of your league. A beginning violinist should not compare themselves to Joshua Bell. A beginning track runner should not compare themselves to Usain Bolt.

It’s okay to look just above you, for that goal that is truly a challenge (just above your skill level – or the sweetspot). That can foster healthy drive. But if you have trouble with comparison and perfectionism, keep your eyes on your own work. (I actually wrote this out and stuck it to my wall.)

What the Func?

I touched on this briefly in my review of the TED Talk, but basically, this means asking what the func (function) is of your emotions and thoughts. Emotions are data to be used, not be controlled by.

And it’s important to be specific. What are you stressed about? What is making you feel guilty? What is the reason for the apathy you’re feeling?

One of the best ways to discover and distance yourself from an emotion is to say or think, “I’m noticing that I’m feeling/thinking…” This keeps us as bystanders and observers of ourselves. It’s not helpful to say, “I’m stressed,” because that invokes the idea that you are an emotion, which is not true. You are not stressed. You are feeling stressed. So ask yourself, why? What’s the func?

Another good way to get some distance and some clarity is to identify your values; for it’s often when our values are being stepped on that we feel those negative emotions in the first place. What value might you be sidestepping to make you feel stressed or sad?

Dead People’s Goals

The last idea I want to mention is the idea of trying to live a life free of worry, stress, grief, and pain. David calls that having dead people’s goals, because only dead people are free from those feelings.

To live and to be human is to be sad and happy, to be hurt and feel love, and experience grief and joy. (To everything there is a season.) We must not turn away from the emotions we don’t want, but lean into them and through them and come out stronger.

Don’t have dead people’s goals. Get up, find your courage, and walk in fear. But make sure you walk.

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