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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The New Morality: Be Positive (TED Talk Review)

 

I watched this and nodded along as Susan David described what has been so toxic in my own life; the attitude that emotions are either good or bad and the judgment placed on them. The idea that sadness, anger, and grief are not welcome, and must be either ignored, repressed, or apologized for.

The idea that a positive mindset and go-getter attitude is what you need to be successful and healthy. That can be very dangerous. It can lead us to a culture of shoving aside any mention of grief or anger, and shaming our students, our children, and our spouses for showing those emotions.

Susan David invites us to dig deeper. She asks us to ask why to ourselves; why we are feeling the anger. If we get enraged when we read the news, why? Is it hitting something we feel very strongly about and wish to amend, or are we redirecting some other anger onto an easy and socially accepted outlet? Emotions are data. They tell us about what we’re seeing and doing, and what we’re reacting to or repressing. Always keep asking why.

She also stresses the importance of accuracy. When we’re not okay, we most often answer with “I’m just stressed out.” But that’s too vague. That can cover anything from a bad hair day to having no idea whether you’re in the right career or the financial debt that’s stacking up. Being specific helps us to identify it, and that makes it easier to articulate to others and to get help.

Finally, she reminds us that while emotions are data, they are not directives. We learn from them, but they don’t own us. They don’t control us. We choose whether to act out of our emotions or not. We get angry at our children, but we refrain from shouting at them. We are saddened by the loss of a friend, but we don’t let ourselves sink into isolation and depression. We are stressed out because of work, but we don’t add more work or watch hours of TV to cope.

It’s a fascinating watch. David wrote a book called Emotional Agility. I haven’t read it yet, but after watching her Ted Talk, it’s on my list.

Have you read it?

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Changing the Storyline of Your Life for Better Living

Change the storyline of your life to live a better story.

I heard this idea in my meditation practice. We go through life telling ourselves stories about who we are, what we do, and how we live. I imagine they call it a story because even though there is a reality and therefore a truth to it, there’s no way we can know the whole truth of ourselves, others, or any situation. There are always going to be factors that remain unknown.

So, then, we create a story. I am a victim. I am powerful. I am no good. I am destined for failure. No one likes me. Everyone likes me. The story can be good or bad, but mostly, we’re talking about the bad stories of our lives. Those are the ones we want to change.

For me, I had one story about myself for most of my life; I lived thinking I was in control, cool, intelligent, put together, sensible, and fun. Back when I first started having stress-related health issues, they didn’t fit my story. (I also tested as an INTJ back then, and false or otherwise, it definitely colored my perception of myself.) I didn’t let anyone know I was having stress issues or that I was depressed because I didn’t see myself as a person that happened to. The story went that depressed people weren’t trying hard enough, didn’t read books showing them how to have a better mindset, and wanted attention.

I was lucky to get better at all with all that crap in my head. Well, better-ish, since the whole thing happened again a few months ago. This time (over several years) my story had changed. I had slowly come around to accepting myself as an INFJ, an HSP, a multipotentialite, and more creative and dreamy than hardass and intellectual. I was sensitive, and now my sensitivity had taken a blow. But I still thought it was on me. I still thought I hadn’t done something right or I hadn’t taken good enough care of myself. That’s probably true, but it put me in the mindset of victimization. All these external factors had contributed to my fall. It was the school’s fault, it was my friend’s fault, it was my doctor’s fault, it was God’s fault, it was my fault, etc.

Who cares? It doesn’t matter how it happened. It happened, so what am I going to do about it? Thinking about where the blame falls is not only toxic in that it’s automatically negative, but it also keeps the focus on the problem, instead of on the possible solutions.

One foot in front of the other. I can’t see three feet ahead, just the next step, so move there. And then there. And then there. Forward, forward…

The above is a kind of mantra I go through when I’m terrified of what’s next. I don’t know where to go. I knew in college, I had a general idea in Korea, but now…there is nothing ahead of me. It’s a fog, and I can only put one foot ahead. Go to the doctor. See a psychiatrist. Eat better. Exercise to keep me healthy. Get my mind healthy. Find positive friends who support and challenge me. Find a healthy church group. Find a writing group.

The story is changing around me, but I’m not a useless bystander. I can direct it.

Instead of I am a sick person –> I am a recovering person.

Instead of I am not in control of my life –> I can make decisions that influence my life.

Instead of I must be successful/financially stable –> I can determine what is enough for my life.

Instead of I have to be a published author to be worthy –> I am enough.

Instead of I am a burden when I’m sick –> I am worthy of being helped.

Instead of I am someone with a depressing past/history of abuse –> I am able to be better/I can share my story to help others.

You can see how valuable this is. It’s not just positive thinking. It’s changing how you view your entire self in terms of your life. Really, this is best for getting over a mindset of helplessness. Too many people who are victims of abuse, depression, chronic illness, or other really and truly debilitating problems let themselves lose control over their lives and continue to live out the story of their problem. I’m one of them, so I would know.

But I also know that it’s not the only truth. As many people I know who are this way, there are so many stories of people who have overcome awful situations with hope and determination and totally changed their own storylines.

Some of the most well-known examples; Viktor Frankl, Martina Stawski, Nick Vujicic, and Joni Tada.

Change the story of you in your head, and you can change your life.*

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*I want to be clear – if you do have depression, anxiety, or have suffered trauma or abuse, positive thinking and this sort of advice will only do so much. I always encourage you to see a doctor or psychiatrist first. They are trained professionals. The sort of advice I give on this blog is more general. 🙂

 

a poem: my personal gravity well

(written just after I decided to leave Korea)

I sit in bed and type.
Typing is different than writing.
And I don’t write much.
Mostly planning.
Making words pretty.
Like that will make them more
Real.
Make my lists fancy.
And they will get done.
Make my dreams sparkle.
And they will come true.
I add a sticker
Here
And
There, just there.
It means I am trying to
Put my mark on it.
Make it, bend it into
Reality.
But reality bends us.
Right?
Or do we bend it when we move?
When we dream, do the stars tremble
In their courses?

Dreaming must be dangerous then
To move galaxies and bend solar systems
Into our own making.
We move, we bend time and space,
And the universe heaves
Infinitesimally.
But it moves. Every breath a great
Wind birthed.
Every flutter of fingers
A small gravity ripple.
Making waves in our own personal
Systems.
What manner of magic is that?

What manner of creature am I
To sit in bed and type,
When soon I am planning
To quit my job.
Leave this country.
And go home.
Because my body is breaking.
And I don’t know how to fix it.
How to fix my cage.
The bird inside is fine,
Thanks very much.
It’s just this shabby old
Ill-treated cage rusting and falling apart.
Squawking in the night.
Hinges snapping.
The caged bird sings.
Angry.
Defiant.
Raging against the cage that breaks.
Wishing others could see inside the cage.
But they only see
The breaks.

-a.e

BuildALadder Movement

I was first introduced to the BuildALadder idea by Martina Stawski of EatYourKimchi, a great Youtube channel about life in Korea and Japan. Martina has EDS, an invisible illness that affects her daily.

(WARNING: The following videos are really sad, so if you’re not up for it, I recommend watching them another time.)

Her video confession helped me to write my own confession on Instagram and later here. It’s hard to do.

Mental health issues are invisible. And for those of us dealing with invisible issues, it’s hard to feel justified taking care of ourselves or asking for help.

This second video shows exactly how Martina gets through a really bad day by building rungs on her ladder. It’s a difficult video to watch, but it’s also really encouraging for people who are dealing with depression or pain.

Building a ladder means celebrating small victories. It means being positive when you’re in pain. It means knowing that you can make your life better, even if you don’t get better. It means not waiting to feel good to be happy or do what you want. I don’t have a chronic illness like Martina, but I have struggled my whole life with stress, anxiety, and depression, which have often led to serious health problems, and both in times of pain and in times of good health it’s important to build those ladders.

For me, I like to think of it like a literal ladder, visualizing each rung as I reach for it, grip it, and pull myself up. Each thing I accomplish or notice is a rung to help me up. Sometimes I slip, and I need a booster to get me going again. But I build another ladder.

That’s what the movement is about. It’s hugely important to me, and I love that so many people have embraced it. Check out the articles at the end for other people who have been helped by Martina’s movement.

How I Build My Ladder

  • Note accomplishments; doing my daily habits another day, completing a project, asking for help.
  • Find something beautiful; a flower, something I made, a good meal, a heartfelt laugh.
  • Practice real self-care; invest in my mental health, keep boundaries, know what my body and mind are telling me.

Ladders So Far

  • Got my hair dyed, and it ROCKS.
  • Made a paper dragon mask, and it ROCKS.
  • Started another dragon project because DRAGONS.
  • Started blogging again.
  • Started yoga.
  • Meditation streak 100+ days.
  • Wrote 10 new poems.
  • Got health care.
  • Scheduled my first doctor visit.
  • Went to the library and went to town on books.
  • Bought a yellow teapot for all my loose leaf tea.
  • Organized my office/crafting room for full creative expression.
  • Played with two cats at two friends’ houses.
  • Did a ten-day detox.
  • Played D&D.

Some of these were pretty easy, and some were very hard. There are still days where the thought of leaving the house or seeing people sends me into a downward spiral of anxiety and panic, but doing the little things, even if I do stay at home, helps build the ladder. As Martina said, it helps to shine the light outwards, not in. Don’t focus on the inward awfulness, focus on what’s around you and what you can do. Using my yellow teapot makes me happy because it’s a yellow teapot in my room.

Making paper masks makes me happy because I’m using my hands and creating something awesome.

Each rung, no matter how small, is a small step forward.

For those of you struggling, I hope this will help. I hope we will continue to build ladders.

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Tags on Social Media:

#BuildALadder – Instagram

#BuildALadder – Twitter

Articles About the Movement:

The Vlogging Cure

Literally Darling