Staying on top of your emotions | Mindset

Book Summary |Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, by Susan David

Do you ever let your emotions get the best of you? Whether you shut down and ignore them, or brood over them for days, the way you respond to your emotions has a significant impact on your life - and not always for the better.

In her best-selling book, “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life”, renowned psychologist Susan David explains the concept of emotional agility, and how we can use it to our advantage.

What is emotional agility?

Being emotionally agile is all about being flexible with your thoughts and emotions so that you can respond optimally to everyday situations. 

Emotions are our body’s immediate response to the outside world - an emotional warning system. As much as we try, we can’t control our feelings, but we can control how we think and behave in response to them. 

Susan David quotes Viktor Frankl, Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor, when she explains the concept of space: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”

Getting hooked

It’s not always easy to find that space, particularly when we are ‘hooked.’ David discusses the idea of ‘hooks’ - conditioned or pre-programmed cognitive and emotional responses that cause us to react in certain ways. 

Hooks hold us back from responding in a way that benefits us. As David writes, “When you’re hooked in a certain way of thinking, you’re not seeing the world as it really is, you’re seeing it as you expect to see it.” If you expect that you will fail, or you believe that everyone is out to get you, that’s exactly how you will see your life and you’ll react accordingly.

Bottler or brooder?

When we feel strong emotions, we usually fall into one of two camps - bottlers, or brooders. Bottlers shut down and ignore their emotions, bottling them up inside, whilst brooders stew and overthink, playing the emotion on repeat for days, weeks, even months.

Neither one of these responses is particularly healthy. Although they are quite different reactions, David stresses that they actually have the same negative outcome. 


A better way to manage your emotions and increase your emotional agility is to acknowledge any emotions that arise and see them objectively for what they are: information. 

When you face your thoughts and emotions willingly with curiosity and compassion, you’re more likely to respond in healthier ways to those emotions. If you feel an emotion you perceive as ‘bad’, try to take a step back and ditch the judgement. What is that emotion trying to tell you?

The happiness paradox

Positivity is hailed as the antidote to any ‘bad’ thought or feeling, but David argues that making happiness your only goal will leave you worse off. She writes, “The paradox of happiness is that deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself.” 

In fact, David states that ‘negative’ emotions help us to form arguments, encourage perseverance, and make us less prone to confirmation bias. They help us better understand where we have been, so we can better see where we are going.

How you can increase your emotional agility

  • Instead of saying “I feel stressed,” say “I am having the emotion of stress” to help you observe and detach.
  • Set a timer for 20 minutes. Write about your emotional experiences from the past week, month, or year. Do this for a few days, then throw away the paper or delete the document.
  • Try to see your problem from the point of view of someone else; maybe your dentist or even your dog. Does your problem still seem overwhelming?
  • Have you ever said a word so many times it starts to lose its meaning? Try this with an aspect of yourself you don’t like. Say your thought so many times that it turns from something meaningful into something remote. You’ve just created space between the thinker and the thought.

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