Emotional Agility Summary and Review

by Susan David
Has Emotional Agility by Susan David been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. “I’m not good enough,” “If only I were a better partner,” “I’ll never be able to handle that presentation tomorrow”– do any of these thoughts sound familiar? They probably do. Unfortunately, it's far too common for our inner voices to sound like our own personal drill sergeants, their sole job being to make harsh judgements and create tons of negative emotions. In this book summary, you’ll discover how it’s possible to see these self-deprecating words for what they truly are: distortions. You’ll be presented with plenty of methods that will allow you to unhook yourself from the unhelpful patterns and negative emotions created by the distorted stories your mind creates. You’ll also learn that being emotionally agile means confronting your emotions as they arise, something that will surely benefit your relationships, work, and of course, the relationship you have with yourself. In this summary of Emotional Agility by Susan David, you’ll also learn
  • why its not necessary to force a smile if you don’t feel like smiling;
  • how downplaying your weaknesses can actually make you less self-confident; and
  • that people who claim to like playing golf are often just kidding themselves.

Emotional Agility Key Idea #1: Our brains are able to create distorted stories based on our actual experiences.

It’s a common fact that great movies need a great “hook,” a plot device that gives the characters motivation and gets their story going. But hooks exist outside of film, too. In fact, we often get hooked into the story of our own lives in the same way. From moment to moment, our brains are constantly trying to clarify our experiences, turning them into a coherent story of our lives. They’re able to create narratives based on billions of pieces of sensory input. For instance, the author’s basic “story” goes like this: "I am waking up and getting out of bed. The small person jumping at me is my daughter. I grew up in Johannesburg, but I currently live in New York. I need to get up today because I’m a social worker." When our lives are simple and positive, doing this isn’t hard. The thing is, our story construction often gets tricky. The problem is that the stories our minds come up with are hardly accurate to real life. Instead, reality is often distorted, and often in a negative way. And this isn’t good, due to the fact that misrepresentation can produce negative emotions. For example, perhaps your parents decided to separate soon after you were born. You may end up blaming yourself for their divorce, although you’re actually completely innocent — you were just a baby. Or, maybe you’ll believe that you’ll always be unloved due to the fact that you ended up a shy introvert in a family of outgoing extroverts. These distortions happen constantly, and the result of them can be harmful. Imagine you’re at loggerheads with your boss, trying to discuss an issue you’re having at work, but instead of addressing the issue directly, the event negatively clouds your thinking, causing you to go home and snap at your spouse because of something simple, like her forgetting to run the dishwasher. Thanks to this distortion, you’ve not only failed to resolve the conflict with your boss, but you’ve riled up your partner, too. The truth is, we hardly ever see our lives as they really are. Rather, we weave distorted stories that make us emotionally unhappy. Emotional agility is the ability to step back from these emotions so that we can figure out what needs to change. So, how should we set about unraveling this mess?

Emotional Agility Key Idea #2: Pretending to be happy doesn’t get us anywhere, and negative emotions can actually be a good thing.

Do you ever get annoyed by the endlessly cheerful people who appear to see every situation through rose-tinted glasses? Surely it can’t be healthy for them to keep smiling through even the toughest times, like breakups and bereavements, can it? The simple truth is that it’s not. Forced optimism actually results in nothing, and avoiding negative emotions through forcing a smile and thinking positively tends to do more harm than good, although it’s a common strategy. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley actually proved this in recent years through an inspection of class photographs from Mills College, a private women’s foundation. Some of the women smiled genuinely, while others forced it. It’s possible to detect the difference. A genuine smile will activate the orbicularis oculi eye muscles and the zygomaticus major mouth muscles, while fake smiles only involve the mouth. When the researchers got in touch with the former students thirty years later discovered that the women who smiled genuinely in their photos had actually lived happier post-college lives when it came to marriages, well-being, and careers. It was clear: grinning and bearing it isn’t actually the best way to deal with negative emotions. While it may seem counterintuitive, another reason suppressing negative emotions isn’t the best move is because they can actually be incredibly beneficial. Here’s an example: one of the author’s clients thought he had an anger problem. The thing is, with the help of the author, he actually realized that he was really dealing with unreasonable spousal demands and expectations. His angry response seemed more appropriate given the circumstances. So, he took pains to observe and recognize his emotions, allowing him to create boundaries and engage in better communication with his wife. It turns out, his hard work ended up greatly improving his marriage. Clearly, facing emotions is better than repressing them. But what is the best way to confront them?

Emotional Agility Key Idea #3: Self-compassion is the most faithful route to taming boisterous emotions.

It can be far too easy to imagine our emotions as a giant monster with multiple heads that you’ll need to slay completely in order to gain control. The reality is, though, that it’s much better to make the monster our friend and give it a place to live Being compassionate toward yourself is truly the best way to confront negative emotions. Although the path toward self-compassion can be a rough one to follow, it starts with recognizing and listening to your emotions. Here’s an exercise that’ll help you get started. Imagine yourself as the child you once were. Take some time to visualize your childhood self’s life circumstances and difficulties. Can you feel compassion for that child? In your mind's eye, embrace and comfort that imagined child. It’s incredibly important to realize that the adult you are now needs to be comforted in the same way as the child you were years ago. In fact, showing yourself compassion is essential when you’re dealing with painful emotions. In 2012, psychologist David Sbarra made a study of divorcees. He discovered that participants who showed themselves compassion were able to recover from divorce much faster than those who reacted with self-criticism or blame. While this might sound difficult, luckily, there’s a strategy to self-compassion. This technique involves taking a broad view of yourself, accepting the life you have, and seeing everything, including your flaws, with compassion. Psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff conducted a serious examination of self-compassion in 2007 which involved asking the subjects to present themselves in mock job interviews. The results were obvious. The people she interviewed who showed self-compassion were able to talk about their weaknesses openly without diminishing their sense of self confidence. On the other hand, interviewees who didn’t show as much self-compassion attempted to downplay their weaknesses, only succeeding in becoming less self-confident as they did so. Self-compassion, then, assists in dealing with negative emotions. Of course, though, it isn’t always easy to feel this way, especially when our emotions are overwhelming. So, let’s look next at how to distance ourselves from the whirl of emotion.

Emotional Agility Key Idea #4: Mindfulness is a technique suitable that will help you to work through destructive emotions.

Is there something that’s bothering you right now? You know, something that’s really getting your goat? Perhaps it’s professional or relationship problems? Well, a good solution to this is to choose an object, perhaps a chair or a pillow, that can stand in for your problem. Now yell at it – scream everything you feel. This is more than just a fun exercise — it also helps you to look at your issue from the outside, and from a fresh perspective. It also shows that it’s possible to set aside your destructive emotions and approach a situation in a calmer way. There was one occasion during which the author was incredibly angry at a call center support agent; her phone company had repeatedly sent him incorrect phone bills! After a moment, however, she was able to collect herself, and was able to see her emotional reaction for what it was at its roots: blind anger directed at the wrong person. Once she apologized to the agent, she was able to work with them to resolve the billing issue. When you create space between your emotions and yourself, you’ll be able to become a better person. There’s a strategy for doing this. It’s called mindfulness, and it allows you to calmly observe your emotions and your environment. Mindfulness is the practice of purposefully paying attention to something: from sensations to emotions to your breath, with no judgement. The method is actually based on science. In 2011, Harvard psychologists looked at brain scans of people before and after they’d gone through mindfulness training, and the comparison showed that specifically the parts of the brain that are responsible for stress, memory, empathy, and identity had been positively altered by the training. Mindfulness is then able to be seen as antidote to distraction. When you practice mindfulness, you’ll be able to recognize negative emotions for their true colors as they come up, and confront them immediately. Once you’ve tuned into your emotions, the next step is to look at your life and make a decision about what you want from it.

Emotional Agility Key Idea #5: You may have difficulty making decisions that are solely your own, but it’s essential to take time doing so.

In 2000, the director of Hollywood blockbusters like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Tom Shadyac seemed to be on top of the world. He was successful, rich, and he was still relatively young. But he wasn’t happy. He’d spent a huge portion of his life working toward an ideal life, however, when he finally reached his goals, he found that he longed for something different, perhaps simpler. This is just evidence that it’s hard to make decisions that are actually our own, especially when our success is judged by standards that don’t actually have anything to do with the specific individual involved. If we don’t take time to actually think about it, we end up blindly following the example of the people around us, living according to some abstract blueprint for life. The name for this phenomenon is social contagion. For example, you might believe that you like playing golf, but truly, you only play because your friends do. The same holds true of money, property, cars, and family. However, unless you truly enjoy the same activities as your friends, you might end up feeling empty. This means that it’s necessary to fight the instinct to follow the crowds, and instead think carefully about what you truly want from your life. This sense of clarity will end up changing your life for the better. A psychological exercise that can help with this is to try writing a letter to your future self. Try to imagine who you’ll be by the time you read it, and what you would want to say to that person? Make sure that you write about who you are at the moment you’re writing it, and what’s important to you. Doing this will help you articulate what matters the most to you. It’s no parlor game, either. The results speak for themselves. A 2013 study by psychologist Karen Gelder showed that participants became less likely to take part in illegal activities after engaging in exercises like this one.

Emotional Agility Key Idea #6: Research has examined that the things that made couples happiest are responsiveness and emotional bonding.

Consider this normal relationship quarrel. Cynthia's been scrimping and saving for years. But now, David, Cynthia’s partner, wants to splurge on a family trip to the Grand Canyon. Well, this is actually a real-life example from a 2004 study. Psychologists Driver and Gottmann were actually filming Cynthia and David as they argued, attempting to work out what made couples tick by looking at various emotional factors. For this experiment, the two psychologists actually built an apartment in their lab. They then invited various couples in and asked them to live their lives as normally as possible while the cameras were rolling. While it might sound like an odd experiment, it did actually reveal some deep truths about happiness in relationships. The most important thing the researchers discovered was that the manner in which couples responded to requests for emotional bonding was actually essential in building mutual happiness. They were able to witness partners engaged in all sorts of activities that were all focused on getting emotional responses from each other, like pointing out an object they thought was beautiful. The partner on the receiving end of this engagement had the tendency to react in one of three ways. They either turned toward their partner and offered some sort of response, turned away and didn't respond at all, or they reacted strongly against their partner's suggestion, saying, for instance, that they wanted to be left alone. These small responses may have been seemingly inconsequential at the time, however, when the researchers revisited the couples six years later, those who had shown high levels of positive emotional responses to requests for attention were all still married. Those who had turned away or ignored their partners during the experiment were mostly separated or divorced when the researchers followed up six years later. This ability to bond emotionally with a partner is yet another aspect of emotional agility. Now, let’s look at why leading a balanced personal life is also important.

Emotional Agility Key Idea #7: Making sure you’re challenged and stimulated will help you stay on top of your game — but keep it within reason!

What do you remember everything it took to learn how to ride a bike? The excitement, the crashes, the elation when you finally managed to keep it going straight? Does cycling still bring you the same feelings? Of course not. It’s now just run-of-the-mill. Well, the truth is, in order to thrive, you need to remain challenged and develop your emotional agility. When you finally get proficient in something, it’s easy to start operating on autopilot, which can then lead to rigidity, disengagement, and boredom. It’s okay to simply go through the motions when it comes to mundane tasks, like brushing your teeth for example. The problem is, life can quickly grow dull and unfulfilling when you’re no longer challenged by your tasks — routine jobs can easily turn tedious. It’s important, then, to spice things up a bit. Search for something a little daring. Maybe you could launch a new initiative at your workplace? That said, though it’s good to be stimulated, it’s important not to overdo it. The trick to this is to balance a bit of positive stress from new situations with feelings of assurance and calm. This is known as living at the edge of your potential. This particular edge is recognized as a line that’s gradually pushed forward, but one that you should be careful not to overstep. A good way to start challenging yourself, perhaps, is to learn a language or how to play a musical instrument. Or, you could even challenge yourself through your daily tasks. For example, you could walk to work in a playful manner, which might involve paying close attention to the sidewalk you always walk down, rather than daydreaming or worrying about your to-do list waiting for you at the office. So, we've looked at what it takes to practice emotional agility. Let’s consider an example from the workplace to round things off.

Emotional Agility Key Idea #8: When we don’t practice emotional agility, we get stuck, and when this happens, we should take steps to free ourselves.

It's easy to get the wrong impression of someone. While the person might seem perfect on the outside, with a good job and a close family, the truth may become clear to you after you’ve exchanged a few words that a nervous breakdown is brewing, and that he or she is in fact stuck in emotional distress. When we’re not emotionally agile, we get stuck. Erin, a friend of the author’s, got trapped in just this way. She was living as a mother of three, as well as working a job four days a week, which made it really hard to keep her two lives separate. However, she did not show her distress to anyone, nor did she take the time to make changes. One day, Erin’s boss scheduled a meeting over the phone for her day at home. Erin felt that she couldn’t say no, however, she was also acutely aware that it would be embarrassing if her children could be heard bickering in the background. She ended up deciding to take the call hiding in her closet beneath the clothes. It was this moment, crouched in her closet, that caused Erin to realize that she needed to move past this threshold of discomfort and have a discussion with her boss that would help her to improve her situation. This is the great benefit of emotional agility. It allows us to make the necessary changes toward getting unstuck. Erin was able to muster up all her courage. It was necessary for her to identify her exact emotions so that she would be able to explain to her boss what the problem was. What she realized was that she resented the troubles she had balancing her work and family life. Deep down, she was struggling with perfectionism. She took the time to explain that while she loved her work, her day off was necessary. She needed it for her family. The clarification helped all parties involved, allowing Erin to finally stop being so anxious. The lessons of emotional agility are clear, and they can be applied to work, relationships, and general, everyday life. It’s important to make sure that you distance yourself from negativity in your life, move out of your comfort zone, and find creative solutions to your problems. The benefits are yours for the taking.

In Review: Emotional Agility Book Summary

The key message in this book: If you’re trying to find more fulfillment in your life, it’s important to develop your emotional agility – the ability to put distance between yourself and your negative emotional patterns. This will allow you to find the space to examine your emotions and find the room to look for constructive solutions to your problems. Actionable advice Skip the small talk and aim for meaningful conversations. Next time you’re with friends or family, stop and truly think about whether you’re truly engaged in the interaction, or whether small talk is being used as a deflection toavoid real issues. Don’t be afraid. Go deep and go meaningful. You’ll all feel better for it in the long run.