Cultivating Emotional Agility: Six Small Changes That Will Help You Thrive

By Stacey Colino

Just as developing strength and agility is crucial for physical fitness, the same is true for emotional fitness. In our culture, the strength part of the psychological equation is well understood, given that it’s often equated with having good coping skills and emotional resilience. But the perks of having emotional agility are not as widely appreciated.

In her new book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life (Avery, 2016), Susan David, PhD, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, defines emotional agility as “being flexible with your thoughts and feelings so that you can respond optimally to everyday situations.”

Emotional agility helps you accept all of your emotions and learn from the difficult or uncomfortable ones, tolerate higher levels of stress, cope well with setbacks, and live and act in sync with your values, intentions and big-picture goals. On the flip side, emotional rigidity — sticking with thoughts, feelings and behaviors that don’t serve you well or that you’ve basically outgrown — is associated with psychological troubles, including depression and anxiety, as well as self-sabotaging behaviors such as overeating or self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.

From time to time, we all get sucked in by strong emotions like anger or fear and can’t seem to control what we say or do; along the way, we often end up hurting ourselves and the people around us. “We act like windup toys, repeatedly bumping into the same walls, never realizing there may be an open door just to our left or our right,” Dr. David notes. The goal is not to avoid these unpleasant or tricky emotions but to move through them gracefully so they don’t take a toll on you or the people around you — to develop emotional agility, in other words. Here are six key ways to do that:

  • Find a way to use challenging emotions constructively. Anger, sadness, guilt, and fear often have hidden gifts, according to Dr. David. These emotions can help you form persuasive arguments using concrete, tangible information — and they can promote perseverance on your part. The key is to be open to and accepting of the emotion (without labeling it as “good” or “bad”) and to look for a lesson or purpose behind it (consider: what is it trying to tell you?). You can then channel it into active, productive steps, which might involve making a positive change in your life (such as looking for a new job) or standing up for fairness (by helping someone less fortunate).
  • Shift your perspective. Viewing your own challenges from a third-person’s vantage point — by adopting someone else’s point of view — can help you distance yourself from stress, anxiety, frustration, or sadness in ways that can help you regulate your reactions, Dr. David says. To do this, it helps to look for contradictions in your situation (considering how you might be both a victim of what’s happening and the person responsible for it, for example). Then, think of what you would say or what advice you would give to yourself if you were a trusted friend, family member, or colleague viewing the situation.
  • Consider how to let go. How you interpret recurring situations in your life — such as someone else’s messiness, tardiness, or forgetfulness — can take many different forms that can cause you to prejudge new experiences as they arise or get stuck in old ways of dealing with these situations. By contrast, being willing to let go of your expectations, resentments or sense of unfairness that stem from these situations can be freeing and energizing. Rather than signifying a passive resignation to the status quo, it allows you to become more fully engaged with the way things actually are, without viewing or reacting to them through a rigid mental lens, Dr. David says. Sometimes, “just saying the words let go is enough to bring a sense of hope and relief” as you find a new way to move forward.
  • Identify your Separate what’s important to you personally from messages you receive from people in your life and other influences such as your education, culture or religion. A powerful way to articulate what really matters to you: Write a letter about your current self to your future self, reflecting on who and how you are now, what’s important to you, and how you see your life. To elicit ideas, Dr. David recommends considering: What really matters to me, deep down? What do I want my life to be about? If all my stress and anxiety were to magically disappear, what would my life look like and what new projects would I pursue? The next step is to consider what actions you could take (perhaps to improve your lifestyle, meet new people, or help others or the planet) to move toward the future you want to create for yourself. By helping you understand your core beliefs and linking them to what you want for your future, creating this “continuity of self” can help you avoid making bad decisions and encourage good ones, Dr. David says.
  • Be willing to question yourself. Everyone has traits or qualities they aren’t particularly fond of. Rather than judging them, question notions you have about yourself and the world that may seem etched in stone, she advises, then focus on “making the active choice to turn yourself toward learning, experimentation, growth, and change, one step at a time.” One of the cornerstones of emotional agility is having “a malleable sense of self,” she says. “People who have a growth mindset and who see themselves as agents in their own lives are more open to new experiences, more willing to take [smart] risks and more resilient in rebounding” from setbacks.
  • Change your vocabulary. To put these strategies into action, think in terms of what you want to do, rather than what you have to or should do, then pursue your goals based on this positive source of motivation. Shifting your mindset from one involving obligation to one of desire can energize you for the pursuit. It’s a subtle shift but it can make a world of difference to the effort you exert toward slimming down, shaping up, improving your health, performing better at work, or striving for other goals. “The beauty of deliberately cultivating habits [that are] in line with our values and want-to motivations is they can persist over time with almost no further effort,” Dr. David says. This positive ripple effect can in turn help you develop emotional agility to carry you through life’s challenges and thrive in the constantly shifting world we live in.
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