Emotional Agility by Susan David

“Emotional Agility” by Susan David

“Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive In Work and Life” by Susan David is probably one of the best non-fiction psychology books that I have read in a while. I think the main reason for it is because it came at the right time in my life. Recently, while working with my career coach, we have been discussing one of the things that has been bothering me for a while. Normally, I am a very patient person – you can go on my nerves for a long time until I lose my temper but there are just two or three things that can make me go from 0 to 100 in a rage mode very fast. We have been working through these things in our sessions and most of them turn out to come from old stories that we are hooked on and tell ourself. In simpler words, we respond to new situations in the same ways that we did 10 years ago because we told ourselves a specific story – we got hooked on it. This is where a lot of frustrations, at least for me, come from and this is exactly what “Emotional Agility” by Susan David is about.

Hooked on Emotions

Our brain has a great capacity to categorize things and make quick “rules of thumb” judgements about the world around us – which in most cases works well as it helps to pay attention to making the decisions that matter rather than think about every routine decisions. However, when our minds slip into these default modes, it takes a great deal of flexibility to override these states and this can become a problem when you find yourself in a new context but respond to it in the old ways that lead to frustration. As Susan David says:

“One way of making sense is to organize all the sights and sounds and experiences and relationships swirling around us into a cohesive narrative…The narratives serve a purpose: we tell ourselves these stories to organize our experiences and keep ourselves sane. The trouble is, we all get things wrong… We then accept these persuasive self-accounts without question, as if they were truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth… We crawl into these fables and let a sentence or a paragraph that may have originated thirty or forty years ago, and has never been tested or verified, represent the totality of our lives.”

And then, when we accept these thoughts from 30 years ago as facts and respond to them as facts in the new situations, this is exactly when we get hooked. According to Susan David, this is exactly where the emotionality rigidity comes from as opposed to treating these thoughts as just thoughts, questioning the narrative that you tell yourself and changing the ways in which you respond to new situations.

Unhooking Yourself

There are a few ways that people usually respond to emotions. These are the categories that the author mentions:

  • bottling (most commonly observed in men): bottlers usually try to unhook by brushing off their emotions and moving on with things: “they are likely to shove away unwanted feelings because those feelings are uncomfortable or distracting or because they think that being anything than bright and chipper is a sign of weakness”. As you may guess, the result of this is that these unexpressed emotions usually find the way out in some unexpected ways which is called emotional leakage e.g. you might be suppressing your frustration at work the whole day but when coming home, you might yell at your spouse because they cooked the wrong type of past for dinner later in the evening;
  • brooding (most commonly observed in women): brooders usually keep on ruminating on things they are unhappy with slowly going in spirals: “brooders stew in their misery, constantly stirring the pot around, and around, and around. Brooders can’t let go, and they struggle to compartmentalize as they obsess over a hurt, perceived failure, shortcoming or anxiety”. The main difference from bottlers, is that at least brooders live their feelings through but the problem is that it still does not bring them closer to the solution of the issue;
  • one last point that the author makes is that forcing yourself to always be happy won’t be a solution either – negative emotions help several important aspects in our live such as slow down the cognitive processing and make us really think about events around, help us to be attuned to a situation at hand, encourage perseverance and make us more attentive and showing up to these negative emotions is equally important.

Showing up to our emotions

To quote the author:

When we show up fully, with awareness and acceptance, even the worst demons usually back down. Simply by facing up to the scary things and givng them a name, we often strip them of their power. We end the tug of war by dropping the rope.

Showing up to our emotions starts with acknowledging our thoughts without having to believe that they are necessarily true: “Your story is your story. You need to own it, rather than it owning you, and to honor it with compassion.” We can experience the emotions that we are feeling, let them come in and let them go out without having to grip on them and make them affect our decisions or responses.

Stepping out

Once we have recognized our feelings and showed up to them, the next crucial step is stepping out which is to separate yourself from that thought and see it as a thought. One of the good techniques for this that the author mentions is writing which allows us to distance the feeler from the feelings. Another way to achieve stepping out is through mindfulness“to begin experience thoughts as just thoughts – which is all they really are – rather than as directives that must be followed, or even agonized over”. As per Susan David stepping out:

This does not mean a passive resignation to fate, but rather a vital engagement with the way things actually are, unfiltered and undistorted by rigid mental lenses.

Walking your Why

Susan David identifies “walking your why” as “the art of living by your own personal set of values – the beliefs and behaviours that you hold dear and that give you a sense of meaning and satisfaction”. I feel like people often make choices based on what everyone around them is doing – what the author calls social contagion – rather than based on what they believe in or on what truly matters to them. Something that I am really grateful for is that with my career coach we worked on my values in one of our very first sessions and now I use those as signposts for making every important decision that I need to make. This has been incredibly helpful in shaping my life – if you are not sure how to determine your values, Susan David offers some guiding questions such as:

  • Deep down, what matters to me?
  • What relationships do I want to build?
  • What do I want my life to be about?
  • What kind of situations make me feel most vital?

When you connect with real self and what you believe to be important, the gulf between how you feel and how you behave closes up. You beging to live your life without as many regrets and without as much second-guessing.

Tiny Tweaks Principle

The easiest way to adjust our behaviours, habits and reactions is through tiny tweaks in those as the tiny tweaks reduce the risk of failure that humans are afraid of. The tiny tweaks can apply to changing your mindset, our beliefs about ourselves or our habits. Some practical tips that the author offers in this area are:

  • Switching your environment (my favourite one aka “behavioural engineering”) so that when you are stressed, hungry, tired, annoyed, the choices that you have available are the most aligned with your values. For instance, if you know you get snacky around specific time of the day, you can prepare in advance a platter of healthy snacks so that you reach for those instead of chips and candies;
  • Piggyback on an existing habit e.g. add a new behaviour to an existing habit. If you are taking a dog for a stroll every day but would like to do more sports too, you might as well put on your running shoes and take a dog on a quick run;
  • Anticipate obstacles and prepare for them e.g. if you are tempted to sleep in, create a strategy of what you would do if you are reaching for a snooze button on your alarm clock.

tHE sEE-saw Principle

To put this principle very concisely, basically you would always to stay within the growth area – not to get too comfortable at what you are doing but also not to challenge yourself too much so that you won’t get discouraged by an unachievable goal. This is a way a sweet spot between challenge and comfort that you can find to feel like you are growing and living fulfilling live without overwhelming yourself.


When I think about this book, the best example to describe it that I can come up with is the following: imagine that in high school, you have been telling yourself that I am a nerdy one who is best friends with the pretty one. And now, you have been telling yourself this story for years – my friend is the pretty one so they can have all the attention, I am dealing with “smart things”. You have been living on that store for years – but what if one day you gave yourself freedom to think otherwise and not live within those frames you set for yourself years ago but to decide now and in each specific situation who you are? That’s what emotional agility is about.

Emotional agility means having any number of troubling thoughts or emotions and still managing to act in a way that serves how you most want to live. That’s what it means to step out and off the hook.

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