Emotional agility is the key to authentic positivity.
As a teenager, South African-born psychologist Susan David was grieving the death of her father. Feeling the need to present herself as “ok” to everyone who asked how she was doing or expressed concern, she hid her feelings of profound grief and loss deep inside.
“No one knew, and in a culture that values relentless positivity, I thought that no one wanted to know,” she said in a TED talk called “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage.”
The revolutionary idea that set her on a personal and, later, professional journey through what she calls “emotional agility” came when her eighth grade English teacher handed her a blank notebook and said, “Write what you’re feeling. Tell the truth. Write like nobody’s reading.”
“It was a simple act, but nothing short of a revolution for me,” she recalls.
As she gave her emotions their due space in her mind, as she let them out, David understood that the agility she was cultivating, the flexibility to radically accept—and then process—each feeling as it came was a skill every person should have. Here are four techniques that might encourage you to bring more agility to your emotional life.
1) Let Go of Calling Feelings “Good” or “Bad"
This sort of rigid thinking doesn’t serve us, David argues. In a study she conducted, a third of respondents judged themselves for having “bad” emotions like sadness or anger. But no one benefits from denying the place these feelings have in the big picture of our emotional lives. Avoid the “tyranny of positivity” by accepting each emotion as part of your journey.
2) Be Emotionally Accurate
Our word choices matter profoundly in how well we cope with complex emotions. It might be easy to say you feel “stressed” about something going on in your life, but it might be more accurate to say you feel “disappointed,” “confused,” or “self-doubting.” Labeling our emotions accurately helps us address them more effectively.
3) Avoid “I Am” Language
When we describe our emotions by saying “I am sad,” or “I am angry,” we define ourselves by those challenging feelings instead of as someone who has those emotions among many others. Instead, David recommends saying “I’m noticing that I’m feeling sad right now.” This wording separates your being from your feeling—distance that can help you be more solution-oriented in how you cope with your emotions.
4) View Your Emotions as Data
“Emotions are data, they are not directives,” David says. That means that emotions are facts, but they do not have to drive your behavior. Viewing your feelings in this way invites you to be present with your emotions without feeling compelled to act on them—like a parent does by expressing empathy for a child’s frustration with a new baby sister, without agreeing that the solution is to give the baby away to a stranger. “We own our emotions; they do not own us,” says David.