How to build Emotional Agility

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Emotional agility combines a number of practices such as mindfulness and emotional intelligence that helps one either change or improve behaviours that match the values in their lifestyle.

Susan David, Ph.D. is an award-winning Harvard medical school psychologist who wrote the book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. She has a TED talk, the Gift and Power of Emotional Courage, where she talks about similar ideas as her book.

The connection between emotional agility and mindfulness comes in the form of being present. Seeing your emotions and the environment around you as they are, gives a realistic perspective rather than a distorted one if the focus is on the past or the future. That’s not to say ignore the past and the future; we can learn from past mistakes and stay motivated by future ideas, but there needs to be a balance. David calls this mental contrasting, which is believing one can achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves while being aware of obstacles that can arise. 

The connection with emotional intelligence is that the process of emotional agility isn’t about ignoring difficult emotions but rather accepting them and moving towards your goal. The awareness and understanding of one’s emotions are essential when it comes to our actions and decision making.

In her book, David says, “no matter how certain we are about the best course of action, the world is constantly changing, and circumstances are unpredictable.” This is a great reminder that not everything is under our control. A constantly changing world leads to everyone making ineffective decisions from time to time, another great reminder that it’s okay to mess up. David then explains that even if the choice turns out to be wrong, one can take comfort in knowing that the decision was made for the right reasons.

This concept is built on the idea that having strong values leads to better decision making. Finding these values reduces subconscious stereotypes and beliefs that could hinder one’s ability to face challenges.

David provides some questions to help find one’s values: an introspection into what one holds important, the kind of relationships one wants to build, and what situations make one feel the best. These, again, highlight the importance and benefits of understanding oneself. Being aware and having this emotional agility ripples down to better decision-making and ultimately a better life.

David says, “acceptance is a prerequisite for change. This means giving permission for the world to be as it is, because it’s only when we stop trying to control the universe that we make peace with it.” This takes away a lot of pressure, as acceptance reduces perfectionism and leads to better enjoyment of one’s work.

Ultimately, the goal of emotional agility is to increase one’s awareness not only of oneself but the environment around us, which leads to better decision-making based on values. Having a balance between realism and optimism can lead to better results, even if we choose wrong from time-to-time. As David says, “one of the greatest human triumphs is to choose to make room in our hearts for both the joy and the pain, and to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

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