In the flow: Psychologist Susan David on emotional agility

Psychologist Susan David tells Marjorie Brennan that compassion, curiosity, and self-acceptance are the best way to deal with life’s twists and turns.

STEADY AS YOU GO: Developing emotional agility can help you get through life, says psychologist Susan David. Picture: iStock

IT may seem like a contradiction in terms, but positive thinking isn’t always a good thing. According to psychologist Susan David, negative thoughts and difficult emotions are a normal part of life, and we ignore them and push them away at our peril.

“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life,” says David, whose new book Emotional Agility explores how self-acceptance, curiosity and self-compassion are key to navigating life’s twists and turns.

“This idea that your thoughts are everything, and we should only have positive thoughts, actually ends up getting us into trouble. Normal natural experiences that are an essential part of our development have now come to be seen as good or bad.”

David, who has a post-doctorate qualification in emotions research and works at Harvard Medical School, recently conducted a study involving more than 70,000 people which found that about a third of them treat normal and natural thoughts and emotions as either positive or negative.

“These normal experiences are now often bound up with what becomes an internal struggle. We judge ourselves for having them, we push them aside. We say to ourselves, I shouldn’t have these thoughts…for example, ‘I know I’m happy in my job but at least I have a job’ so, five years later, we are still in the job because we haven’t been able to engage effectively with ourselves in ways that are helpful.”

    The South-African born psychologist advocates a four-step approach to becoming emotionally agile:

  • ‘Showing up’ which means facing into your thoughts, emotions and behaviours willingly, with curiosity and kindness
  • ‘Stepping out’, which entails detaching from and observing these emotions to see them for what they are;#
  • ‘Walking your why’, focusing more on your core values and important goals to keep you moving in the right direction
  • ‘Moving on’, using small, deliberate tweaks to make changes and keeping a sense of challenge and growth throughout your life.

“What I call ‘showing up’ is the acceptance of our difficult experiences, emotions and thoughts — and by acceptance, I don’t mean resignation, I mean a willingness to realise that when you are alive, tough emotions are part of the contract,” she says.

According to David, not tuning into our emotions can have damaging effects mentally and physically.

“Brooding, which is when we hold onto our emotions too strongly, or bottling, pushing our emotions aside, look different but the impact is the same. The research shows that when people bottle or brood, we see high levels of depression, anxiety and burnout. Bottling and brooding are also associated with poor relationships, at home and at work, and with a lower capacity to achieve one’s goals.”

David also says that self-compassion is a key characteristic of emotional agility.

“We live in a world that would have us believe we are in a never-ending Iron Man or Iron Woman competition and we have to keep going and going.

“People often equate compassion with being weak or lazy but the research shows the opposite… when we look at people who are compassionate, they are the ones who are not letting themselves off the hook, they are more honest with themselves, and more motivated.

“The person who beats themselves up is less likely to be successful in attaining a goal than the person who says ‘I did my best and I will keep going’. They are creating an environment in which they are able to take risks and be human. Therefore, they have the psychological resources to move forward.”

According to David, who has two children, aged five and 10, we also need to recognise that often our difficult emotions are presenting us with an opportunity for growth, especially when it comes to parenting. “Strong emotions are often signposting the things we care about…. Parents feel very judged about what they should or shouldn’t do. None of us is perfect and we need to be compassionate about that in ouselves. However, if you feel guilty as a parent, the value you care about is connectedness. So, if you can search for the value under your difficult emotion, then you are able to start to say, ‘I’m glad I feel what I’m feeling’ and ‘how can I move forward towards that value in ways that are helpful’.”

Those emotions are data, not directives. “If you can understand that beneath your feeling of guilt is a signpost that you need to spend more time with your children, it allows you to make the tiny tweaks that enables you to do that.”

    Susan David on helping children develop emotional agility:

  • When a child comes home from school and says something like ‘Mummy, no one would play with me’, parents may inadvertently shame them out of a so-called negative emotion or jump in with a solution. This sends a message that some emotions are good and some are bad, and the ‘bad’ emotions are something to get rid of.

    We fail to help them to develop skills that ultimately will enable them to deal with these thoughts and emotions effectively and also to recognise that these are normal.

  • Help them develop emotional skills by practising them, by recognising ‘this is what sadness/anger/fear feels like’. Create space for them to feel these emotions.

    We are seeing rates of depression and anxiety increase in children and they are growing up in a world that is fragile and unpredictable.

    When we push aside normal emotions we don’t allow our children to develop skills to deal with the world as it is — not as we wish it to be.

  • Get children to label emotions. If you use the word ‘stressed’ for every feeling or emotion, you are not labelling it effectively. Psychologists call it emotional granularity, and this is something we can help our children to do. Literacy around their emotions is associated with lower risk of depression and so on.

- Emotional Agility, published by Penguin, is available now.

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