By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Have you ever heard of emotional agility?
Probably not. I know I didn’t run across the term until very recently when I ran into the work of Psychologist Susan David, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, who discusses the concept in her new book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.
I confess that I haven’t read the book yet, but I am intrigued by what she had to say in an interview in the e-newsletter Knowledge@Wharton.
There she defines emotional agility as “the ability to be able to be with your thoughts, your emotions and your stories.” When we do it well, it “brings us intentionally” and imbues us with “purpose towards what we value in our lives.”
Like physical agility, it helps us cope with life’s challenges when they suddenly crop up and keep our health and well-being.
Dr. David says that if we can deal with our emotions -- even our negative ones -- with some agility, they can point us to our real, underlying values. And knowing our values is absolutely critical to avoiding unnecessary pain in our lives.
While she urges us to be mindful of our emotions, she makes a “very clear distinction ...that our emotions are data, not directions. We can learn from them, but we don’t need to obey them or be dominated by them.”
The same is true for the narratives we adopt to cope with life. Some of them have been with us as far back as we can remember. Others have developed more recently. Sometimes they are very helpful and help us avoid stress. But other times they hold us back or push us over a cliff – and add to our stress across the board.
However, once we are aware of them – and realize that they need not govern us – we are free to use them for our benefit rather than for our detriment.
Viktor Frankl spoke of this freedom when he said: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose. It’s in that choice that comes our growth and freedom.” In his classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey highlights the life and views of Frankl when explaining his first habit: “Be proactive.”
In the case of all three authors – Frankl, Covey and David – their argument is that the greater your self-awareness , the greater your freedom and the greater your power to influence outcomes. For those reasons alone, developing your emotional agility seems to be a worthwhile path in pursuit of personal and professional excellence.
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH DR. DAVID
(CAN ALSO LISTEN TO A 22 MIN. PODCAST WITH DR. DAVID ON THIS SITE)