Don’t get hooked by your emotions: the concept of emotional agility

So-called “negative” emotions such as anger, frustration and worry have a bad reputation, and we may tend to push them away for as long as we can. However, all emotions have evolved to help us understand situations, other people and our own needs better, and to enable us to identify the most appropriate actions to successfully manage life’s challenges as well as opportunities. Not only is trying to avoid challenging and uncomfortable emotions in life an impossible task – it is also based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of emotions and the role they play in our decision-making, relationships, personal effectiveness and sustained wellbeing. Emotions do not make us weak or lead us away from sound decision-making, but they are essential “data points” that can help us identify the most appropriate course of action or response to an event or person.

Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David explores the risks of an excessive “happy vibes only” mindset in her book, Emotional Agility. One of her key messages is that trying to ignore, deny or actively supress challenging thoughts and emotions forces us to be inauthentic, keeps us stuck in unhealthy behaviour patterns, and undermines our wellbeing and resilience. David points out that there is a particular narrative in Western culture which clearly favours and encourages the public display of happiness and an upbeat attitude, often to a point where people feel pressured to put on a smile, regardless of whether it matches their inner emotional experience or not. In our professional lives, the prevailing attitude in many workplaces is to leave “difficult” emotions such as sadness, disappointment or self-doubt outside, and managers often report the need to present as either cheerful, stoic or confident, regardless of what they really think and feel.

However, there is a catch with this type of self-management strategy, and it is called amplification. As Susan David demonstrates in her engaging TED Talk, “The gift and power of emotional courage”, it works like this: Imagine your GP has impressed on you to lose some weight and switch to a healthier diet. You are trying to focus on your work, but you know there is a piece of moist, flavoursome chocolate cake in the fridge. The more you are trying to shut out thoughts of the cake, the more you find yourself dreaming about it. You are exercising every bit of willpower to ignore it, but images of the cake start to take over every other thought you are trying to have. If this scenario does not resonate with you, try this: try not to think of a pink elephant, for a whole minute. You can think about whatever you like, but not a pink elephant…  This exercise demonstrates two things: trying to avoid specific thoughts and emotions takes up significant cognitive resources, and the very things we are trying to push away tend to take up more and more space in our minds.

The same effect happens when we try to suppress emotional pain or unwanted, “unacceptable” thoughts. For example, chastising yourself for feeling unhappy in your job – “don’t be ungrateful; at least you have a job!” Or when the thought surfaces of being stuck in a relationship that is not working for you anymore, it is quickly pushed aside by the assertion that things are not too bad, and that life on your own would be too painful or difficult to manage. The problem with this approach is twofold: while you are using a lot of mental energy and time to squash unwelcome thoughts and emotions, you are using very little time and energy to actually deal with the situation constructively, or to make a proactive decision – which means that the problem is likely to get worse over time.

For a more helpful and constructive approach to challenging situations and emotional unease, Susan David recommends these four steps towards emotional agility:

  • Showing up – accept what is and get off the hook. The first step is about seeing things for what they are. Acceptance is not the same as passive resignation; instead, it is a pre-requisite for change. To do this, you need to give up the inner narrative you are clinging to, e.g. “I should be happy / grateful / enjoying this”, or “this should be easy, everyone is doing this”, and accept what you are feeling. The more you hold on to expectations about how something should be, the less you can see (and either change or adapt to) as to what is really happening. This could involve, for example, getting out of a job or a relationship that does not meet your needs, having a difficult conversation with an underperforming staff member, making changes to your lifestyle or addressing another important issue in your professional or personal life. In this context, Susan David describes emotions as “signposts” or guides, which point us in the way of our values and what matters most to us, for example an unfulfilled need. In this HBR article, she describes what happens when people get “hooked” on emotions, for example in the case of Cynthia, a senior corporate lawyer with two small children: Cynthia feels inadequate and unable to meet expectations in neither her personal nor her professional life. When we get hooked, we take thoughts and emotions as facts instead of examining their causes and how our mindset may lead to distorted perspectives (e.g. “I can’t get anything right, I am failure”), or we try to rationalise them away and push through regardless (e.g. “just grit your teeth and soldier on”), and then select unhelpful actions based on these conclusions. As discussed above, both patterns take up a huge amount of psychological resource, are likely to be unsustainable – and they certainly jeopardise your health and wellbeing.
  • Stepping up – understand, label and own your emotions. The next step involves making sense of what you are feeling, and use these insights as the basis for your actions. Identifying and labelling your emotions correctly is an important step in this process. The problem is that we tend to file all the uncomfortable emotions we experience under a giant bucket of “stress”. People talk about being stressed all the time, and this label often subsumes a large variety of different emotions. As David puts it, there is a world of difference between stress and disappointment, or stress and feeling overlooked and underappreciated, or defeated, offended, exhausted or disillusioned. The point about going more granular and specific is about more than just having a larger emotional vocabulary to explain yourself to others, it also leads to essential insights into what triggers your emotions, and what you can do to effect positive change. When you have correct and appropriate names for your inner experiences, you automatically get some control back and are able to separate yourself from the emotion. David describes this as “putting the thinker back in charge over the thought”, which is the opposite of the thought (or emotion) owning you and controlling your reactions. Accurate labelling also enables you to understand cause and consequence, and it activates the readiness potential in your brain to shape meaningful goals and take effective action.
  • Walking your why: find the link to your values. Knowing what matters most to you and what you stand for, allows you to make decisions and choose actions that enable you to remain authentic and protect your wellbeing. Ask yourself, “what kind of person do I want to be in this situation?” Or as Susan David puts it in one of her unforgettable observations: “Discomfort is the price of admission to meaningful life”. In other words, you cannot make a lasting impact, have an effective career, leave the word a better place or achieve anything meaningful without at least some discomfort along the way. To help you do this, make sure you move from “have-to goals”’ (e.g. shame or obligation; usually based on external pressures and expectations) to “want-to” goals which connected with your deeply-held, intrinsic and positive values (e.g. social justice, personal freedom, family, integrity, health).
  • Moving on: create sustainable change. Long-term behaviour change only happens if new habits are aligned with authentic and intrinsically motivating “want-to” goals. We often think we can make it work on willpower alone, or that avoiding negative outcomes such as anticipated judgement and criticism (“have-to” goals) can keep us motivated in the long run. However, this is neither inspiring nor growth-oriented, and is likely to create resentment, frustration or other negative emotions as we have seen above. The trick is to create a bright vision of the future that means enough for you to put in the hard work needed to change old habits.

If you would like to learn more, don’t hesitate to reach out to the QLS Solicitor Support service on ethics@qls.com.au or p. 3842 5843 to speak to someone in a judgement-free and supportive environment.

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