When something happens that weighs on your mind and affects your relationships, your work and your life, how do you escape from the feeling? What can you do if you are working toward a goal, but your emotions get in the way of achieving it? Or you can’t quite get out of a rut you’re in with your job or a relationship? Our guest talks about how to develop “emotional agility” to deal with the thoughts, emotions and the stories we have in our lives, so we can attain the goals we set for ourselves, and live a more fulfilling life.

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Dr. Susan David is the co-founder of the Harvard-affiliated Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard University Medical School, and author of the book, Emotional Agility: Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life.

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Emotional Agility

Gary Price: It’s happened to most of us at one time or another: you have a great idea for a project that you mention to a co-worker and the following day he passes it off to the boss as his own. Or your romantic partner decides that she’s no longer interested in your relationship and takes up with someone else. All the emotions of our betrayal – anger, humiliation, distrust — come flooding in and we fret about our situation, running it through our minds over and over again, letting it affect our moods and how we interact with others. Dr. Susan David says that in order to combat this tendency to ruminate about negative incidents and let them take over our lives, we need to develop “emotional agility.”

Dr. Susan David: Emotional agility is effectively the ability to be with yourself, with your thoughts, your emotions; with the stories you tell yourself in a way that is courageous and compassionate and effective.

Price: David is the co-founder of the Institute of Coaching, a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard University, and author of the book, Emotional Agility: Get unstuck, embrace change and thrive in work and life.

David: And in doing this we are then able to bring ourselves to the world in a more effective way. Instead of being reactive or instead of letting our stories shrink our lives or tell us what to do or what not to do, we are able to come to our decisions from the position of values and intention.

Price: David says that these “stories” that we tell ourselves about what we’re good at or not good at; about what we think we deserve and don’t deserve. She says that we carry over some of these stories about ourselves from childhood, and that they’re important for living a fulfilling life.

David: All of us need a narrative, a seemingly coherent narrative that helps us to make sense of the world. But what often starts to happen is we start to live into stories that do not serve us. So, for example, we might choose not to put our hand up for a project at work, or we might choose not to apply for a job because we have a narrative that effectively tells us that we won’t get it or that we’re not that kind of person or that we’re not going to be successful. So the idea behind emotional agility is to recognize that stories are important but that stories often have the tendency to own us rather than us owning them. And if we are able to recognize when our stories are not helpful, then we can develop the capacity to unhook from those and make decisions and make choices that are driven by our intention instead.

Price: Having immediate responses worked well when we had to defend ourselves from wild animals or fight barbarians at the gate, but today those situations don’t crop up much. That’s why we have to put some space between our thoughts, emotions and stories and our responses.

David: We start to develop these patterned triggers where we have a thought, we treat it as a fact and we respond. Or we have a story that doesn’t serve us, we treat it as a reality and we respond. So what emotional agility is is it’s the science-based capacity to be able to develop the space between stimulus – your thought, your emotion, your story – and your response, and in that space to cultivate the ability to make a choice that comes much more from the place of intention and value.

Price: David says that although everyone is unique when it comes to dealing with negative thoughts and stories about themselves, men and women usually deal with the situation differently.

David: Men tend to do a lot more of what I call “bottling.” They are upset about something, they’re angry, there’s some kind of change at work, they are feeling frustrated and men are more likely to compartmentalize, to try to push that thought or emotion aside; to rationalize about it – “I’m unhappy in my job, but at least I’ve got a job” – and to really try to not think about the thought, the emotion, the story. So it’s almost like that piece of information is treated as distraction and is pushed aside.

Price: Women, she says, deal with it in the opposite way – they “brood.”

David: Brooding is where you are upset or angry about something – something’s not happening effectively at work, or you are in a project that isn’t going as well as it could, or something’s happening in a relationship – and women have more of a tendency to really think about, overthink, really try to understand, get to the bottom of the issue. Now, both bottling and brooding behaviors are done with very good intentions. The bottling behavior is “Let me push this aside so I can get on with what is in front of me.” The brooding behavior is “Let me get to the bottom of this. Let me think about it and understand it so I can deal with it.”

Price: David says if this bottling and brooding behavior becomes a pattern, it never really addresses the problem. It also has an impact on our health by raising anxiety levels and can negatively affect our relationships. She says that there is another phenomenon that’s created in some situations called “co-brooding” – when you grab a friend or colleague and complain to them about your cheating spouse or lousy working conditions…

David: What studies show is that when you go back to the office or when you go back to the spouse that you might have been co-brooding about, that your behavior towards that situation is far worse. So there’s this weird paradox that when we co-brood, we leave the situation often feeling comforted, but the problem itself and our interaction and behavior in that situation becomes exacerbated and far worse.

Price: If sitting and thinking about your problem or discussing it over lunch with a friend doesn’t get you very far, how do you approach it? David says that she has devised a process for dealing with negative stories, and the first step she calls “showing up” – that is not to fight with the emotion, but to recognize it for what it is and just be with it. The next step is to move away or “helicopter” above the thought or emotion to create a “metaview” of it.

David: So, for example, imagine you are sitting in a meeting and you are feeling undermined. Your thought and the emotion that might come with it might be, “I’m being undermined, I’m just going to shut down. There’s no point in me talking anymore,” and your emotion might be a feeling of anger. So, in Victor Frankel’s terms is what you’ve got here is you don’t have a space between the stimulus and response. You’ve got the thought or emotion – “I’m being undermined and I’m angry” and the response, “I’m going to shut down.” What developing a “metaview” is, is effectively being able to see those thoughts and emotions for what they are: they are thoughts and emotions. Or, to put it differently, who is in charge here? The thinker? Or the thought? Who is in charge? The emotion? Or the person who has the emotions?

Price: By creating a space between the thought or emotion and the response, you take control of the situation and can think it through more clearly – separating the thought from the emotion and response.

David: Instead of being, “I am being undermined, so I’m going to shut down,” you might notice the thought for what it is, “I am having the thought that I’m being undermined, and I’m having the urge to shut down.” What you are doing in the situation is you are starting to create space between you the thinker and the thought that you have.

Price: David says that labeling emotions correctly will help in solving the underlying problem. Most of the time we just say, “I’m stressed” without looking deeper into exactly what we’re feeling.

David: There’s a very big difference between being “stressed” versus “angry”; “stressed” versus “frustrated”; “stressed” versus “disappointed”; “stressed” versus “feeling that my career isn’t going in the direction that I want it to.” And, what the research shows is that individuals who are able to be more nuanced, who really try to dig a bit deeper, “Yes, I’m stressed, but what are one or two or other things that I’m actually feeling,” that this is a critical capacity that then enables people to solve their problems effectively. So what the research is showing is that people who can get more nuanced about what it is that they’re feeling firstly create the space between them and their feeling, but also are able to from that space create an accurate sense of what is the cause and what do I need to do about the situation.

Price: When you figure out which emotion you’re truly feeling, David says you can start working on a solution to the situation that will move your life forward. Creating goals for change requires careful thought and an attitude that revolves around “wanting to” change rather than “having to” change.

David: What’s fascinating with “have-to” goals is that, in general, “have-to” goals tend to not create real and sustained behavior change. In contrast, one of the things that I look at in Emotional Agility is the idea of “want-to” goals. “Want-to” goals are driven by a true sense of intrinsic values-based desire. A “want-to” goal might be, “I want to lose weight and be healthier so I can see my children or grandchildren grow up.” Both of these have the same goal, but the one is the obliged achievement, the other is the intrinsically motivated achievement.

Price: Using a weight-loss goal as an example, imagine that you’re faced with a delicious dessert at a buffet. If you are operating on “I have to lose weight,” you tell yourself that you want that dessert, but can’t have it.

David: Whereas a “want-to” goal actually ramps down your temptations. So some studies have, for example, shown that when you are trying to create a habit change and you’re faced with something like a dessert, your brain actually processes the taste attributes of the dessert 195 milliseconds sooner than you even know you are making a choice. So, put very plainly, your brain has decided whether you are going to eat the dessert before you even realize you’re in a battle of willpower. But, when you have a “want-to” goal around the dessert, the actual physics of that motivation change. So “want-to” goals ramp down motivation and enable willpower more frequently. So in some “have-to” goals, a sense of obligation, less likely to achieve behavior change because we are drawn to the very thing we feel we are obliged to not have; whereas in contrast, “want-to” goals are driven by a sense of value and real internal desire and these “want-to” goals actually sustain greater levels of behavior change in our lives in general.

Price: Susan David has included a number of action strategies in her book, Emotional Agility that can help anyone learn how to create space between their thoughts, emotions and stories and create goals to achieve a more successful and fulfilling life. You can find out more on her website, take a free emotional agility quiz and receive a personalized report at susandavid.com/learn. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.