Emotional Agility

Recently I have found out that an acquaintance of mine is terminally ill. The man has developed dementia. Like all the people who have this mental impairment, he became forgetful thus fully dependable on his family. However, conspicuous is the fact that he forgot literally everything including his other diseases. Now his mind isn’t bothered by the issues at all and the symptoms have swept away in an instant.

This case prompted some conscious yet contradictory thoughts in me. On the one hand, it would be strange to conclude that such type of cognitive disorder is the only way-out to relieve the emotional tedium. On the other hand, I was stricken by the fact how strong our mind-body connection is and how powerful emotions and sensations we experience are. 

I, myself, am the person whose inner space is regularly crowded by daunting thoughts, telling me how unworthy or diffident I am. Once, when I was reading another self-help book in search of the ‘emotional remedy’, a sudden question popped into my head: What if we could open the magic box called brain, what would it disclose? Would we see how entwined with doubts and insecurities our minds are? 

Gripped by the speculation, I shared the idea with a close friend of mine, who suggested acquainting myself with the concept of emotional agility, introduced by a Harvard Medical School psychologist, Susan David. 

Emotional agility is an individual’s ability to experience their thoughts and emotions and events in a way that doesn’t drive them in negative ways, but instead encourages them to reveal the best of themselves.

— Susan David

Without further ado, I decided to do some research and learn more about the concept. 

Step 1. Recognition

Just like a postal carrier collects letters from all the boxes in your neighbourhood, you have to check all the corners of your mind to detect your most destructive and contradictory emotions and thoughts.

Listen to yourself. What is your internal chatter about? Who or what are you constantly trying to avoid? What negative affirmations burrow into your mind on a daily basis? When or why does it happen?

The point is to recognize the repetitive patterns in your brain to know which emotions you are hooked on. 

Action plan: Take a piece of paper and write down all that worries you have (e.g. I don’t spend enough time with my family, I don’t like my job any more, etc.). 

Step 2. Labelling

“You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That’s the only thing you should be trying to control.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

At this point you need to face your emotions and give them names. You may want to address those prompting questions again and then ask yourself: “How do I feel in this situation? Is it anger or fear? Loathing or grief?”. 

If you struggle with labelling, it may be helpful to use the wheel of emotions, developed by Robert Plutchik.

Action plan: Write down the emotions you experience next to each situation you have (e.g. I don’t spend enough time with my family. — guilt; I don’t like my job any more. — irritation, boredom). 

Step 3. Acceptance

After you have learnt you whys, coloured and labelled your emotions, you should accept them. 

Negative emotions are like signals that indicate a breakdown or leakage in the system. Do you jump out of your car when low fuel light flashes on the dashboard? You just head straight for the nearest petrol station, fill up and drive on. 

The same applies to your emotions. Instead of being afraid or being judgemental, just take a different view and think of other possible ways to deal with the situation that makes you experience these uneasy feelings.  

How will you react next time when your boss shouts at you? Will you show your vulnerability and start crying thus irritating him even more? Or will you turn on your heels and go away? 

Consider all the options and choose those that are in alignment with your core values. 

Action plan: Write down at least 3 possible ways how you can deal with the situation (e.g. I don’t spend enough time with my family. 1) Stop watching TV when you have dinner and talk. 2) Create a special bedtime routine. 3) Go shopping together.) 

Step 4. Action

Now you have a record of all your worries and concerns and an action plan that shows you all the possible ways to improve your life and choose the right direction. By the time you take this final step, you will feel more confident, because you will know what you need and which way to follow. 

For example, if you want to improve your private life, you will no longer stay up at work until midnight, performing your duties. You will do that because you value your personal space and you know that family is what comes first for you. 

When we find ourselves at the crossroads, unable to decide what’s best for us and how to deal with the problem in least painful way, we normally become even more desperate and operate our inner throttle to the limit. No one says that the solution comes in an instant and eases the burning pain — it hardly ever happens. On the contrary, it takes time and strength to acknowledge the problem and only then strike back. 

We all have a spectrum of tools at our disposal — someone may need a therapy session, someone may need a friend’s shoulder to lean on while someone just needs to put their thoughts into words on paper to see a clearer picture and come up with an action plan. 

Anyway, we all have been there and felt that way and I am more than sure we are bound to experience the hardships again. However, no matter how swept off your feet you are, your mind is your place and you make the rules — remember that.

Text: Alexandra Finyakina

Photo: Adam Whyte