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Emotional Agility by Susan David Summary

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

Emotional Agility Book

In Emotional Agility you’ll learn to distance yourself from your negative inner voice and emotions, and to decouple from unhelpful behaviors created by distorted personal narratives. You learn a simple 4 step process to deal with emotions as they arise, which will help improve you personally, and in your work and relationships. Key insights:

  1. We get hooked on a false story of our lives

  2. Being either a bottler (ignore the problem), or brooder (obsess about the problem) is unhelpful

  3. Free yourself in four steps – showing up, stepping out, walking your why, and moving on

  4. Try thinking about a problem from the ‘third person’ – the view from an independent person would have

  5. Ask ‘what function is this emotion trying to serve’ – try to understand what it is trying to tell you

  6. Create space between stimulus and response; or think before you react

  7. Purse ‘want to goals’ that we are interested in and freely choose

  8. Avoid or reframe ‘have to goals’ that are imposed externally

  9. Find a way to lock in the gains you make in terms of new positive daily habits

  10. Live on the edge – between comfort (this is easy), and challenge (this is too hard)

Book details

Full title: Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life. By Susan David.

Length: 288 pages, or 7 hours and 28 mins on Audible

Buy the book (USA): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible)

Buy the book (AUS): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible), Booktopia (book, eBook, audio-book)

Key insight 1: Getting hooked our (false) life story

What’s the quick version of your life story? Mine could be “Boy from the bush joins military, marries childhood sweetheart, travels the world, has two great kids, and overcomes adversity as he works towards retirement.” But that’s cherry picking the nice bits. Here’s another story – try to pick the owner. “A skilled assassin gets hit on the head, wakes up in the middle of a guns-blazing intrigue and has no idea of who he is or what he wants.” Answer – Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity. See all Hollywood blockbusters need a powerful story as a ‘hook’ – the powerful premise that captures the audience’s interest, provides context for action, and explains what is going on. David says that our brains are writing scripts of our lives in our head. From David:

“We may not drive convertibles past palm trees or take meetings with movie starts, but each of us, in our own way, is a Hollywood screenwriter. That’s because, every minute of every day we’re writing the scripts that get screened at the cinema inside our heads. Only in our life stories, getting hooked doesn’t imply the excitement of being on the edge of your seat. It means being caught by a self-defeating emotion, thought or behavior.”

David goes on to say that we create a life-narrative to simplify our lives. David again:

“The human mind is a meaning-making machine and a big part of being human involves laboring to make sense of the billions of bits of sensory information bombarding us every day. Our way of making sense is to organize all the sights and sounds and experiences and relationships swirling around us into a cohesive narrative. The narratives serve a purpose: we tell ourselves these stories to organize our experiences and keep ourselves sane. The trouble is, we all get things wrong.”

David suggests this exercise to see how effortlessly we can slide from fact to opinion, then to judgement and anxiety. Think for a moment about each of the following prompts:

  • My house …

  • My job …

  • My in-laws …

  • My waistline …

In this free association exercise you may think factually, but maybe you were critical of yourself? Consider:

  • My house is always a mess! (Truth…it’s Thursday and I work, so I do a clean on Saturday mornings)

  • My job is stressful as I’m not performing! (Truth…I’ve just been promoted and am learning the role)

  • My in-laws have never liked me! (Truth…they just made the 12 hour drive to help with the baby)

  • My waistline is expanding! (Truth…I’ve just started a new diet regime and am down 5 pounds)

David says we hook ourselves as many of our responses are automatic or reflexive. Sometimes these are thoughts, other times actions, David again:

“Then there is your autopilot response to a situation. You might say something sarcastic, or shut down and avoid your feelings, or procrastinate, or walk away, or brood, or have a screaming fit. When you automatically respond in whatever unhelpful way you do, you’re hooked.”

Here’s a list of unhelpful narratives from a group of high-flying executives David worked with:

  • Someone else succeeds: “I’m not good enough. Why wasn’t it me?”

  • Performing a difficult task: “Why is this taking so long? If I was talented it would be done by now.”

  • A social engagement: “I’m going to freeze up and everyone’s going to think I was raised in a cave.”

  • Receiving negative feedback: “I’m a failure, I’m going to get fired!”

  • Meeting old friends: “I’m a loser, they’re all living more exciting lives than me. And earning more.”

  • Trying to lose weight: “I’m so fat. I should just give up. Everyone looks better than me.”

David says getting yourself hooked beings when you accept your thoughts as facts. And these ‘facts’ form part of your life narrative, which in turn leads to you avoiding situations that evoke these thoughts. Or you may endlessly replay these negative thoughts in your head. None of which is helpful. David:

“All this internal chatter is not only misleading, it’s exhausting, sapping important mental resources you could put to much better use.”

Key insight 2: Are you a bottler or a brooder?

We react to difficult emotions in different ways. Some will follow Taylor Swift’s advice and just ‘shake it off’, while others respond with cynicism, nihilism, or fatalism. Consider your reaction to an example David provides:

You’re going through a painful romantic breakup. Are you more likely to:
1. Go out drinking with friends to distract yourself. You might even meet some new people. That will help numb the pain.
2. Sit at home alone wondering what you could have done differently. Ask yourself why are you so bad at relationships?
3. Feel upset for a while. Write about the experience in your journal, or talk to your friends, and learn from the experience.

If you answered #1 to the breakup you’re what David calls a ‘bottler’. Bottlers try to unhook by pushing emotions to one side and getting on with life.

“Bottlers are likely to shove away unwanted feelings because those feelings are uncomfortable or distracting, or because they think that being anything less than bright and chipper is a sign of weakness, or a sure-fire way to alienate those around them.”

The problem with bottlers is that ignoring difficult emotions doesn’t help you solve the underlying causes.

“More than once I’ve met bottlers who find themselves years later in the same miserable job, relationship or circumstance. They’ve been so focused on pushing forward and doing what they’re ‘supposed to do’ that they haven’t been in touch with a real emotion in years, which precludes any sort of real change or growth.”

And as someone with a sweet tooth, I can attest to the futility of not thinking about the chocolate. David again:

“This is the irony of bottling. It feels like it gives us control, but it actually denies us control. First, it’s your emotions that are calling the shots. Second, the suppressed emotions inevitably surface in unintended ways.”

Or perhaps you answered #2 to the relationship breakup question above; in which case you’re what David calls a ‘brooder’. And whereas bottlers are more likely to be men, brooders are more likely to be women.

“When hooked by uncomfortable feelings, brooders stew in their misery, endlessly stirring the pot around, and around and around. Brooders can’t let go, and they struggle to compartmentalize as they obsess over a hurt, perceived failure, shortcoming or anxiety.
Brooding is a cousin of worry. Both are intensely self-focused and both involve trying to inhabit a moment that’s not now. But while worry looks forward, brooding looks back – an even more pointless exercise. Brooders lose perspective as molehills become mountains and slights become capital crimes.”

David says brooders are ahead of bottlers in that they are at least engaging with their feelings. With bottlers, emotions gain strength by being pressurized in a bottle; with brooders emotions become more powerful like a hurricane does, with the brooder circling back time and again on the thoughts and picking up more energy each time.

Key insight 3: Four steps – showing up, stepping out, walking your why, and moving on

David introduces a four step process for emotional agility as described below:

1. Showing up. Facing up to your thoughts or feelings is one of the most difficult things to do, but it is an essential first step to personal growth and change. Instead of ignoring difficult thoughts and thinking happy thinks, or endlessly obsessing over and replaying thoughts; show up and face them. David suggests you be curious about them, accepting all your thoughts – positive and negative alike – equally in order to see them for what they are. Decades of research that life satisfaction doesn’t depend on what happens to us, but on how we deal or respond to what happens to us. David again:

“Do we bottle or brood, allowing them to govern our behavior, or do we ‘show up’ to them (our thoughts) compassionately, with curiosity and with acceptance – no failure, regrets or bad hairstyles turned away.
Showing up is not a heroic exercise of will but simply looking our personal tormentors in the eye and saying, ‘Okay. You’re here, and I’m here. Let’s talk. Because I am big enough to contain all my feelings and past experiences. I can accept all these parts of my existence without being crushed or terrified.”

2. Stepping out. This step is all about detaching the real you from your inner thoughts, voices, and feelings. By separating yourself in this way you can more objectively evaluate your thoughts and feelings for any utility. Essentially, you are learning to see yourself as a chessboard, filled with options and possibilities, rather than as any one piece on the board, limited in how to move, or about to be taken out. One way to detach from charged emotions is to write about them. David below reflects on research by James Pennebaker.

“In each study (of people overcoming adversity) Pennebaker found that the people who wrote about emotionally charged episodes experienced marked increase in their physical and mental well-being. They were happier, less depressed and less anxious. In the months after the writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, greater immune function and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported higher quality relationships, superior memory and more success at work.”

David also proposes ‘exposing’ the emotion by naming it or sharing it with others. In one workshop with executives David had each participant write their deepest fear on a post-it note, then stick it to their chests, then introduce themselves to others in the room by their label – “Hi, I’m boring”, or “Hi, I’m a fraud”. The result was diminished negative thoughts and feelings as these negative emotions where tamed.

3. Walking your why. What guides our thinking? Often mindless decisions taken in the moment, such as the decision to buy in-flight snacks if your seat mate does (yes – you’re 30% more likely). Instead be guided by your why as explained by David:

“To make decision that match up with the way you hope to live, you have to be in touch with the things that matter to you so you can use them as signposts. If you’ve never taken the time to sort out your values, then you’re always winging it, which is how we wind up frittering away our time – surfing the internet, forwarding pointless email chain letters, cycling through hours of reality TV – and feeling unfulfilled. You see this lack of clear intentions play out in people’s choices in everything from romantic partners to holiday destinations.”

Identifying your values provides a priceless sense of continuity – a kind on psychological keel to keep you steady. You also get to have more than one – think of them as facets on a diamond, when you turn one to face you squarely, others move away but are still there, part of the whole, and visible through the prism. David proposes a few questions to get you started on listing your values:

  1. Deep down, what matters to me?

  2. What kind of relationship do I want to build/have?

  3. What do I want my life to be about?

  4. What kinds of situations make me feel most vital?

  5. What would my life look like if I had no stress or anxiety?

  6. What new things would I pursue if I had the resources to do so?

  7. What kind of relationship do I want with my children?

One daily suggestion is to ask yourself at the end of each day, “As I look back at today, what did I do that was actually worth my time?”

4. Moving on. The final steps involved making small, deliberate, and purposeful changes to your life, mindset, motivation, and habits. The goal is to align these tangible aspects of your life with your life values identified in step 3 above. For example, want to lose weight? Make healthy eating and exercise core values in your life, then take action by removing junk food from your house (and not buying more), and packing your gym back at night for a morning workout. We also want to adopt a ‘growth mindset’ – the belief we can change and improve, rather than a ‘fixed mindset’ – the belief we can’t. From David:

“A malleable sense of self is a cornerstone of emotional agility. People who have a growth mindset and who see themselves as agents in their own lives are more open to new experiences, more willing to take risks, and more persistent and more resilient in rebounding from failure. They are liess likely to mindlessly confirm to others’ wishes and values and more likely to be creative and entrepreneurial. This all adds up to better performance, whether that’s in the C Suite, R&D, SAS training, or relationships.”

Other insights Emotional Agility

4. Think third person. The first person is you. The second person the person you are interacting with. The third person is another person watching you and the second person interact. If you have negative thoughts or emotions, put yourself in the perspective of an independent, rational, and fair third person; and ask yourself what would that person think.

5. Ask ‘What’s the function?’ With this question you’re trying to identify what the emotion is trying to tell you. What is the message? Is being stressed at work really about not delivering on a project, or not spending enough time with the kids?

6. Create space between stimulus and response. Rather than respond automatically to environmental stimulus, (stimulus à response), try slowing down and creating a space to think deliberately about the best response to implement (stimulus à space/thinking à considered response). I use a key word ‘interesting’ to prompt me to think before reacting.

7. Identify and purse ‘want to goals’. These reflect a person’s genuine interest and are freely chosen by us. We pursue these goals because on personal enjoyment (intrinsic interest, say gardening), inherent importance (identified interest, say saving for retirement), or because the goal has been integrated into our core identity (integrated interest, being polite to strangers).

8. Avoid or reframe ‘have to goals’. These goals are imposed externally – by an Aunt remarking on how you’ve put on weight; or by your internal narrative – I need to lose weight for the wedding. It is more effective to achieve a ‘want to goal’ than a ‘have to goal’. You can reframe this example by willingly adopting a healthy lifestyle.

9. Chock in the gains. How do you push a boulder up a mountain? Slowly and by chocking in the gains you make. There are many resources out there on habit forming which can help – use them and keep making progress.

10. Live on the edge of your potential. Try to find and maintain a healthy balance between comfort (I can do this easily) and challenge (I have no idea!), the latter being critical to personal development and progress. In simple terms you can challenge yourself by doing new things (expanding breadth), or by doing existing things better (going deeper).

Why you should read this book if you’re under 30

If you’re under 30 there’s a good chance you are more controlled by your emotions than you’d like to be. People, events, and things will rock your boat far more now than they will when you are say 50. Why? The answer is that as you get older you learn to separate your fleeting emotions from your permanent identity. In doing so you calm down, make better decisions, and better progress through life. But why wait until your 50?

In Emotional Agility you’ll learn the theory and practices behind gaining control of your emotions once and for ever. In doing so you’ll become emotionally agile – that is, able to get the best out of any emotionally charged situation and power through life as a result.

Relationship to other Eruditeable books

#1 – The Algebra of Happiness. This book discusses a range of topics related to the pursuit of happiness. Being emotionally agile is an important enabler of your happiness pursuit.

#2 – Atomic Habits. This book is excellent when it comes to changing your behavior via new habits as part of David’s step 4 – moving on.

#4 – The Defining Decade. This book shows how important our 20s are in setting up our lives for success in our 30s and 40s. Most people in their latter stages of life have achieved some degree of emotion agility, but wouldn’t it be better to learn that in your 20s.

#5USA – Set for Life. This book involves having financial discussions with your partner and making intelligent decisions that will reap big rewards in life. Sounds like you’ll need emotional agility to navigate those discussions!

#5AUS – The Barefoot Investor. This book involves having financial discussions with your partner and making intelligent decisions that will reap big rewards in life. Sounds like you’ll need emotional agility to navigate those discussions!

#17 – Crucial Conversations. This book discusses how to manage difficult conversations where emotions run hot and the stakes are high. Being emotionally agile will help manage these challenging situations.

#24 – The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. This book provides guidance on achieving marriage success. Being emotionally agile in your relationship with your loved one will help on this journey.

Book resources

About the author

Susan David, Ph.D. is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist. Her #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Emotional Agility, describes the psychological skills critical to thriving in times of complexity and change. She is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and guest on national radio and television. Named on the Thinkers50 Radar list of people shaping the future of organizations and management, Susan is a sought-after keynote speaker and consultant, with clients that include the World Economic Forum, EY, United Nations, Google, Microsoft, NASDAQ, and many other national and multinational organizations.

Her focus is on defining and executing effective strategy, especially in the areas of engagement, high-performance leadership, and culture change. Susan is the CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, a co-founder of the Institute of Coaching (a Harvard Medical School/McLean affiliate), and on the Scientific Advisory Boards of Thrive Global and Virgin Pulse.

External links

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