In part 1 “Your Emotions Are Talking To You: Are You Listening?” I discussed the various ways we relate to our emotions: 1) ignore them, hoping they go away, 2) play chicken, thinking we’ll “win” or overpower them, or 3) acknowledge their existence and allowing them to move. We need to “name it” (i.e. the emotion) to “tame it” (ie. turn down the dial of intensity).
By addressing our emotions as information sources, we are more able to respond in useful and helpful ways. “Emotions are data, not directives,” says Susan David, PhD and psychologist. She continues, “ultimately, your internal state will color your external world, for good or bad.” She’s referring to the concept and practice of emotional agility.
So, what is emotional agility? According to Virgin Pulse, 2018 it is an individual’s ability to experience their thoughts, emotions and events in a way that doesn’t drive them to behave negatively, but instead encourages them to reveal the best of themselves. They say that it can be “a practical set of tools and a means of building resilience.”
Emotional agility is a two-part process: 1) emotional identification (ie. knowing the emotion you’re feeling) and 2) emotional navigation (ie. knowing how to manage the emotion in mindful, values-driven, productive ways). You have to be able to name the emotion before you can navigate it effectively. There are thousands of words to describe our experiences, feelings, and thoughts and research is highlighting the importance for describing our inner experiences so we can focus on the navigation part more exclusively.
This 2-part process is more involved than what it may seem on the surface. Some of us have a difficult time identifying emotions – because, let’s face it, it’s not like many of us were taught much about emotions in any helpful way. So, it makes sense that we have very little idea for how to traverse emotions.
Here’s an example to bring this concept to life. I used to rock climb. Anyone who has rock climbed in a gym or out in nature knows that it’s trickier than it looks. It’s a mental and physical game. It requires practice and technique. Knowing how to move your body in a way that moves you up the cracks and holds on the wall can be intuitive, methodical, and is most likely based on previous experience. You might grab onto a hold, gripping to see if your fingers, hands, and arms can securely clamp down enough to keep you connected to the wall. You move your legs to adjust to your hand placements. This is all happening synergistically and involves a body-mind level of attention. Micro-movements are what facilitate ascending the wall. Sometimes the hold or crack is too small, too big, or awkward and you drop. Ideally, you have a belay partner there to ensure your safety.
Rock climbing is like emotional agility. You are constantly assessing your emotional fortitude, which is the art of examining one’s own thoughts and emotions surrounding a decision in order to consider those thoughts and emotions themselves as inputs to the decision-making process (Deloitte, 2020).
So, how does a person become more emotionally agile? A Harvard Business Review article written by Dr. Susan David addresses four main components to building this skill – yes, this is something that can be learned! These four components are 1) recognize your patterns, 2) label your thoughts and emotions, 3) accept them, and 4) act on your values.
1) Recognize your patterns includes tracking your behaviors and decisions to see trends that exist. So, if you get angry at a coworker for making a rude remark and you lash out, that might create even more tension at work. You might decide to quit, or you might get fired. The next job you have seems great at first, but then your boss makes comments you just can’t dismiss and react impulsively one day. Do you see this pattern and the potential for repeated behaviors, without introspection?
2) Label your thoughts and emotions involves naming the thoughts and emotions arising in you throughout the day. As you get your kids ready for school, you tend to experience a feeling of ‘hurriedness’, feeling rushed to get out the door. You might label this emotion “stressed” because you want to get everyone to their respective locations on time and feel pressure to do so. You may label the emotion “excited” because they like school and you enjoy seeing them flourish. You may label the emotion “lonely” because the hurriedness is a reminder that you’re a single parent and have to do all the parenting alone.
3) Accepting them is allowing for whatever thought or emotion surfaces, without trying to change it. When we can make peace with the current emotion, we’re more able to move through it. It’s energy in motion = e-motion. The emotion is a visitor that stays for only a short while. You acknowledge its presence and say, “Thank you. Goodbye.”
4) Acting on your values is a process whereby you are behaving in-line with your value-system, instead of thoughts and emotions. We all have a set of values we live by. They may change from time to time, but essentially these are the tenets by which you live. Integrity, honesty, courage, responsibility, and transparency are some examples of values. Knowing yours will give you the power to make decisions from that place, instead of an emotional place.
Lisa Feldman Barrett talks about “Being the architect of your experience” and continues to say, ”You have the capacity to turn down the volume or brightness on emotional suffering.”
Ultimately, we’re working towards revealing our best selves and applying these four components to your personal and professional life makes that a possibility.