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Emotional agility: Why you need to stop trying to be so positive

“Emotional Agility.” This is perhaps a term you haven’t heard of before.

But it’s time you familiarize yourself with it.

We live in a culture so intent on stripping us of our vulnerability. Society has consciously — and so relentlessly — hardwired us to be strong.

We are taught that showing any kind of negative emotion means we are weak, incapable, and wrong.

But what if we told you that this sense of “moral correctness” is ineffective?

This toxic positivity prevents you from acquiring the skills you need to deal with the “real world.”

So imagine something different.

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What if we lived in a world where everyone is honest about how they feel? Where our emotions aren’t categorized between “good” or “bad.”

What if we were allowed, even encouraged to feel what we are feeling without being judged?

Psychologist Susan David perfectly explains why you need to stop trying to be positive all the time.

She suggests that this tyranny of toxic positivity has robbed us of the capability to properly deal with our emotions — affecting our daily actions, relationships, and ultimately, our happiness. That in fact, it has led us to constantly live in denial.

How can we fix this?

Watch her deeply-moving, humorous and insightful TED talk to know more about how emotional agility can help you lead a happier life.

The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage.

The World Health Organization tells us that depression is now the single leading cause of disability globally — outstripping cancer, outstripping heart disease. And at a time of greater complexity, unprecedented technological, political and economic change, we are seeing how people’s tendency is more and more to lock down into rigid responses to their emotions.”

Anger, sadness, grief – just a few of the emotions we are constantly told not to feel.

Naturally, we are predisposed to handle these emotions incorrectly. We respond by brooding on our feelings, letting it get stuck in our heads. Or we bottle them up and push them aside.

Why is this wrong?

“Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive. Women, to stop being so angry. And the list goes on. It’s a tyranny. It’s a tyranny of positivity. And it’s cruel. Unkind. And ineffective. And we do it to ourselves, and we do it to others.”

Dr. David believes that this response to negative emotion is unsustainable.

Research shows that ignoring or suppressing these emotions only allow them to get stronger. And this “amplification” actually incapacitates us from dealing with “the world as it is, not as it should be.”

Emotional Agility and How It Can Change Your Life

“Research now shows that the radical acceptance of all of our emotions — even the messy, difficult ones — is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and true, authentic happiness.”

“Emotional Agility” is not just about accepting your emotions and getting rid of the preconceived notion to classify them as good or bad.

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It’s a skill that could change the way you look at and handle life.

Here are the ways emotional agility can change your life.

1. You learn to be accurate with what you feel.

Labeling our emotions accurately can help us understand the precise cause of our feelings.

This allows us to activate what scientists call the “readiness potential” in our brain – the one that allows us to take actionable and concrete steps to move forward. Because ultimately, our emotions are data.

But more importantly, they are not “directives.”

We can control how our brains process the data.

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“We own our emotions, they don’t own us. When we internalize the difference between how I feel in all my wisdom and what I do in a values-aligned action, we generate the pathway to our best selves via our emotions.”

Acknowledge your emotions, but never give them power.

Don’t say “I am angry.” That only implies that you are the emotion. Instead say, “I am noticing that I’m feeling angry.”

You’ll no longer be confused about how you feel, but you’ll also notice a change in how people react to you.

2. It can improve your motivation and performance.

Yes. Emotional agility can be quite helpful to your passions and career.

How exactly?

Being emotionally attuned helps build “psychological safety” in the workplace.

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According to best-selling author and wellness teacher Michelle McQuaid:

“When you feel psychologically safe within yourself you can show yourself some kindness and self-compassion for your mistakes and disappointments.

“Rather than self-compassion being a sign of weakness or being too soft on yourself, it can help you be more honest and motivated to make improvements.”

David supports this sentiment, explaining:

“It’s really important for organizations to recognize that there can be no agility or adaptability without emotional agility. They need to develop greater humanity, and appreciation for the full range of human experience.”

3. It allows you to embrace change in a good way.

Here’s why we don’t like change:

We fear the new because it comes with uncertainty.

As humans, we don’t like being in situations we can’t control.

But the truth is, we simply can’t control life. Trying to do so will only cause a lot of pain and heartache.

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This is where emotional agility proves useful.

According to educator and organizational development consultant Donna Oti:

“Emotional agility enables us to navigate life’s twists and turns with self-acceptance, clear-sightedness, and an open mind.

The process isn’t about ignoring difficult emotions and thoughts. It’s about facing them courageously and compassionately, and then moving past them to ignite change in your life.”

We can’t expect to live by the same rules and believe they will work in every situation of our personal growth. Emotional agility can help us navigate change in a healthier and more progressive way.

4. It helps you achieve “mental balance.”

Here’s something interesting:

There’s a reason why we all feel that head-vs-heart dilemma. It has to do with the way our brains handle emotion.

Our brains are made up of two primary structures—the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.

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The limbic system controls the way our body reacts to emotions. This is the part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight reaction when we’re under stress. It basically helps us survive.

The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, handles emotions in a more sophisticated way. It’s the part of our brains that allow for logic and reasoning, which helps delay our actions, allowing us to define how we feel.

The problem for most people is that they allow the limbic system to take over.

According to Dave Gray, author, and visual thinking coach:

“When people are in the grip of fear, anxiety or depression, or chronic stress, they are unable to make realistic assessment[s] of situations. The prefrontal cortex goes ‘offline.’ Creative thinking and innovation, indeed, all higher-level brain functions, are stifled.”

To avoid this, you need to train your brain to achieve “mental balance.”

And this is only possible by developing emotional agility.

Emotional agility allows us to channel our emotions productively—by controlling how and when to respond to emotion. 

This way, you can avoid experiencing anxiety, stress, depression, and other psychological problems linked to our emotions.

How to develop emotional agility

emotional agility

We all could use some emotional agility, couldn’t we?

But how?

Emotional agility is something you can develop easily if you consciously think about it.

Here are 4 ways you can start:

1. “Allow” your emotions.

First of all, how do you expect to become emotionally agile if you keep suppressing how you feel?

You need to “allow” your emotions to come out and take space.

According to David:

“If we only have the psychological resources to basically focus on the good, and be happy, and try to shift our attitude to be happy, what it can actually do is take us away from the ability to learn about our emotions, to actually recognize that our emotions, while they may not be right, are still a resource.

“They often are telling us things about what we value in the world, and how we want to be, and move forward in the world.”

You need to allow yourself to recognize how you feel, instead of immediately labeling it as wrong or right. All emotions need to be weighed in equal measures, regardless if you deem them as “good” or “bad.”

2. Observe your “emotional patterns.”

Humans have a knack for developing patterns. They allow us to have some sense of control over our surroundings. After all, if we develop rules and habits, we’re less likely to fail.

But emotional patterns can hinder your ability to adapt to various situations in life.

If you want to become emotionally agile, you need to break your harmful emotional patterns.

David believes this is the key to unlock your emotional prowess, which is discussed thoroughly in her book Emotional Agility.

She says:

“I talk a fair amount about the importance of knowing what your why is, knowing what your values are, knowing what your authentic self is, and also being able to recognize when you are being constrained, either by your own story around that, or by expectations in a way that actually might not be serving you, or your career, or the organization.”

3. You are more than just your emotions.

Many people allow emotions to get the best of them. But the truth is, emotions are just one tiny part of you. They don’t have the power to affect you unless you tell them to.

One way to develop agility is to label them as simply emotions.

Susan David and human development specialist Christina Congleton advises:

“Labeling allows you to see your thoughts and feelings for what they are: transient sources of data that may or may not prove helpful.

“Humans are psychologically able to take this helicopter view of private experiences, and mounting scientific evidence shows that simple, straightforward mindfulness practice like this not only improves behavior and well-being but also promotes beneficial biological changes in the brain and at the cellular level.”

Simply put, you need to change your perspective on what your emotions are and how you allow them to manifest.

4. Act on your values, not on your emotions.

Lastly, you have to decide on how you act on your emotions.

Do you let them incapacitate you to do better? Or do you decide to do something about them?

You know the right answer.

Act on your personal values instead of allowing your emotions to dictate your actions.

According to David and Congleton:

“When you unhook yourself from your difficult thoughts and emotions, you expand your choices. You can decide to act in a way that aligns with your values. We encourage leaders to focus on the concept of workability.

“The mind’s thought stream flows endlessly, and emotions change like the weather, but values can be called on at any time, in any situation.”

Takeaway

Emotional Agility is all about being open to every human emotion. It’s a skill that allows us to ask necessary questions like, “What is my emotion telling me?” “Which actions lead me to a happier outcome?” “Which actions will be negative to my life?”

It’s about dealing with your emotions using compassion, open curiosity, and the courage to take actionable and values-connected steps.

Ultimately, emotional agility allows us to see ourselves in a crystal-clear way, one that will lead us to our most authentic life.

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Notable replies

  1. If a child is appropriately raised to manage their feelings, to feel compassion, empathy, patience, all the attributes that make them good people they will not enter the adult world as the typical basket cases we have now. I wonder how today’s 20-year-olds would do if transported to 1955 among others of this age? Could they read a newspaper, write a letter, get a job? The world is different today, but “character” still is the measure of the man or woman.

  2. @BillAmes I see many people write as you do, suggesting that the youth of the current generation lack many characteristics that people from earlier generations had.

    However, I see the opposite written many times as well, where people suggest that the youth of today are more creative and competent than the youth of previous generations. I suppose it’s hard to evaluate.

    I really enjoyed this article by @genefe on “emotional agility”. A few years ago we published the following article by @Ruda:

    It’s been one of our quite widely-read articles.

    This article on “emotional agility” is a pretty good companion piece, providing good advice for those who want to give up on “positive thinking” and embrace something a bit more grounded.

  3. I see an article like this “…positive thinking…” differently because I see the words differently. To me, positive thinking is what the astronauts did in Apollo 13; what they did to get home was “positive thinking.” They had something to do and took a very positive attitude about its success; their lives depended on it. In my life, it was always important to keep on attacking the problem, to be persistent. I even demonstrated that by my first pushing for improvements to Ideapod. My profession was to find problems, the “bugs” in both hardware and software. I was always sure things could be better. I get disappointed when I meet someone here or on Facebook, try to start a conversation, and find closed minds if I challenge their beliefs with technical facts they stop talking. That is why I avoid talking about politics or religion; they involve many beliefs. I will stick to science, science fiction, classical music, and my stories, the stories I am writing. There are still creative people in the world but fewer. If you observe a significant movie studio do a remake of something 20-30 years old, you tend to wonder why not something new? Where are the writers and actors and directors that compare to what was around when I was young, there do not seem to be any to speak of? When I look at the number of different people posting in this Idea Journal, and I see mostly me, I know that is not right. I think it is appreciated (I just got a new badge.) Finally, I tend to read words; literally, I assume that people use the words correctly. Here is a definition from the web:

    How can we develop positive thinking?

    Only use positive words when talking. …
    Push out all feelings that aren’t positive. …
    Use words that evoke strength and success. …
    Practice positive affirmation. …
    Direct your thoughts. …
    Believe you will succeed. …
    Analyze what went wrong.

    More items…•Oct 12, 2009

    When I see a headline like:
    The shaman Rudá Iandé reveals the dark side of “positive thinking.”
    Rudá Iandé reveals the truth about “positive thinking,” and what to do instead.

    My reaction is why anyone would disagree with the items in my list? Words have meaning; perhaps his “positive thinking” has a different sense? Thank you for taking the time to respond.

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Written by Genefe Navilon

Genefe Navilon is a writer, poet, and blogger. She graduated with a degree in Mass Communications at the University of San Jose Recoletos. Her poetry blog, Letters To The Sea, currently has 18,000 followers. Her work has been published in different websites and poetry book anthologies. She divides her time between traveling, writing, and working on her debut poetry book.

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