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Emotional Agility: A Key Skillset for Creating the Life You Want

It can be all too easy to be on “autopilot”, mindlessly filling our days with actions that aren’t aligned with the life we want to create or the person we want to become. One reason for this is an unhealthy relationship with our emotions, including a tendency to label them as “positive” or “negative”, as “good” or “bad”, which can lead to either trying to ignore or rationalize them away (a practice called bottling) or obsessing over them (brooding).  Psychologist and researcher Susan David teaches that developing what she calls emotional agilitycan make all the difference in successfully navigating the complexities of life to live with intention, be true to our values, and take steps toward a meaningful life.

Emotional agility is not about forcing positivity or trying to control our thoughts and emotions. Research has shown that these practices often backfire, actually making us feel worse.  Instead, emotional agility includes approaching your emotions with nonjudgmental curiosity, compassion, and the courage to make changes to live more aligned with your values.  David outlines four steps that can help this happen:

  1. Showing Up: Notice your thought/emotion without judging it or yourself (e.g., “I shouldn’t feel ____”) and without trying to suppress or fight it.  You can acknowledge thoughts without believing them as literally or entirely true, and you can recognize emotions without accepting them as hard directions.  
  2. Stepping Out: Put some mental distance between you and the thought/emotion so that you can gain perspective and understanding.  This might include saying such things as, “I notice I am feeling ____” rather than “I am____”.  Be curious about the thought, emotion, or story rather than letting it take over. What does it tell you about yourself and what matters to you? 
  3. Walking Your Why: Identify and act on your true values, which are freely chosen, active, and ongoing rather than fixed rules or goals.  Watch for choice points, forks in the road that offer opportunities to walk toward or away from what you really want, often in small but significant ways.
  4. Moving On: Making “tiny tweaks” in our mindset, motivations, and habits is more effective long-term than trying to drastically change overnight.  Experiment with small adjustments that are in line with your values. Lasting progress and meaningful change are most likely to be achieved when we “live at the edge or our ability”, challenging ourselves but not overwhelmed.

Having happiness be our main goal in life and trying to always “think positive” will likely lead to disappointment as well as unhealthy relationships with ourselves and those around us.  Our thoughts and emotions need not control our actions, but they are important, even if they are sometimes messy or difficult to work through.  We can start by allowing ourselves to acknowledge our emotional experiences with openness and compassion then exploring what they are telling us about our values.  From there, we can make “small, values-aligned shifts” in our daily choices that help us become our best and true selves.  

It’s not an easy process, and much of it will likely be uncomfortable – but then, as Susan David believes, “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”


David, S. (2016).  Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.  New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.

Research by: Kayla Clawson Alva


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