This book by Susan David is a step-by-step guide to emotional agility. It helps you to manage difficult feelings, cope with change and uncertainty, build fulfilling relationships, make positive changes, achieve your goals, and live life to the fullest. In this free Emotional Agility summary, you’ll learn what is emotional agility, how to break free from unproductive patterns, and thrive in life.
Moving from Emotional Rigidity to Emotional Agility
What is Emotional Agility?
Emotional rigidity is about being so fixated on certain feelings or perspectives that we close ourselves off to alternatives and new possibilities. We stick rigidly to the same path even if it leads to unhappiness, unproductive behaviors, anxiety or even depression.
Emotional agility is about being flexible with your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Emotionally-agile people are aware of their thoughts, feelings, core values and long-term goals. This helps them to see things in perspective, consider the big picture, tailor their response for the situation, and cope with change and uncertainty.
Dr Susan David is a psychologist and executive coach who has been studying human emotions and interactions for >20 years. In this book, she explains how we get “hooked” to unproductive patterns, and how to unhook yourself with 4 steps to thrive in life. Here’s a visual summary of what’s involved:
Developing Emotional Agility
Why/How We Get Hooked
The human brain receives billions of sensory inputs daily. To make sense of these inputs, our brain organizes them into stories. We think in narratives, e.g. “When I stepped into the room, Chloe was writing a report. When I told her X, she replied Y, and then….”
Stories help us to make sense of our world. Yet, our stories can be inconsistent, biased, or even delusional. Consider these examples:
• “My parents got divorced after they had me. I’m the reason they split up.”
• “Everyone knows how important that client meeting was, yet Joe couldn’t be bothered to show up on time. If we lose the deal it’s all his fault.”
Can you see the flawed assumptions in the examples above? Unfortunately, we don’t usually notice the stories we conjure. We simply accept them as the truth.
What is a hook?
In Hollywood movies, a hook refers to something that grabs the audience’s attention and drives the story. In real life, a hook refers to something in our mental stories that trap us in an unproductive thought/behavioral pattern.
We all have an internal commentator that constantly judges and criticizes everything. Once you start to listen to your mental chatter, a random thought can become a persistent hook, because the thought calls additional memories, images, and assumptions, which lead to a wave of emotions that hook you.
We’re more likely to get hooked when we’re stressed, distracted, or in an “autopilot” mode. That’s when we fall back on habitual thinking patterns and mental shortcuts. [Learn more about mental shortcuts in Thinking, Fast and Slow summary.]
We try to hide, deny, or escape from “negative” feelings. Yet, feelings are neither “good” nor “bad” in themselves. They serve as our internal radar to help us process our responses to external signals.
In our complete Emotional Agility summary bundle, you’ll also get more details on:
• The 4 most common hooks;
• Why we fail to unhook by bottling our negative thoughts/emotions or brooding on them;
• The role of human emotions; and
• Examples of emotional agility vs rigidity.
How to unhook with 4 steps for emotional agility
Emotional agility is about recognizing, accepting and learning from all your feelings, including the difficult ones. Specifically, there are 4 steps to get unhooked: show up, step out, walk your why, and move on.
Now, let’s briefly outline the 4 steps for emotional agility. Each step comes with specific strategies and techniques that you can apply in real life.
STEP 1: SHOWING UP
Showing up is about facing your thoughts, feelings, desires and experiences with curiosity and compassion. Accept all facets of yourself, including your darker side. This requires you to practice self-compassion, and to make peace with both your pain and your impulses. Learn:
• What self-compassion is and isn’t, and how to start being more compassionate to yourself;
• Why it’s futile to fight your impulses or resist your pain; and
• How to learn from your thoughts and feelings.
STEP 2: STEPPING OUT
When you’re hooked, your thoughts, feelings, memories and stories are all tangled up. Step out to evaluate things from a distance, see the big picture and identify new possibilities. Learn:
• How to observe your thoughts and feelings with courage and curiosity; and
• Create a space between you and your thoughts or feelings; and
• Shift to flexibility.
STEP 3: WALKING YOUR WHY
Focus on your core values and the most important long-term goals, instead of others’ expectations. Reject all obligations and distractions that hinder those values/goals. Learn:
• Why our decisions are often not our own;
• How to identify your values and use them as a guide for consistent, meaningful decisions; and
• What it means to live your values through your daily decisions and actions.
STEP 4: MOVING ON
Move forward with tiny, intentional tweaks, and push your limits by operating at the edge of your abilities. This involves 2 main principles:
• The tiny tweaks principle says that the best way to navigate your life is not through radical changes, but tiny shifts that compound over time. Specifically, Susan David explains how you can make small tweaks in 3 key areas (your mindset, motivation, and habits), 1 baby step at a time. [Learn more about changing mindsets and habits in our Mindset summary and Atomic Habits summary.]
• We get complacent if we’re too familiar with a task. On the other hand, we get overwhelmed if we juggle too many unfamiliar tasks. The see-saw principle (or teeter-totter principle) says that to thrive, you must balance between over-competence and over-challenge. Susan David explains how to achieve that balance by operating at the edge of your ability, choosing courage over comfort, and looking for viable solutions given your short-term constraints.
Getting Most from the Book Emotional Agility
Besides the insights above, Susan David also elaborates on how you can (i) apply emotional agility at the workplace and (ii) raise emotionally agile children. If you’re ready to learn more about each of the 4 steps to emotional agility and to start applying them, do check out the our full book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 14-page text summary, and a 25-minute audio summary.
The book is full of stories, cases studies, research studies and examples to illustrate how we get hooked, and how to apply the 4 steps to unhook yourself and thrive with emotional agility. You can purchase the book here or visit susandavid.com for more details.
About the author of Emotional Agility
Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life was written by Susan David, PhD — a South African psychologist, speaker and author. She’s a psychologist on faculty at Harvard Medical School, the co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, and the CEO of Evidence Based Psychology. Susan David has worked with leaders in hundreds of organizations such as the United Nations, Ernst & Young, and the World Economic Forum. She holds a BA in Applied Psychology & English and a MA in Psychology from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, as well as a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Melbourne. She conducted her post-doctoral research in emotions at Yale University.
Emotional Agility Quotes
“Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.”
“We can’t change ourselves or our circumstances until we accept what exists right now. Acceptance is a prerequisite for change.”
“It’s only when we stop trying to control the universe that we make peace with it.”
“Your core values provide the compass that keeps you moving in the right direction.”
“By knowing who you are and what you stand for, you come to life’s choices with the most powerful tool of all: your full self.”
“A malleable sense of self is a cornerstone of emotional agility.”
“The most effective way to transform your life…[is] by doing what you can, with what you have, where you are.”