2 Skills for Emotional Agility

This week’s episode is inspired by Dr Brené Brown’s conversation with Dr Susan David on the Dare to Lead podcast. 

What is Emotional Agility?

Put simply, it’s the ability to move within the confines of your emotional experiences.

When emotions become overwhelming, we experience a feeling of being stuck. We don’t want to feel the way we feel but we can’t find a way to feel anything else. 

When you develop emotional agility, you’re able to manage your emotions in ways that allow you to move through them rather than getting stuck in them.

Two Skills to help develop Emotional Agility

1. Naming the Emotion

This may seem obvious but the ability to accurately name an emotion requires high levels of self-awareness.

For example, many of us use words like ‘stressed’, ‘overwhelmed’ and ‘depressed’ when the emotions we’re actually feeling would make more sense to us if we used a different word.

Imagine you’re getting ready to visit your parents and you say, “I’m feeling anxious about visiting them.” 

The word ‘anxiety’ makes the source of your feeling difficult to pinpoint and can lead you further into “emotional stuckiness”.

Dr Joan Rosenberg uses this labelling technique to help her patients slowly move through their anxious feelings. 

To do this, she asks them to find the specific feeling they might previously have labelled as anxiety. 

To start with, she uses a list of 8 uncomfortable emotions but there are more possible options than these. 

The 8 Uncomfortable Emotions
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Embarrassment
  • Sadness
  • Shame
  • Vulnerability
  • Helplessness
  • Disappointment

If we stick with the same example and now imagine that you identified the feeling as frustration, you can see how that naturally provides more wiggle room than “anxiety” does.

What are you frustrated about?

How can you communicate that frustration?

Have you ever tried to communicate that frustration?

The more questions the feeling elicits and the more curiosity you can bring to the experience, the more agility you will likely have – that is, the more options you will have to use the experience productively.

2. Using emotions as signposts

Using emotions productively means using them in such a way that you learn something about yourself, someone else or the situation and can do something to progress from the experience in a way that supports your values.

That’s where the second skill for emotional agility comes in – using emotions as signposts.

What is the emotion pointing towards?

That’s where the questions come in – what are you frustrated about? What does that tell you about what you value and what you need?

Rather than denying our emotions or trying to pretend we feel positive, using emotions as signposts can be enormously rewarding because thinking this way leads us to make the necessary changes, have the necessary conversations and seek support if we need it.

Toxic Positivity

Emotional agility requires us to respect and value our emotions.

Forcing yourself to be positive or look on the bright side can cause you to miss the opportunity to develop emotional agility and can actually keep you more stuck. 

That’s not to say “don’t be positive”. Rather it’s to say, don’t pretend you feel positive. 

Having a gratitude practice is enormously rewarding – but that is what it is: a practice. Ideally it is something you do regularly, almost as mental training. 

Your gratitude practice can help give you emotional agility because it can give you perspective when the uncomfortable emotions hit – but when they do, name them and figure out what they’re telling you. 

From there, you’re far more likely to move forward towards something valuable. 

Photo by Raul Petri on Unsplash

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