Emotional Agility by Susan David

“Emotional Agility” by Susan David

11 MinutesIn Book Reviews, Change

The book can be summarised as “how to better understand the unreliable narrator in your head, raise awareness of how not to waste energy wrestling with impulses, and make choices connected with what you value. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”.

Emotional agility: a process that allows you to be in the moment, and live in ways aligned to your intentions and values. To do this we need to:

  1. Show up: be willing to acknowledge what is currently going on
  2. Step out: recognise our thoughts for what they are – thoughts, often unreliable and unhelpful and not true
  3. Walk our why: get grounded in what really matters to us, ask and answer the “Big Question” – what matters to me in my life
  4. Move on: make tiny tweaks

Most common tactics that stop us Showing Up: both are exhausting and unproductive as they take up/eat up energy. We need to ensure that neither is our default coping strategy.

  1. Bottling: where we suppress, ignore, talk out, deny. We might think this gives us control but the reality is: it gives control to the emotions. We are unaware of our emotions but emotional leakage means it just comes out in other ways.
  2. Brooding: we cant let go; we compartmentalise; we are not in the present, looking backwards (worry looks forward).We lose perspective. We are aware of emotions but they can become a flood. We want to deal so we think about it, think, think, think and end up worrying about worrying

Remember, “bad moods” can be helpful: they can push us to reflect and grow, to take on new information and change our minds. If we force ourselves to “be happy” when we don’t feel we are, we are taking another form of avoidance, and we won’t grow.

How to show up: we don’t have to slay our demons, we just find a way to live with them. When we fully show up with awareness and acceptance, our worst demons back down and we end the tug of war of our thinking, by dropping the rope – or if we cant yet do that, we hold the rope lightly: “you cannot rebuild a city when its still under bombardment, but only when the attacks stop and peace prevails”. We stop the fight in our head, to start rebuilding.

We need self-compassion: eat right, exercise, sleep well etc. Self-acceptance doesn’t work well when we make comparisons. The trick here is to keep our eyes on “our own work”. Ask, How is your inner critic serving you.

Choose willingness: the greatest human triumph is to make room in our hearts for the joy and the pain. We cannot choose to control our desires; BUT we can choose not to waste energy wrestling with our impulses. The analogy: “you drive your care to the destination, with your unruly, bad influencers in the back seat, telling you to give in, give up, etc”. You know what those impulses are, you recognise them, but you don’t let them take over the steering wheel….

  1. How to step out. It is hard when our narratives are weeks, months or years old. We have to step back to see a different story. Here are some techniques:
  2. Think process: remind ourselves this is a long haul; challenge any absolutist statements (they “always/never…”) drawn from old stories – they are just stories, that we have become attached to, making them truths or facts in our heads.
  3. Get contradictory: start thinking the opposite – e.g. I love my career; I am responsible for this breakdown. Embrace and accept what comes up, this improves our tolerance for uncertainty
  4. Have a laugh
  5. Take someone else’s point of view: what would X say?
  6. Call it out: call out that we are hooked on a pattern of thinking that is not serving us “Im having the thought that….Im having the emotion that…”
  7. Talk about yourself in the third person


Walking our why. What are the things that most matter to us? There is the extrinsic which is a certain job status and wealth but true success is the intrinsic – love, kindness, community or relatedness. But if we don’t articulate the latter, the former are likely to drive us.

Values: these relate to quality not time e.g. I will bring love to my family interactions and I value being a productive worker (not, I will leave the office at 5.30). We are what we habitually do: should I go to sleep on time or indulge in another hour of Netflix? This is a choice point at which I can choose to walk towards my values – if articulated – or away from them. We have to make the choice though and loss is inherent in choice. We need to own this

Tiny tweaks. The most effective way to transform your life is to do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Change is a process, not an event.

Motivation: make something into a “want” through values, into a goal that assimilates with our core identity. Don’t say you “have to”, as this only builds mental resistance.



Nudges: decide on your choice architecture ahead of time. E.G. I will always walk X amount of flights of stairs before taking a lift;

Limit the exposure to temptation don’t open email before X; don’t buy the crisps or chocolate;

Piggyback add a new habit to an existing habit – take the team when you go for afternoon coffee;

Pre commit I will always send 3 business development emails on a Wednesday; if X brings up Y issue, I’m going to pause and reflect, not react.


Emotional Intelligence at Work

We need resilience to deal with the only two constants of each working day:

  • Ambiguity
  • Change

If we aren’t emotionally agile, we can become overwhelmed, defaulting to our first, best guess, to black and white thinking. The stress and the emotional strain leads to panic and guilt but also there is the false hope that somehow technology and multi-tasking will fix everything. They won’t.

What we need to do is “unhook” from work, if this is the level of stress we are feeling. This can come from either not caring enough, or caring too much:

The signs we are “hooked” at work:

  • We stay silent when we know something is going wrong
  • We busy ourselves with small tasks instead of looking at the bigger picture
  • We become apathetic
  • We make backhanded comments about colleagues/projects
  • We rely on assumptions and stereotypes
  • We don’t take agency over our own career development
  • We can’t let go of an idea or being “right” even when there is obviously a better course of action.

How to “show up” for work:

We need to ‘own’ our stress, not let our stress own us.

  • Stress exists and isn’t going anywhere
  • Is it stress or is it pressure? Dig into which one it is….
  • Stress is not who we are: “Im noticing I am feeling stressed” (versus “Im stressed”).

What is really going on? Are we exhausted? Frustrated? What is it trying to teach us – do we need to talk to our team, speak with someone above us… …or is it “the price of the ticket”, a not so pleasant aspect of a job we otherwise enjoy?

Emotional Labour: How congruent is your job with your values? The bigger the gap, the higher the emotional labour, the more unhappy you may become. The emotional labour will manifest, even if we believe we are “bottling” it up.

We can become so busy we can forget our “why” – the things that most matter to us, and these are the things we need to be “Peak Us”. Be explicit about these things and where you can find them in your role.


  • Emotions pass. They are transient. We do not have to invest them with meaning
  • Emotions are not scary. We are bigger than our emotions
  • Emotions are teachers. They contain information that can help us figure out what matters to me and others.

Please note, this book review is available as a pdf on request.

If you would like to receive these generally bi-monthly Thrive in Five newsletters, sign up here.