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In South Africa, "sawubona" is the Zulu word for "hello." There's a beautiful and powerful intention behind the word because "sawubona" literally translated means, "I see you, and by seeing you, I bring you into being." So beautiful, imagine being greeted like that. But what does it take in the way we see ourselves? Our thoughts, our emotions and our stories that help us to thrive in an increasingly complex and fraught world?
How we deal with our inner world drives everything. Every aspect of how we love, how we live, how we parent and how we lead. The conventional view of emotions as good or bad, positive or negative, is rigid. And rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic. We need greater levels of emotional agility for true resilience and thriving.
Life's beauty is inseparable from its fragility. We are young until we are not. We walk down the streets sexy until one day we realize that we are unseen. We nag our children and one day realize that there is silence where that child once was, now making his or her way in the world. We are healthy until a diagnosis brings us to our knees. The only certainty is uncertainty, and yet we are not navigating this frailty successfully or sustainably.
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.
On the one hand we might obsessively brood on our feelings. Getting stuck inside our heads. Hooked on being right. Or victimized by our news feed. On the other, we might bottle our emotions, pushing them aside and permitting only those emotions deemed legitimate.
In a survey Susan David conducted with over 70,000 people, she found that a third of us - a third! - either judge ourselves for having so-called "bad emotions," like sadness, anger or even grief, or actively try to push aside these feelings. We do this not only to ourselves, but also to people we love, like our children - we may inadvertently shame them out of emotions seen as negative, jump to a solution, and fail to help them to see these emotions as inherently valuable.
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.
Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification. Like that delicious chocolate cake in the refrigerator -- the more you try to ignore it the greater its hold on you. You might think you're in control of unwanted emotions when you ignore them, but in fact they control you. Internal pain always comes out. Always. And who pays the price? We do. Our children, our colleagues, our communities
When we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Susan David has had hundreds of people tell her what they don't want to feel. They say things like, "I don't want to try because I don't want to feel disappointed." Or, "I just want this feeling to go away."
"I understand," she says to them. "But you have dead people's goals."
Only dead people never get unwanted or inconvenienced by their feelings.
Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don't get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful 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. But emotional agility is more that just an acceptance of emotions. Researchers also know that accuracy matters.
In her own research, Susan David found that words are essential. We often use quick and easy labels to describe our feelings. "I'm stressed" is the most common one. But there's a world of difference between stress and disappointment or stress and that knowing dread of "I'm in the wrong career." When we label our emotions accurately, we are more able to discern the precise cause of our feelings. And what scientists call the readiness potential in our brain is activated, allowing us to take concrete steps. But not just any steps -- the right steps for us. Because our emotions are data.
Our emotions contain flashing lights to things that we care about. We tend not to feel strong emotion to stuff that doesn't mean anything in our worlds. If you feel rage when you read the news, that rage is a signpost, perhaps, that you value equity and fairness -- and an opportunity to take active steps to shape your life in that direction. When we are open to the difficult emotions, we are able to generate responses that are values-aligned.
But there's an important caveat. Emotions are data, they are not directives. We can show up to and mine our emotions for their values without needing to listen to them. Just like you can show up to your son in his frustration with his baby sister -- but not endorse his idea that he gets to give her away to the first stranger he sees in a shopping mall.
We own our emotions, they don't own us. When we internalize the difference between how we feel in all our wisdom and what we do in a values-aligned action, we generate the pathway to our best selves via our emotions.
When you feel a strong, tough emotion, don't race for the emotional exits. Learn its contours, show up to the journal of your hearts. What is the emotion telling you? And try not to say "I am," as in, "I'm angry" or "I'm sad." When you say "I am" it makes you sound as if you are the emotion. Whereas you are you, and the emotion is a data source. Instead, try to notice the feeling for what it is: "I'm noticing that I'm feeling sad"or "I'm noticing that I'm feeling angry." These are essential skills for us, our families, our communities. They're also critical to the workplace.
In Susan David’s research, when she looked at what helps people to bring the best of themselves to work, she found a powerful key contributor: individualized consideration. When people are allowed to feel their emotional truth, engagement, creativity and innovation flourish in the organization. Diversity isn't just people, it's also what's inside people. Including diversity of emotion.
The most agile, resilient individuals, teams, organizations, families, communities are built on an openness to the normal human emotions. It's this that allows us to say, "What is my emotion telling me?" "Which action will bring me towards my values?" "Which will take me away from my values?" Emotional agility is the ability to be with your emotions with curiosity, compassion, and especially the courage to take values-connected steps.
See your emotions. Bring them into being. Because in seeing yourself, you are also able to see others, too: the only sustainable way forward in a fragile, beautiful world.
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
Psychologist Susan David shares how the way we deal with our emotions shapes everything that matters: our actions, careers, relationships, health and happiness. In this deeply moving, humorous and potentially life-changing talk, she challenges a culture that prizes positivity over emotional truth and discusses the powerful strategies of emotional agility.
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