3 Ways To Practice Emotional Agility When Everything Is Up In The Air
Last week, I lost my temper when my son was pestering me to play with him and screamed; "STOP!" at the top of my lungs. His whole face collapsed. He turned red and started yelling hysterically as he ran out of the room. It was not my finest moment. I felt shame for screaming at my son. The shame grew when my husband told me he was on an important work call with his CEO, board members, and several investors that was interrupted when our son wailed outside the office door.
There have been several of these not-so-very-fine moments since the pandemic started. These outsize reactions happen daily, hourly, or sometimes by the minute. They seem to come out of nowhere and make me recognize that perhaps I am under more general duress than I realized.
Perhaps you are too.
Once the blissful delusion that we're in control crumbles, it's easy to start behaving in funky ways. Given the current uncertainty in our world, we need inner coping skills now more than ever, and yet we are also more emotionally challenged and depleted than ever before. It's like someone telling you that you need new tires when you're in the middle of a race.
How can you get off the track of emotional reactivity and learn healthier ways to cope when each day feels like a new crisis? The answer lies in cultivating emotional agility.
3 strategies for cultivating emotional agility during uncertain times.
Leadership coaches Susan David, Ph.D., and Christina Congleton first coined the term "emotional agility" in a Harvard Business Review article in 2013. It caught on quickly and was subsequently hailed as a "management idea of the year."
David describes emotional agility as the psychological skills critical to thriving in times of complexity and change. At its essence, emotional agility allows us to be healthy with ourselves, regardless of what's going on in the outside world.
According to David, there are three key skills you can practice to improve your emotional agility in uncertain times; acceptance, compassion, and curiosity. Here's how I'm using my background in mindfulness to apply each one to the unique time we're in right now:
Often, when we are overtaken by emotion, we fight it, suppress it, or get taken over by it and start making up stories.
When I recently missed summer camp registration for my kids, my inner dialogue said, "I am a terrible mother who is never organized enough to sign my kids up for summer camp; oh, and I am pissed at the patriarchy for setting up this whole system whereby mostly the moms are the ones doing these damn sign-ups in the first place."
But I am not that story. Emotional agility starts with recognizing that you are not your feelings.
When a tough mood passes through, it's like a gray cloud that has temporarily blocked the sunlight. You are not the cloud; you are the sky.
Labeling your thoughts and feelings is a powerful way to begin accepting what you are feeling without being overtaken by it. When you say, "I am sad," you become fused with sadness. It is now your identity. You are the gray cloud of sadness. When you say; "I notice that I'm feeling sadness," now you are more the observer. You are the sky. The gray cloud of sadness is simply passing through.
I've found that my mindfulness practice helps me approach my thoughts from this more objective place. Having a consistent meditation routine has helped me feel more centered, grounded, and able to respond to whatever life throws my way with greater acceptance. (I'm now teaching my method in a 30-day meditation challenge, if you're curious!).
The second key to emotional agility is noticing your emotions with compassion.
Imagine your best friend was facing a similar circumstance. What would you say to her? Then, see if you can offer those same kind words to yourself. My favorite self-compassion hack inspired by Jen Sincero has been to say to myself, "I'm just a little bunny, doing my best." Even though this sounds ridiculous, try it the next time you're being hard on yourself. It helps you access humor and playfulness, which makes it harder to stay in self-criticism.
Another technique David recommends is called emotion granularity. Instead of saying, "I'm stressed," see if you can peel back the layers and get more specific. Stressed is an umbrella term. There is a big difference between stressed and disappointed, or stressed and lonely, or stressed and I'm in the wrong job.
When you label your emotions more accurately, you can better understand the cause of that emotion and what you can be doing in relation to that emotion. If underneath your stress is loneliness, perhaps you are craving more intimacy and connection so it's important to reach out and call a friend. On the other hand, if behind your stress is disappointment, maybe it's time to have a difficult conversation with your boss or express your disappointment to someone.
The last step in emotional agility is to get curious in order to better understand how your emotion is pointing to your values. David says that the majority of difficult emotions are signposts to the things you care about most.
If watching the news fills you with rage, that rage might be a signpost that you value equity and fairness. If you feel guilt as a parent, it might be a signpost that you value connectedness and presence. Boredom can be a signpost for learning and growth. Difficult emotions are telling you something important about your values, and if you take the time to get curious, you will receive powerful insights into what matters most to you.
The next time you have a difficult emotion, ask yourself, "Hmm, what is this emotion trying to tell me that is important to me right now?"
If your emotion is telling you that you're upset with your boss or colleague, it doesn't mean you need to tell off your boss or suppress your anger and put on a happy face. As David says, "Emotions are data, not directives." Instead, ask what can bring you closer to creating the career and life you love? Get curious about what value that emotion is pointing you toward. That is the power of our emotions; they are guideposts to our deeper truth.
The bottom line.
During these uncertain times, we all benefit from anchoring in our values and treating our difficult emotions with compassion and acceptance. The good news is your uncomfortable feelings can be allies, not enemies, in the quest for a better life.
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