Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life is written by psychologist Dr. Susan David, and was recommended to me by Chris at Breathe Underwater. I was quite impressed with this book. Normally when I’m reading a book I intend to review I take notes as I’m reading of the points that stand out for me. I ended up with several pages of notes for this book, because there was a lot that resonated with me.
The book is written with a casual tone that makes it feel like an easy conversation. Research findings and terms from the field of psychology were explained in an accessible way. The concepts presented resemble the fundamentals of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), which I was already familiar with. Books in this genre can sometimes run the gamut from “out there” to boringly obvious, but this falls into that happy little place of common sense but insightful.
The author presents emotions as something that serve a useful purpose and help us to survive and thrive. Emotional agility involves responding to those emotions with clear judgment, and opening up a space between feeling and reacting that allows us to make reasoned decisions. The author identifies four key steps in gaining emotional agility:
- showing up: facing thoughts, emotions, and behaviours
- stepping out: being able to detach from and observe thoughts and emotions
- walking your why: making choices based on core values and goals
- moving on: making small tweaks influenced by values, and finding balance on the teeter-totter between challenge and competence
David identifies several common “hooks” that move us from facts to judgment, generating an autopilot response. These sounded oh so familiar to me. The hooks included blaming thoughts for one’s behaviour, “monkey-mindedness” (anticipatory thoughts turning into mock conversations predicting expected negative events), assumptions based on past negative circumstances, and wrongheaded righteousness (cutting off your nose to spite your face). She also describes two problematic responses to stress, which are often earned early in life: bottling things up, and brooding. I am most definitely a monkey-minded brooder.
The author challenges the idea that people should try to be happy and paste on a smile all the time. She points out that fakes smiles are actually not the same as genuine smiles; fake smiles don’t produce the contraction of certain muscles around the eyes that are not under voluntary control. Emotions that are thought of as negative actually serve constructive purposes, and David argues that trying to suppress them is counterproductive.
David explains the benefits of mindfulness. She encourages us to clearly identify our personal values, as all too often we tend to get swept up by social contagion into mindless decision-making. She also talked about motivation and how to achieve habit change.
In the teeter totter between over-competence (being excessively comfortable) and over-challenging/overwhelming ourselves, David suggest that we aim for being “whelmed”. She warned against “dead people goals”, i.e. goals like “not being anxious” that a dead person could achieve. She suggested that while grit and perseverance can be useful, emotional agility also involves knowing when to give up and move on.
There are chapters specifically devoted to emotional agility at work and raising emotionally agile kids While she made some good points in the chapter about work, there were a few things that didn’t quite ring true for me; in particular, she suggested that people should speak up about organizational issues rather than staying quiet. I’ve worked in organizations that actively attacked employees that raised concerns about the status quo, so I’m just not buying this suggestion.
David concludes the book with a series of suggestions on how to be emotionally agile, including accepting yourself with compassion, welcoming your inner experience, accepting that love & hurt and success & failure are inexorably intertwined, and releasing narratives that no longer serve you. While these suggestions may not be easy, they provide some useful areas to work on.
I would say this book is well worth a read. Besides being consistent with ACT, there is some overlap with principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT), and I think there are useful points that would apply across a variety of mental health conditions. Two thumbs up for this book!
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