Time To Get Emotional
February 21, 2020
Emotional Agility by Susan David. I refer to this book as my bible (in a very secular and humorous way!). It has given me the knowledge to understand myself better and to make changes that have brought me a lot of joy. It helped me to understand that I was an emotionally rigid person who believed that showing any negative emotions was a sign of weakness. Since most of our emotions are negative, inside I was a balloon that was inflated to its limit. Nothing good happens at that point. I am please to report that my balloon is rather deflated these days. 😎
The following is a detailed summary of the book. I was a bit selfish in putting this document together as I expect I will refer to it often in the future. And while it is long, it is shorter than re-reading the entire book.🤓
I know so many emotionally agile people that I am not sure how useful this summary will be to them. But perhaps somebody will find a kernel in here that may help them live a more emotionally agile and joyful life. If you ruminate, brood, haven't reassessed your values for awhile, feel like you are in a rut, feel more pessimistic than optimistic, this summary might be useful to you.
This material is definitely from the deeper end.
Chapter 1 – From Rigidity to Agility
o As we travel through our lives, we have few ways of knowing which course to take or what
o We do have our emotions - sensations like fear, anxiety, joy, and exhilaration - a
neurochemical system that evolved to help us navigate life’s complex currents. Emotions
are our body’s immediate physical responses to important signals from the outside world.
o These physical “embodied” responses keep our inner state and our outward behavior in
sync with the situation at hand. They can help us not only survive but also flourish. Our
natural guidance system, which developed through evolutionary trial and error over millions of years, is a great deal more useful when we don’t try to fight it. But that’s not always easy to do, because our emotions are not always reliable.
o Emotions can dredge up old business, confusing our perception of what’s happening in the moment with painful past experiences. These powerful sensations can take over completely, clouding our judgment and steering us right onto the rocks. [You might remember an earlier blog post about the face off between the lighthouse and the ship - that is from the opening of this book.]
o Many people, much of the time, operate on emotional autopilot, reacting to situations without true awareness or even real volition.
- Others are acutely aware that they expend too much energy trying to contain or suppress their emotions, treating them at best like unruly children and at worst as threats to their well-being.
- Still others feel their emotions are stopping them from achieving the kind of life they want, especially when it comes to those feelings that we find troublesome, such as anger, shame, and anxiety.
o In time, our responses to signals from the real world can become increasingly faint and unnatural, leading us off course instead of protecting our best interests.
o When many people are asked how long they’ve been trying to get in touch with, fix, or cope with their particularly challenging emotions or the situations that give rise to them, they’ll often say five, or ten, or even twenty years. Sometimes the answer is, “Ever since I was a little kid.” To which the obvious response is, “So, would you say that what you’re doing is working?”
o The goal of this book is to help you:
- become more aware of your emotions,
- learn to accept and make peace with them, and
- flourish by increasing your emotional agility.
o The tools and techniques I’ve brought together won’t make you a perfect person who never says the wrong thing or never gets wracked by feelings of shame, guilt, anger, anxiety, or insecurity. Striving to be perfect - or always perfectly happy - will only set you up for frustration and failure. Instead, I hope to help you come to terms with even your most difficult emotions, enhance your ability to enjoy your relationships, achieve your goals, and live your life to the fullest.
o Rigid reactions may come from buying into the old, self-defeating story you’ve told yourself a million times: “I am such a loser,” or “I always say the wrong thing,” or “I always fold when it’s time to fight for what I deserve.”
o Rigidity may come from the perfectly normal habit of taking mental shortcuts and accepting presumptions and rules of thumb that may have served you once - in childhood, in a first marriage, at an earlier point in your career - but aren’t serving you now: “People can’t be trusted.” “I’m going to get hurt.”
o Emotional rigidity = getting hooked by thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that don’t serve us - is associated with a range of psychological ills, including depression and anxiety.
o Meanwhile, emotional agility - being flexible with your thoughts and feelings so that you can respond optimally to everyday situations - is key to well-being and success.
o Emotional agility is not about controlling your thoughts or forcing yourself into thinking more positively. Trying to get people to change their thoughts from, say, the negative (“I’m going to screw up this presentation”) to the positive (“You’ll see - I’ll ace it”), usually doesn’t work, and can actually be counterproductive.
o Emotional agility is about loosening up, calming down, and living with more intention. It’s about choosing how you’ll respond to your emotional warning system.
o Emotional agility supports the approach described by Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who survived a Nazi death camp and went on to write Man’s Search for Meaning, on leading a more meaningful life, a life in which our human potential can be fulfilled:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” [He actually never said these exact words but that's another story.]
o Emotionally agile people are dynamic. They demonstrate flexibility in dealing with our fast-changing, complex world. They are able to tolerate high levels of stress and to endure setbacks, while remaining engaged, open, and receptive. They understand that life isn’t always easy, but they continue to act according to their most cherished values and pursue their big, long-term goals. They still experience feelings of anger, sadness, and so on - who doesn’t? - but they face these with curiosity, self-compassion, and acceptance. And rather than letting these feelings derail them, emotionally agile people effectively turn themselves - warts and all - toward their loftiest ambitions.
o Just about everyone is stressed-out and overloaded with the demands of career, family, health, finances, and a slew of other personal pressures along with large societal forces such as an unsettled economy, rapid cultural change, and a never-ending onslaught of disruptive technologies that distract us at every turn.
o Many of us feel all the time that the demands of modern life make them feel caught, hooked, and flipping like fish on a line. They want to do something bigger with their lives. [Hell yeah!]
o But their day-to-day actions don’t move them anywhere closer to (and in fact are often completely misaligned with) these desires. Even as they struggle to find and embrace what’s right for themselves, they are trapped not only by their actual circumstances but also by their own self-defeating thoughts and behaviors.
o Trying to correct troubling thoughts and feelings leads us to obsess unproductively on them.
- Trying to smother them can lead to a range of ills from busywork to any number of self- soothing addictions.
- And trying to change them from negative to positive is an almost surefire way to feel worse.
- Many people turn to self-help books or courses to deal with their emotions, but a lot of these programs get self-help completely wrong.
- Those that tout positive thinking are particularly off base. Trying to impose happy thoughts is extremely difficult, if not impossible, because few people can just turn off negative thoughts and replace them with more pleasant ones.
- Also, this advice fails to consider an essential truth: Your so-called negative emotions are often actually working in your favor. In fact, negativity is normal.
o Emotional agility is a process that allows you to be in the moment, changing or maintaining your behaviors to live in ways that align with your intentions and values. The process isn’t about ignoring difficult emotions and thoughts. It’s about holding those emotions and thoughts loosely, facing them courageously and compassionately, and then moving past them to make big things happen in your life.
o The process of gaining emotional agility unfolds in four essential movements:
- There is a saying that 80 percent of success is simply showing up. “Showing up” means facing into your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors willingly, with curiosity and kindness. Some of these thoughts and emotions are valid and appropriate to the moment; some are not.
- The second element is detaching from and observing them to see them for what they are - just thoughts, just emotions. By doing this we create Frankl’s open, nonjudgmental space between our feelings and how we respond to them. We can also identify difficult feelings as we’re experiencing them and find more appropriate ways of reacting.
- Detached observation keeps our transient mental experiences from controlling us.
- The broader view we gain by stepping out means learning to see yourself as the chessboard, filled with possibilities, rather than as any one piece on the board, confined to certain preordained moves.
WALKING YOUR WHY
- You can begin to focus more on what you’re really all about: your core values, your . most important goals.
- Recognizing, accepting, and then distancing ourselves from the scary, or painful, or disruptive emotional stuff gives us the ability to engage more of the “take the long view” part of us, which integrates thinking and feeling with long-term values and aspirations, and can help us find new and better ways of getting there.
- You make thousands of decisions every day. Should you go to the gym after work or skip it in favor of happy hour? Should you take the call from the friend who hurt your feelings or send him to voice mail? I call these small decision moments choice points. Your core values provide the compass that keeps you moving in the right direction.
- Traditional self-help tends to see change in terms of lofty goals and total transformation, but research actually supports the opposite view: that small, deliberate tweaks infused with your values can make a huge difference in your life. This is especially true when we tweak the routine and habitual parts of life, which, through daily repetition, then afford tremendous leverage for change.
- The ultimate goal of emotional agility is to keep a sense of challenge and growth alive and well throughout your life.
Chapter 2 – Hooked
o Every minute of every day we’re writing the scripts that get screened at the Cineplex inside our heads. Only in our own life stories, getting hooked doesn’t imply the excitement of being on the edge of your seat. It means being caught by a self-defeating emotion, thought, or behavior.
o The human mind is a meaning-making machine, and a big part of being human involves laboring to make sense of the billions of bits of sensory information bombarding us every day.
o Our way of making sense is to organize all the sights and sounds and experiences and relationships swirling around us into a cohesive narrative.
o The narratives serve a purpose: We tell ourselves these stories to organize our experiences and keep ourselves sane. The trouble is, we all get things wrong.
o In scripting our own stories we all take liberties with the truth. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
o We then accept these persuasive self-accounts without question, as if they were the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
o These are stories that, regardless of their veracity, may have been scribbled on our mental chalkboards in third grade, or even before we could walk or talk.
o We crawl into these fables and let a sentence or a paragraph, which may have originated thirty or forty years ago and never been objectively tested and verified, represent the totality of our lives.
o There are about as many of these confused scenarios as there are people.
o It isn’t just that these dubious, not-always-accurate stories we tell ourselves leave us conflicted or waste our time or result in some chilly days around the house. The bigger issue is the conflict between the world these stories describe and the world we want to live in, the world where we could truly thrive.
o During the average day, most of us speak around sixteen thousand words. But our thoughts - our internal voices - produce thousands more. This voice of consciousness is a silent but tireless chatterbox, secretly barraging us with observations, comments, and analyses without pause.
o Moreover, this ceaseless voice is what literature professors call an unreliable narrator.
o Our own internal narrator may be biased, confused, or even engaged in willful self- justification or deception. Even worse, it will not shut up. You may be able to stop yourself from sharing every thought that pops into your head, but stopping yourself from having those thoughts in the first place? Good luck.
o While we often accept the statements bubbling up from within this river of incessant chatter as being factual, most are actually a complex mixture of evaluations and judgments, intensified by our emotions. Some of these thoughts are positive and helpful; others are negative and unhelpful. In either case, our inner voice is rarely neutral or dispassionate.
o What makes getting hooked almost inevitable is that so many of our responses are just as reflexive.
o The hook is usually a situation you encounter in your day-to-day life. It might be a tough conversation with your boss, an interaction with a relative that you’ve been dreading, an upcoming presentation, a discussion with your significant other about money, a child’s disappointing report card, or maybe just ordinary rush-hour traffic.
o Then there is your autopilot response to that situation. You might say something sarcastic, or shut down and avoid your feelings, or procrastinate, or walk away, or brood, or pitch a screaming fit. When you automatically respond in whatever unhelpful way you do, you’re hooked.
o Getting yourself hooked begins when you accept thoughts as facts.
- I’m no good at this.
- I always screw it up.
- Often, you then start avoiding situations that evoke those thoughts. I’m not even going to try.
- Or you may endlessly replay the thought. The last time I tried it was so humiliating.
- Sometimes, perhaps following the well-meaning advice of a friend or a family member, you attempt to will these thoughts away. I shouldn’t have thoughts like this. It’s counterproductive.
- Or, soldiering on, you force yourself to do what you dread, even when it’s the hook itself, not anything you genuinely value, that’s driving the action. I’ve got to try. I’ve got to learn to like this, even if it kills me.
o All this internal chatter is not only misleading; it’s exhausting. It’s sapping important mental resources you could put to much better use. Adding to the “hooking” power of our thoughts is the fact that so many of our mental habits are actually hardwired to merge with our emotions and produce a turbocharged response.
o Our capacity for sensory blending doesn’t just help poets and writers come up with engaging turns of phrase. It also, unfortunately, sets up all of us to get and stay hooked. That’s because we don’t experience our thoughts with a flat, Mr. Spock–like neutrality: “I just had the thought that I am being undermined by a rival. How interesting.”
o Instead, thoughts come fully accessorized with visual images, symbols, idiosyncratic interpretations, judgments, inferences, abstractions, and actions.
o This gives our mental life a vibrant intensity, but it can also take away our objectivity and leave us at the mercy of intrusive ideas—whether they’re true or not, and whether they are . . helpful or not.
o The vivid, Technicolor nature of our cognitive processing, blended with and ramped up by emotion, is an evolutionary adaptation that served us well when snakes and lions and hostile neighboring tribes were out to get us. Under threat from an enemy or a predator, your average hunter-gatherer couldn’t afford to waste time with Spock-like abstraction -“I am under threat. How should I evaluate my options?”
o The kind of responses our ancient ancestors needed to stay alive required that they feel danger viscerally, grasping the meaning in a way that led automatically to a predictable response driven by the endocrine system’s fuel-injection process: the freeze-or-fight-or- flight response.
o This incredible blending facility, however, also predisposes us to getting hooked. In today’s world, thankfully, most of our problems, even most of our threats, are vague and long-term.
o Because of the emotions associated, our thoughts, even the mildest “slice of life” scenarios projected in our heads - a couple getting older, a high school girl in love - become triggers that can evoke an autopilot response of high anxiety, dread, and the feeling of immediate threat.
o An emotional punch is just one of the many “special effects” that give such enormous power to the scripts we write to make sense of our lives, even when the plot is pure fiction. The poet John Milton summed it up in the seventeenth century: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
o So the question for us going forward is: Who’s in charge—the thinker or the thought?
o Then again, part of our problem might be simply the way our thoughts are processed.
o Humans love to create mental categories and then fit objects, experiences, and even people into them. If something doesn’t fit in a category, it goes into the category of “things that don’t fit.”
o But when we become too comfortable with - and habituated to - rigid, preexisting categories, we’re using what psychologists term premature cognitive commitment, which is a habitual, inflexible response to ideas, things, and people, even ourselves. These quick and easy categories, and the snap judgments they lead to, are often called heuristics, but “rules of thumb” works just as well. Heuristics range from reasonable prohibitions - “I don’t eat mezes from outdoor cafés in Istanbul in August” - to pernicious blinders like racial or class prejudice and to self-limiting fun stealers like “I don’t dance.”
o Heuristics kick in the moment we meet someone and immediately begin to determine whether we want to get to know her better or steer clear. And as it turns out, we are very good at instinctively sizing up people. The evaluations we make in these scant few seconds, based on very little evidence, are usually pretty accurate. And, as studies have shown, a subject’s first impressions of an unknown person often prove consistent with personality assessments made by the person’s friends and family.
o If we lacked the predictive ability of heuristics (“strong handshake, nice smile—seems like a nice guy”) and needed to consciously process every facial expression, conversation, and piece of information anew, we’d have no time for actually living life.
o In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman described the human mind as operating in two basic modes of thought.
- System 1 thoughts are typically fast, automatic, effortless, associative, and implicit, which means they are not available to immediate introspection. They often carry a lot of emotional weight and are ruled by habit and, as a result, are very good at getting us hooked.
- System 2 thoughts are slower and more deliberative. They require much more effort and a deeper level of attention. They are also more flexible and amenable to rules that we consciously establish. It is these System 2 operations that allow us to create the space between stimulus and response that Victor Frankl spoke of, the space that provides for the full expression of our humanity and allows us to thrive.
o Some intuitive responses arise from practice and skill.
o But System 1 gut responses have a dark side. When heuristics begin to dominate the way we process information and behave, we wind up applying our rules of thumb in inappropriate ways, which makes us less able to detect unusual distinctions or new opportunities. We lack agility.
o The lesson: Once our minds slip into default mode, it takes a great deal of flexibility to override this state. This is why specialists are often the last ones to notice commonsense solutions to simple problems, a limitation economist Thorstein Veblen called the “trained incapacity” of experts. Inflated confidence leads old hands to ignore contextual information, and the more familiar an expert is with a particular kind of problem, the more likely he is to pull a prefabricated solution out of his memory bank rather than respond to the specific case at hand.
o People who are hooked into a particular way of thinking or behaving are not really paying attention to the world as it is. They are insensitive to context—whatever the context. Rather, they’re seeing the world as they’ve organized it into categories that may or may not have any bearing on the situation at hand.
o Being emotionally agile involves being sensitive to context and responding to the world as it is right now.
o When we are not in charge of our own lives, when we’re not acting according to our own thoughtful volition and with the full range of options that a perceptive intelligence can conjure, that’s when we get hooked.
o HOOK #1: THOUGHT-BLAMING
- When we are not in charge of our own lives, when we’re not acting according to our own thoughtful volition and with the full range of options that a perceptive intelligence can conjure, that’s when we get hooked.
- The speaker blames his or her thoughts for his or her actions—or inactions. When you start thought-blaming, there’s not enough space between stimulus and response, in Frankl’s terms, for you to exercise real choice. Thoughts in isolation do not cause behavior. Old stories don’t cause behavior. We cause our behavior.
o HOOK #2: MONKEY-MINDEDNESS
- “Monkey mind” is a term from meditation used to describe that incessant internal chatterbox that can leap from one topic to the next like a monkey swinging from tree to tree.
- When we’re in monkey-mind mode, it’s easy to start “awfulizing”—imagining worst- case scenarios or making too much of a minor problem. It’s a huge sap of our energy and a complete waste of time. Even more than that, when you’re spinning these imaginary dramas in your head, you aren’t living in the moment. You’re not noticing the flowers in the park or the interesting faces on the train. And you’re not giving your brain the neutral space it needs for creative solutions—maybe even the solution to whatever it was you were fighting about in the first place. Monkey mind is obsessed with the push of the past (“I just can’t forgive what he did”) and the pull of the future (“I can’t wait to quit and give my manager a piece of my mind”). It’s also often filled with bossy, judgmental inner language, words like “must” and “can’t” and “should” (“I must lose weight,” “I can’t fail,” “I shouldn’t feel this way”). Monkey mind takes you out of the moment and out of what is best for your life.
o HOOK #3: OLD, OUTGROWN IDEAS
- What he needed was the emotional agility to adapt to the very different, much more positive circumstances of his adult life. His old uncomfortable thought process simply didn’t serve him anymore.
- She was living out an expired story. What got her this far wasn’t going to take her any further. She needed the agility to adapt to changing circumstances.
o HOOK #4: WRONGHEADED RIGHTEOUSNESS
- In so many other areas of life, we hang on too long to the idea of justice, or of vindication, or of having it proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are right.
- That same need to have the rightness of your cause validated, or your unjust treatment . confirmed, can steal years from your life when you let it persist.
o The ancient Greek master of paradox, Heraclitus, said that you can never step into the same river twice, meaning that the world is constantly changing and thus always presenting us with new opportunities and situations. To make the most of it, we must continually break down old categories and formulate new ones. The freshest and most interesting solutions often come when we embrace “the beginner’s mind,” approaching novel experiences with fresh eyes. This is a cornerstone of emotional agility.
o Emotional agility means being aware and accepting of all your emotions, even learning from the most difficult ones. It also means getting beyond conditioned or preprogrammed cognitive and emotional responses (your hooks) to live in the moment with a clear reading of present circumstances, respond appropriately, and then act in alignment with your deepest values.
Chapter 3 – Trying To Unhook
o There are seven basic emotions: joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, contempt, and disgust. [Granted, there is no universal agreement on how many emotions there are.]
o Five of them—anger, sadness, fear, contempt, and disgust—are clearly on the not-so- comfortable end of the affective spectrum. (“Surprise” can go either way.)
o Most of our emotions reflect the dark side of human experience
- If so many of our emotions are troubling, and yet helpful enough to make the cut of natural selection, doesn’t that mean that even the dark and difficult feelings have a purpose? Is that why we shouldn’t try to avoid them but rather should accept them as a useful—though sometimes uncomfortable—part of our lives?
- Yes. Precisely. But learning to accept and live with all our emotions is by no means what most of us do.
- Most of us use default behaviors that we hope can deflect or disguise our negative feelings so we won’t have to face them. Others settle deeply into these feelings and struggle to get beyond them. Or we attempt to cope with difficult times and difficult emotions through cynicism, irony, or gallows humor, refusing to admit that anything is worth taking seriously. (But as Nietzsche said, loosely translated, “A joke is an epitaph for an emotion.”) Still others try to ignore their feelings and, like that more contemporary philosopher Taylor Swift said, “Shake it off.” When we try to “unhook” simply by killing off our feelings, the real victim is our own well-being.
o Bottlers try to unhook by pushing emotions to the side and getting on with things. They’re likely to shove away unwanted feelings because those feelings are uncomfortable or distracting, or because they think that being anything less than bright and chipper is a sign of weakness, or a surefire way to alienate those around them.
- The problem with bottling is that ignoring troubling emotions doesn’t get at the root of . whatever is causing them.
- They’ve been so focused on pushing forward and being a good doobie that they haven’t been in touch with a real emotion in years, which precludes any sort of real change or growth.
- Attempting to minimize or ignore thoughts and emotions only serves to amplify them.
- The irony of bottling is it feels like it gives us control, but it actually denies us control.
o First, it’s your emotions that are calling the shots.
o Second, the suppressed emotions inevitably surface in unintended ways, a process that psychologists call emotional leakage.
- But really they’ve just gone underground - ready to pop back up at any time, and usually with surprising and inappropriate intensity ginned up by the containment pressure they’ve been under.
o When hooked by uncomfortable feelings, brooders stew in their misery, endlessly stirring the pot around, and around, and around.
- Brooders can’t let go, and they struggle to compartmentalize as they obsess over a hurt, a perceived failure, a shortcoming, or an anxiety.
- Brooding is a cousin of worry. Both are intensely self-focused, and both involve trying to inhabit a moment that’s not now. But while worry looks forward, brooding looks back— an even more pointless exercise.
- Brooders lose perspective as molehills become mountains and slights become capital crimes.
- But brooders are ahead of bottlers in one respect: In their attempt to solve their . problems, brooders are at least “feeling their feelings”—meaning, aware of their emotions.
- While brooders may not be in danger of emotional leakage, though, they might drown in a flood. When you brood, your emotions don’t gain strength by being pressurized in a bottle, but they do gain strength. With brooders, emotions become more powerful in the same way a hurricane does, circling and circling and picking up more energy with each pass.
- Like bottlers, brooders usually have the best of intentions. Ruminating on troubling feelings offers a comforting illusion of conscientious effort.
- Brooding is exhausting and unproductive.
- Brooding can involve venting which is also unproductive.
- Brooders tend to focus on themselves.
o Type 1 thoughts are the normal human anxieties that come up as you tackle life’s everyday obstacles: the big project at work, the crazy schedule, last night’s fight, parenting concerns. Type 1 thoughts are straightforward: “I’m worried about X” or “I’m sad about Y.” Type 2 thoughts happen when you enter the mental house of mirrors and start to layer in unhelpful thoughts about the thoughts.
o Whatever we may think we’re accomplishing by bottling or brooding, neither strategy serves our health or our happiness. It’s much like taking an aspirin for a headache: The . medicine relieves your pain for a few hours, but if the source of the headache is a lack of sleep,
o Bottling and brooding are short-term emotional aspirin we reach for with the best of intentions. But when we don’t go directly to the source, we miss the ability to really deal once and for all with what’s causing our distress.
o In both cases, we lose our ability to be fully engaged with the world around us: to hug our children, to be present with a colleague, to create something new, or to simply enjoy the smell of the newly mowed grass. Openness and enthusiasm are replaced by rules, confining stories from the past, and invidious judgments, and our ability to solve problems . and make decisions actually declines. These rigid postures stop us from being agile when we need to deal with life’s stressors.
o It’s when these strategies are used as default coping methods, as they often are, that they become counterproductive and actually embed the hooks deeper and deeper.
o We learn to brood or bottle early in life.
o Brooding and bottling aren’t the only unproductive ways people cope with life’s stresses. Another common strategy is the belief, in one form or another, that all will be well if we can just “keep on smiling.”
o Isn’t happiness why we’re here? Isn’t happiness good for us? Well, that depends
o I’m not saying it’s better to go around in a funk all the time. But I hope to get you to keep the pursuit of happiness in perspective and to see your “negative” emotions in a new and more accepting light. In fact, I strongly submit that describing them as “negative” only perpetuates the myth that these useful—albeit sometimes challenging—feelings are, you know, negative. If I can persuade you otherwise, I’ll be happy (but not too happy).
o Our so-called negative emotions encourage slower, more systematic cognitive processing. We rely less on quick conclusions and pay more attention to subtle details that matter.
o “Negative” moods summon a more attentive, accommodating thinking style that leads you to really examine facts in a fresh and creative way. It’s when we’re in a bit of a funk that we focus and dig down. People in negative moods tend to be less gullible and more skeptical, while happy folks may accept easy answers and trust false smiles. (Is that show of pearly whites below the pencil-thin mustache just the zygomaticus major, or is the orbicularis oculi also involved?) Who wants to question surface truth when everything is going so well? So the happy person goes ahead and signs on the dotted line. — The paradox of happiness is that deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself. Real happiness comes through activities you engage in for their own sake rather than for some extrinsic reason, even when the reason is something as seemingly benevolent as the desire to be happy. Striving for happiness establishes an expectation, which confirms the saying that expectations are resentments waiting to happen.
o Placing too high a value on happiness increased their expectations for how things “should be,” and thus set them up for disappointment. [I find it helpful to remember that happiness is part of the process, it is not a destination.]
o Chasing after happiness can be just as self-defeating as the bottling and brooding we talked about earlier. All these coping mechanisms arise from discomfort with “negative” emotions and our unwillingness to endure anything even remotely associated with the dark side.
o Pretending to be happier than we are is a losing proposition, and pushing ourselves to be . more “genuinely” happy is definitely self-defeating, partly because it raises impossible expectations and partly because our own false smiles and eagerness to grab all the gusto deprive us of the benefits of “negative” emotions.
o Our raw feelings can be the messengers we need to teach us things about ourselves and can prompt insights into important life directions.
o By accepting and understanding his difficult emotions, rather than trying to suppress or fix them, he began to improve his marriage, not by remaking himself into milquetoast, but by learning to set better boundaries for what was acceptable behavior.
o Other “bad” emotions are useful for different reasons. Embarrassment and guilt can serve important social functions in fostering appeasement and furthering cooperation. Sadness is a signal to ourselves that something is wrong—
o Be present and have an open heart to all your emotions in a curious and accepting manner.
Chapter 4 – Showing Up
o Long before there were books or movies—or philosophers, literature professors, or psychologists - myths were the way people passed along key life lessons. And one of the lessons conveyed in myth after myth is that trying to dodge the things we’re most afraid of is a very bad idea. Time and time again in myths, the hero ultimately has no choice but to go into a dark and spooky place—a swamp, a cave, the Death Star—and confront head-on whatever is lurking there.
o We often find ourselves at the edges of our own dark places—all the more terrifying for being inside us. Sometimes these places are filled with demons; sometimes there are only a few little spooklets hiding in the corners. But whether the creatures represent major traumas or minor embarrassments, terrors or tics, they can keep us hooked.
o Our hidden demons are simply the residue of perfectly ordinary and almost universal insecurity, self-doubt, and fear of failure.
o They can be enough to hook you into behaving in ways that don’t serve you.
o Our movement toward a better life begins with showing up.
- That doesn’t mean we have to smite or slay all the demons, Babadooks, or even the spooklets that trouble us.
- It does mean we must face up to, make peace with, and find an honest and open way to live with them. When we show up fully, with awareness and acceptance, even the worst demons usually back down. Simply by facing up to the scary things and giving them a name, we often strip them of their power. We end the tug-of-war by dropping the rope
o Our life satisfaction in the face of inevitable worries, regrets, and sad experiences depends not so much on how many of these things we experience, or even their intensity, but on the way we deal with them.
- Do we bottle or brood, allowing them to govern our behavior, or do we “show up” to them compassionately, with curiosity and with acceptance—no failures, regrets, or bad hairstyles turned away.
- Showing up is not a heroic exercise of will but simply looking our personal tormentors in . the eye and saying, “Okay. You’re here, and I’m here. Let’s talk. Because I am big enough to contain all my feelings and past experiences, I can accept all these parts of my existence without being crushed or terrified.”
o In learning to see and accept your full self, warts and all, it helps to remember one thing that all our favorite heroes and heroines have in common: They’re far from perfect. Perfection is one-dimensional, unrealistic, boring. That’s why the most engaging protagonists have flaws or a dark side, and why the truly interesting villains have enough humanity that we at least partly identify with them.
o Our successes come from how well we’re able to live with and learn from our own flaws or dark side. And the path to that resolution, and that learning, begins with showing up.
o Of all the habits science has identified as being keys to a more fulfilling life, self- acceptance was the one most strongly associated with overall satisfaction.
o Imagine if we each treated ourselves with that same kind of compassion and support rather than the self-recrimination we so often fall into instead?
- That doesn’t mean soft-pedaling the negatives, or twisting ourselves into knots trying to work around them, or denying that they exist
- Rather, it means forgiving ourselves for our mistakes or imperfections so we can move on to better, more productive things.
o Showing up takes guts. It’s scary to consider what we might learn about ourselves when we look inward.
o Showing up doesn’t mean wielding a wrecking ball. It means bringing history and context into the equation to find the full significance of what’s there, and then putting that understanding to work to make things better. Showing up involves acknowledging our thoughts without ever having to believe they are literally true.
o One of the great paradoxes of human experience is that we can’t change ourselves or our circumstances until we accept what exists right now. Acceptance is a prerequisite for change. This means giving permission for the world to be as it is, because it’s only when we stop trying to control the universe that we make peace with it. We still don’t like the things we don’t like; we just cease to be at war with them. And once the war is over, change can begin.
o When we stop fighting what is, we can move on to efforts that will be more constructive and more rewarding.
o Showing yourself kindness gets even more important during life’s rough patches. People who are going through a breakup, have lost a job, or missed out on a promotion are often quick to scold, blame, and punish themselves. That internal chatterbox starts in with the “shoulda, woulda, coulda”s and the “I’m just not good enough”s.
o While guilt is focused on the specific misdeed, shame is a very different animal. Linked to the feeling of disgust, shame focuses on a person’s character. Shame casts one not as a human being who did a bad thing, but as a human being who is bad. This is why people who are shameful often feel diminished and worthless.
o The difference between guilt and shame? Self compassion.
o Self compassion is not about lying to yourself. It means looking at yourself from an outside perspective and recognizing the challenges and failures are part of being human.
o Self compassion does not make you weak or lazy. You don’t need to be tough on yourself to maintain your edge.
o Self acceptance takes a big hit anytime we start making comparisons. Comparing yourself to others is dangerous because you can get hooked on one-upmanship and external validation to buoy your own sense of value. That’s a losing game. Keep your eyes on your own work!
Your Inner Critic
o So why can’t we be that kind of loving friend to ourselves, turning that kind of compassion inward? And why do we take someone else’s occasional bad review of our behavior or performance more to heart than we take our friends’ much more frequent compliments?
o Our story is our story. We need to own it rather than it owning you and to honor it with compassion.
o The person who has the final say over what’s of value in your life should be you.
o Developing meaningful compassion for yourself does not mean deluding yourself. You need to be deeply aware of who you are, for better and for worse, and fully attuned to the . world around you. But even when we’re dealing with the real world as it really is, you have enormous leeway in how you respond to it.
o One of the greatest human triumphs is to choose to make room in our hearts for both the joy and the pain, and to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This means seeing feelings not as being “good” or “bad” but as just “being.”
o There is this relentless assumption in our culture that we need to do something when we have inner turmoil. We must struggle with it, fix it, control it, exert brute-force willpower over it, remain positive.
o What we really need to do, though, is also what is most simple and obvious: nothing. That is, to just welcome these inner experiences, breathe into them, and learn their contours without racing for the exits.
o You can’t choose or control your desires. You can choose whether you light that cigarette, eat a second helping of dessert, or go home with somebody you just met at a bar. When you’re emotionally agile, you don’t waste energy wrestling with your impulses. You simply make choices that are connected to what you value.
o By confronting our pain and acknowledging it, and then by embracing every stage of our sorrow, we are able to move through the experience, learn from it, and come out the other side, rather than being stuck, paralyzed by sadness.
- To maintain this kind of equanimity, we do need some basic emotional equipment, including a nuanced emotional vocabulary.
o Merely finding a label for emotions can be transformative, reducing hugely painful, murky, and oceanic feelings of distress to a finite experience with boundaries and a name.
o Words have enormous power. The wrong word has led to wars, not to mention the end of countless marriages. There’s a world of difference between stress and anger, or stress and disappointment, or stress and anxiety. If we can’t accurately label what we’re feeling, it . . becomes difficult to communicate well enough to get the support we need.
o People with this condition are also more likely to report physical symptoms like headaches and backaches. It’s as if their feelings are being expressed physically rather than verbally. It’s also true that sometimes, when people can’t clearly express their feelings in words, the only emotion that comes through loud and clear is anger, and the unfortunate way they express it is by putting a fist through the wall—or worse.
o Learning to label emotions with a more nuanced vocabulary can be absolutely transformative.
o Labeling our emotions can provide useful information. They signal rewards and dangers. They point us in the direction of our hurt. They can also tell us which situations to engage with and which to avoid. They can be beacons, not barriers, helping us identify what we most care about and motivating us to make positive changes.
o A good question to ask when you’re dealing with troubling emotions is “what is the purpose of this emotion? What is it trying to tell me?
o Once we stop struggling to eliminate distressing feelings or to smother them with positive affirmations or rationalizations, they can teach us valuable lessons. Self-doubt and self- criticism, even anger and regret, shine light into those dark, murky, sometimes demon- haunted places that you most want to ignore, which are places of vulnerability or weakness.
- Showing up to these feelings can help you anticipate the pitfalls and prepare more effective ways of coping during critical moments. If you can confront both your internal feelings and your external options - while maintaining the distinction between the two - you’ll have a much better chance at having a good day, not to mention a meaningful life. You’ll make important decisions in light of the broadest possible context. This requires the honesty and integrity to incorporate our experiences into a narrative that is uniquely our own, as well as one that will serve us, helping us understand where we’ve been so that we can better see where we want to go.
Chapter 5 – Stepping Out
o What we perceive as “emotional weakness” can lead us to become isolated.
o Research has shown that people who write about emotionally charged episodes experience a marked increase in their physical and mental well being.
o Through writing, I learned to sit with all my emotions, both the pleasant and unpleasant ones. This, in turn, gave me insight about myself, the most important revelation being “I am resilient.” I realized that I can live with my full self, even the parts I’m not so thrilled about.
o The writing not only helped the men process their experiences; it helped them step out from their despondent inertia and into meaningful action.
o Showing up and applying words to emotions is a tremendously helpful way to deal with stress, anxiety, and loss.
o After showing up, there’s another critical aspect of agility: stepping out. Unlike brooders, or bottlers, or those who let it all hang out in big venting rants, the writers who thrive the most begin to develop insight, using phrases such as “I have learned,” “It struck me that,” “the reason that,” “I now realize,” and “I understand.”
o In the process of writing, we create the distance between the thinker and the thought, the feeler and the feeling, that allowing us to gain a new perspective, unhook, and move forward.
o Make no mistake: These people had not found a way to enjoy being betrayed, lost, jobless, or critically ill. But by dissolving the entanglement that had built up between their impulses and their actions so they could see their experience in context, and from a broader perspective, they flourished despite it all.
o Stepping out creates the gap between stimulus and response. This is the place from which we can choose behaviors based on our values, rather than indulging in what our thoughts, emotions, and stories insist that we do.
o This newly created space allows us to be sensitive to the context, to shift our actions to what will work in the here and now, rather than being driven by mindless impulses. When we’ve stepped out, we can see things we haven’t seen before.
o When we’re hooked, we typically have only one perspective, one answer, one way of doing things. We’re entangled with our thoughts, emotions, and stories. They dominate us, direct our actions, and make us inflexible, often leaving us to wonder after the fact, “What was I thinking!?” Only when we step out can we see that there might be more than one way of looking at the situation.
o To live an intentional, meaningful life and to really thrive, one of the most critical skills to develop is this ability to take a meta-view, the view from above that broadens our perspective and makes us sensitive to context. This skill helps us gain new perspective on our own emotions and on how others might be feeling, and is a key factor in our ability to self-reflect. A meta-view can be particularly useful when we make mistakes.
o Practicing mindfulness improves connectivity inside the brain’s networks that keeps us from being distracted. By helping us focus, mindfulness also increases competence. It improves memory, creativity, and our moods, as well as relationships, health, and longevity in general. By paying attention to what’s going on around us, rather than ignoring it or just going along with the program, we can become more flexible and insightful.
o The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness.
o Mindlessness so easily leads us down the path of getting hooked. It’s the state of unawareness and autopilot. You’re not really present. Instead you’re relying on rigid rules or shopworn distinctions that haven’t been thought through.
o You know you’re being mindless when . . .
- You forget someone’s name as soon as you hear it.
- You put the card credit in the trash and your food wrappers in your handbag.
- You can’t remember whether you locked your door on your way out of the house.
- You bump into or break things because you’re not really “in” the space you’re in.
- You’re so focused on what’s coming up that you forget something you need to do right now.
- You don’t notice that the words “credit” and “card” are swapped in the example a few sentences above.
- You eat or drink without being hungry or thirsty.
- You feel an emotion just “came out of nowhere.”
o On the other side of the ledger, it’s mindfulness that allows you to notice your uncomfortable feelings and thoughts rather than be entangled in them. When you’re mindful of your anger, you can observe it with greater sensitivity, focus, and emotional clarity, perhaps discovering where the anger is actually coming from. You might even discover that your “anger” is really sadness or fear.
o Mindfulness can help us get more comfortable with this inner essence and help us follow the original commandment of self-improvement, straight from the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece: Know thyself.
o Mindfulness guides us to become more emotionally agile by allowing us to observe the thinker having the thoughts.
o It’s about doing all this with balance and equanimity, openness and curiosity, and without judgment. It also allows us to create new, fluid categories. As a result, the mental state of mindfulness lets us see the world through multiple perspectives and go forward with higher levels of self-acceptance, tolerance, and self-kindness.
o Mindfulness is when the mind stops insisting on being rational, stops being a problem- solving or indexing machine, and becomes more of a sponge than a calculator. It just is.
o That kind of calm receptivity makes a natural partnership with curiosity, and when the two align, great things can happen.
o When we decide to curiously explore the world inside us and outside, we can make other decisions more flexibly. We can intentionally breathe space into our reactions and make choices based on what matters to us and what we hope to be.
o Mindfulness allows us begin to experience thoughts as just thoughts - which is all they really are - rather than as directives that must be followed, or even agonized over.
o You can have the thought that you’re a fake, notice it, and then purposefully choose to set it aside, because what’s more important is making a meaningful contribution to this meeting you are in right now. You can experience and even rationalize the thought that your spouse should make the first move to patch up the argument you had this morning, and then pick up the phone to call him or her. You can accept your craving for crème caramel, notice your “I want that!” thoughts, and then choose not to reach out your hand. This is not bottling, because you are not ignoring or denying or trying to suppress the thought, emotion, or desire. Rather, you are curiously noticing it and the information it brings but not letting it call the shots.
o Thoughts and emotions don’t always speak the truth.
o Thoughts and emotions contain information, not directions. Some of the information we act on, some we mark as situations to be watched, and some we treat as nonsense to be pitched into the circular file.
TECHNIQUES FOR STEPPING OUT
1. Think process. See yourself as being in it for the long haul and on a path of continuous growth. Absolutist statements drawn from old stories (“I’m bad at public speaking” or “I suck at sports”) are just those—stories. They are not your destiny.
2. Get contradictory. In Zen Buddhism it’s common practice to contemplate paradoxes such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” There are probably paradoxes from your own life that you could chew on in a Zenlike fashion: You may love and loathe your hometown, your family, or your body. You can feel that you’re both the victim and the person responsible for a relationship breakdown. Embracing and accepting these seeming contradictions improves your tolerance for uncertainty.
3. Have a laugh. Humor can be a stepping-out practice because it forces you to see new possibilities. As long as you aren’t using humor to mask genuine pain (bottling), finding something funny about yourself or your circumstances can help you accept and then create distance from it.
4. Change your point of view. Try to consider your problem from the perspective of someone else - your dentist, perhaps, your child, or even your dog.
5. Call it out. Anytime you get hooked, identify that thought for what it is (a thought) and that emotion for what it is (an emotion). You can do this by introducing the language “I’m having the thought that . . .” or “I am having the emotion that . . .” Remember you have no obligation to accept your thoughts’ or emotions’ opinions, much less act on their advice.
6. Talk to yourself in the third person. This strategy allows you to transcend your egocentric viewpoint and regulate your reaction.
o An example of a relationship issue. A couple is arguing over the man leaving his coat on the floor. It upset the woman. The solution? She distanced herself from her thoughts—the interpretation that “he’s doing it to belittle me.” She created space between this simple annoyance and the profound emotions that came up in response. She made a conscious decision, going forward, to let go of the subjective threads she’d woven into that coat and to assume only the most generous intentions on David’s part. Instead of being hooked on what David was or was not doing by leaving it on the floor, she would give him a birthday gift: She would accept this was simply a part of David, a person whom she loved, and that without a sense of injured pride or resentment, she would lovingly pick up his coat. She would end the tug-of-war by dropping the rope.
o Just saying the words “let go” is enough to bring a sense of hope and relief. When we let go of that one thing, we are left with everything else. Clinging to that one small piece of emotional driftwood prevents us from feeling part of the dynamic system that is the universe itself.
Chapter 6 – Walking You Why
o “Walking your why” is the art of living by your own personal set of values - the beliefs and behaviors that you hold dear and that give you meaning and satisfaction. Identifying and acting on the values that are truly your own - not those imposed on you by others; not what you think you should care about, but what you genuinely do care about - is the crucial next step of fostering emotional agility.
o Identifying what you value and acting on it is not always easy. We’re constantly bombarded with messages—from culture, advertisers, our upbringing, our religious training, and our families, friends, and peers—about what is important and what makes us worthy.
o If we need guidance, we look around to check out what other people are doing, mindlessly choosing all sorts of things that we’ve been told are universal keys to satisfaction, such as a college education, home ownership, or having children. In fact, these are not for everyone. It’s just a lot faster and easier to follow what we see than to work it out for ourselves.
o Other people’s actions and choices affect us more than we realize, on every level, through a fascinating phenomenon called social contagion.
o These kinds of choices are based on mindless decision making, an approach in which there is no space between impulse and action, thinker and thought, and where the herd instinct comes into play. Sometimes, this behavior is okay (one more airplane movie isn’t going to kill you); sometimes it’s even beneficial: If all your friends exercise regularly, you might be more likely to get off the couch. But make too many mindless, autopilot decisions over the long haul, and eventually you’ll find yourself living what feels like somebody else’s life—a life aligned with values you don’t necessarily ascribe to. (Not to mention that you might be carrying several extra
o Just “going with the flow” drains the purpose from your work and life, makes personal and professional relationships seem tenuous and uncertain, and almost guarantees that you’ll fail to live with intention.
o To make decisions that match up with the way you hope to live going forward, you have to be in touch with the things that matter to you so you can use them as signposts.
o Making choices and negotiating relationships without a clear set of governing values at the front of your mind is taxing labor. It not only involves the confusing work of facing the world each day with everything up for grabs, but also sometimes means retrofitting your emotions so they appear to line up with what you think is expected of you—such as acting thrilled at yet another vacation trip to Walley World, even if you’d rather be anywhere else.
o By connecting with their distant selves and with their values, they were able to understand themselves as people with core beliefs and a moral keel that would remain stable, even as other elements and situations in their lives changed.
o If you know your own personal values and generally live by them, you are also likely to be comfortable with who you are. You don’t need to compare yourself with other people because you’re a success—by your own definition.
o Values not as rules that are supposed to govern us, but as qualities of purposeful action that we can bring to many aspects of life.
o Values serve as a kind of psychological keel to keep you steady.
o Here are some characteristics of values:
- They are freely chosen and have not been imposed on you.
- They are not goals; that is, they are ongoing rather than fixed.
- They guide you rather than constrain you.
- They are active, not static.
- They allow you to get closer to the way you want to live your life.
- They bring you freedom from social comparisons.
- They foster self-acceptance, which is crucial to mental health.
o Here are a few questions to ask yourself in order to start identifying your values:
- Deep down, what matters to me?
- What relationships do I want to build?
- What do I want my life to be about?
- How do I feel most of the time?
- What kinds of situations make me feel most vital?
- If a miracle occurred and all the anxiety and stress in my life were suddenly gone, what would my life look like and what new things would I pursue?
o One way to start doing this is to answer a single question, in writing, each night before bed: “As I look back on today, what did I do that was actually worth my time?” “If this were my last day on earth, how would I act to make it a great final day?”
o By staying aligned with his values, he was able not only to break free from the group’s behavior but also to muster the courage to make the abuse public, even though he was so afraid he’d be found out as the whistle-blower that at one point he slept with a gun under his pillow.
o When you connect with your real self, and what you believe to be important, the gulf between how you feel and how you behave closes up. You begin to live your life without as many regrets, and without as much second-guessing.
o “You are what you habitually do.”
o Values actually help us access greater levels of willpower and grit and safeguard us from negative social contagion.
o They also protect us against subconscious stereotypes and beliefs that limit us without our even knowing they’re there—and yet can have a real, negative impact on our ability to face challenges.
o Having a strong sense of what matters to you leads to greater happiness, as well as to better health, a stronger marriage, and greater academic and professional success.
o When we make choices based on what we know to be true for ourselves, rather than being led by others telling us what is right or wrong, important or cool, we have the power to face almost any circumstance in a constructive way. Rather than being caught up in pretending or social comparison, we can stride forward with confidence.
o Determining what you truly care about is only half the process of walking your why. Once you’ve identified your values, you then have to take them out for a spin. This requires a certain amount of courage, but you can’t aim to be fearless. Instead, you should aim to walk directly into your fears, with your values as your guide, toward what matters to you. Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.
o Without action, a value is just an aspiration, rather than the way we really are.
o Will you move toward your values and act like the person you wish to be, or will you move away from your values and act against them? The more you choose moves that are toward your values, the more vital, effective, and meaningful your life is likely to become. Unfortunately, when we’re hooked by difficult thoughts, feelings, and situations, we often start making moves away from our values.
o Insisting that you’re too shy or nervous to take such actions is allowing yourself to make a move away and is directly opposite from what you say you value.
o The key is to think about these choices not as better or worse but as equal and different.
o Choices are chances for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition . . . that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people we are.
o We all spend time in different value domains depending on our circumstances, and being in one doesn’t mean you value the others any less.
o Values, in fact, are not limiting or restrictive. Instead, they give us latitude we might not otherwise allow ourselves by providing a continuous web of support. Knowing our values also makes us flexible and open to new experiences. We can use our values to make more deliberate, satisfying “toward moves” and fewer reflexive, unproductive “away moves.”
o There is loss inherent in choice. You give up the path not taken, and with any loss comes a certain amount of pain, sorrow, and even regret. You can know why you’re doing something—remember the question “What did I do that was actually worth my time?”— and still feel anxious or sad about it. The difference is that you will have a real investment in it that will help you navigate with agility through those difficult emotions. Even if your choice turns out to be wrong, you can at least take comfort in knowing you made the decision for the right reasons. You can show up to yourself with courage, curiosity, and self-compassion.
o By knowing who you are and what you stand for, you come to life’s choices with the most powerful tool of all: your full self. "Dance if you can."
Chapter 7 - Moving On – The Tiny Tweaks Principle
o Researchers studying relationships organized the bids by a loved one into a hierarchy based on how much emotional involvement each demanded. Moving from lowest to highest, this is what the bids looked like:
- A simple bid for a partner’s attention: “There’s a pretty boat.”
- A bid for a partner’s interest: “Didn’t your dad sail a boat like that?”
- A bid for enthusiastic engagement: “Hey, with a boat like that, we could sail around the world.”
- A bid for extended conversation: “Have you called your brother lately? Did he ever get his boat fixed?”
- A bid for play: Rolling up a newspaper and bopping a partner lightly on the head, saying, “There. I’ve been meaning to do that all day.”
- A bid for humor: “A rabbi, a priest, and a psychiatrist go out sailing . . .”
- A bid for affection: “I need a hug,” or something similar, but often nonverbal.
- A bid for emotional support: “I still can’t understand why I didn’t get that promotion.”
- A bid for self-disclosure: “What was it like when you sailed with your grandfather growing up?”
o The researchers noticed that after each of these gambits, the partner receiving the bid would respond in one of three ways:
- by “turning toward” his or her partner with enthusiasm that varied from a grunt of acknowledgment to wholehearted participation;
- by “turning away,” usually by simply ignoring the comment or question;
- or by “turning against” (“Please, I’m trying to read!”).
o In marriage, these micro-moments of intimacy or neglect create a culture in which the relationship either thrives or withers.
- The tiny behaviors feed back on themselves and compound with time, as every interaction builds on the previous interaction, no matter how seemingly trivial.
- Each person’s moments of pettiness and anger, or generosity and lovingness, create a feedback loop that makes the overall relationship either more toxic or happier going forward.
o Small shifts over time can dramatically enhance our ability to thrive.
o When our approach to problems is too grand (“I need a new career!”), we invite frustration. But when we aim for tiny tweaks (“I’m going to have one discussion a week with someone outside my field.”), the cost of failure is pretty small.
- When we know we have little to lose, our stress levels drop, and our confidence increases.
- We get the feeling “I can handle this,” which helps us become even more committed and creative
- Equally importantly, we tap into the fundamental human need to make progress toward meaningful goals.
o In looking for the right places to make these tiny changes, there are three broad areas of opportunity.
- You can tweak your beliefs - or what psychologists call your mindset;
- You can tweak your motivations; and
- You can tweak your habits.
o When we learn how to make small changes in each of these areas, we set ourselves up to make profound, lasting change over the course of our lives.
o People with a fixed mindset follow an “entity” theory of self and believe important qualities such as intelligence and personality are fixed traits that cannot be changed.
o People with a growth mindset believe that these basic qualities are “malleable” and can be improved through learning and effort.
o Whether you have a fixed or a growth mindset can differ depending on the quality in question. You might be “fixed” with regard to your math skills (“I’m just no good with numbers”) but “growth” when it comes to your social skills (“I just need to get to know my new coworkers better”).
o Beliefs about change can have a profound effect on behavior.
o One’s mindset can be developed and shifted.
o The parent who praises a child’s accomplishment by saying, “You studied hard!” promotes a growth mindset. The parent who says, “Look at your A, son! You’re a genius!” promotes a fixed mindset.
o If a child comes to believe that success depends on innate intelligence, and that intelligence is a fixed commodity, then he’s more likely to think there’s nothing he can do when the going inevitably gets tougher and he finds himself struggling in Spanish or pre- calculus.
o People with the growth mindset view situations as opportunities rather than a fool’s errands.
o Change is often seen as a onetime event that happens after, say, setting a New Year’s resolution. But change is a process, not an event. A focus on this process gives individuals the sense that they can make mistakes, learn from them, and still improve their performance over the long run.
o People with fixed negative views on aging die about 7.5 years earlier than those who are more open to a positive future.
o When it comes to our minds and coping abilities, many of our perceptions of decline are tied up with our assumptions.
o Our brains care deeply about what we believe. A few milliseconds before we make a single voluntary move, our brains fire electrical waves in preparation. Only after that do they send activation signals to the necessary muscles. This preparation for action - called readiness potential - is outside our conscious awareness but it is activated by our intention. When we have a reduced sense of our own agency and effectiveness, it weakens the “readiness potential” in our brains.
o A malleable sense of self is a cornerstone of emotional agility. People who have a growth mindset and who see themselves as agents in their own lives are more open to new experiences, more willing to take risks, more persistent, and more resilient in rebounding from failure. They are less likely to mindlessly conform to others’ wishes and values and more likely to be creative and entrepreneurial.
o Tweaking your mindset starts with questioning notions about yourself and the world that may seem set in stone - and that might be working against what matters to you - and then making the active choice to turn yourself toward learning, experimentation, growth, and change, one step at a time.
o By urging me to set up my own personal screw-you fund, my mother wasn’t simply doling out sound personal finance tips. She was also emphasizing the fundamental importance of autonomy, the motivating power of being able to do things out of your own free will and volition,
o Engaging our autonomy - the power of want to rather than have to - is the second prerequisite for tweaking your way to significant change.
o In trying to bring our actions more in line with what really matters to us, we can double down on discipline and willpower, but—as most of us have learned the hard way—this rarely leads to the best results.
o When we enter into something compelled by a wagging finger instead of a willing heart - we end up in an internal tug-of-war between good intentions and less-than-stellar execution, even when the end goals - improved health, better relationships with family - are supposedly in line with our values.
o We can position our goals in terms of what we want to do, as opposed to what we have to or should do.
o We all fall into these subtle traps of language and thinking: “I have to be on dad duty today,” or “I have to attend another boring meeting.” When we do this, we forget that our current circumstances are often the result of earlier choices we made in service of our values: “I want to be a father,” or “I love the work that I do and want to excel at my job.”
o Even if we’ve adopted a growth mindset, and even if we’re in tune with our most heartfelt, intrinsic, “want to” motivations, there’s still a chance that our efforts will wind up in the attic of good intentions, right next to that fancy exercise bike or the expensive juicer we used maybe twice. The only way we can really be sure the changes we make are lasting is by taking the intentional behavior we’ve consciously chosen and turning it into that old bugaboo: a habit.
o We want to reach the master-class level of emotional agility—we should transform our intentional behaviors into habits, making them so deeply ingrained that we no longer have to be “intentional” about them at
o The ability to form values-connected habits not only makes our good intentions durable; it frees up our mental resources for other tasks as well.
o “choice architecture.”
o Habit is defined as an externally triggered automatic response to a frequently encountered context.
- Intention: You want to make better use of your time when you’re on the road for work.
- Context: Hotel room.
- Choice point: Turn on the TV as soon as you enter, or leave it off?
o Limit the exposure, limit the temptation, and you make life easier for the “executive brain,” the part that integrates the cognitive and the emotional to arrive at an appropriate course of action.
- The no-brainer: Switch up your environment so that when you’re hungry, tired, stressed, or rushed, the choice most aligned with your values is also the easiest.
- The piggyback: Add a new behavior onto an existing habit.
- Studies show that when participants choose a new specific action to piggyback onto an existing habit—add some fruit each time I eat my daily granola—they have significant success transferring that new action into a habitual behavior.
- The precommitment: Anticipate obstacles and prepare for them with “if-then” strategies.
o When we can anticipate unpleasant situations or reactions like this, we allow ourselves to get hooked by them. And even though we may want to change, when confronted by these emotional triggers, we can’t.
o But emotional agility allows you to take a step back and see these moments as opportunities to make a values-based commitment to yourself.
Chapter 8 - Moving On - The Teeter Totter Principle
o The teeter-totter principle means finding that give-and-take, that place where competence and the comfort of the familiar exist in a kind of creative tension with the excitement and even the stress of the unknown.
o We get to that zone of optimal development in a very specific way: when we live at the edge of our ability, a place in which we’re not overcompetent or complacent, but also not in so far over our heads that we’re overwhelmed
o We move to the edge of our ability when we incrementally advance ourselves beyond the level of our competence and comfort.
o In our relationships, creative lives, personal development, and work, we can promote this advancement in two ways - expanding our breadth (what we do: the skills we acquire, the topics we talk about, the avenues we explore) and our depth (how well we do what we do: the quality of our listening, our level of engagement with the world).
o But we also need to be mindful of how we expand and why - choosing breadth and depth in line with what truly matters to us instead of adding to them arbitrarily, simply because we can or because we feel pressure to be the best, smartest, or most fabulous. Remember, this is about building the life we want, not about being busy for busy’s sake, or creating more “should”s for ourselves.
o The biggest obstacle to our growth is fear.
- Just as we’re wired to explore, we’re also wired to keep ourselves safe, and our brains confuse safety with comfort, a comfort that can get us hooked.
- If something feels comfortable - as in familiar, accessible, and coherent - our brains signal that we’re just fine where we are, thank you very much.
- And if something feels new, difficult, or even slightly incoherent, fear kicks in.
- Fear comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes it appears in disguise (as procrastination, perfection, shutting down, unassertiveness, or excuses), it speaks only one word: no, as in “No, I’ll just screw it up.” “Nah, I won’t know anyone there.” “Nope, that will look awful on me.” “Nuh-uh, thanks; I’ll sit this one out.”
o When we make judgments about risk, we show a bias toward the familiar. For example, people assume that technologies, investments, and leisure activities are less risky or difficult the more familiar they seem, even when the facts suggest otherwise.
o Accessibility - the degree to which something is easy to understand - is another proxy in our brains for safety and comfort.
o Our bias in favor of the familiar and the accessible can even influence what we accept as the truth: We give more credence to opinions that appear to be widely held.
o Neuroimaging bears out the ways we react to the discomfort of uncertainty.
- When we face known risks—a bet, let’s say, with odds that can be calculated—there is increased activity in the reward areas of the brain, especially the striatum.
- But when we have to place a bet with nothing quantifiable or familiar to go on, our brains show increased activation in the amygdala, an area associated with fear.
o The fear factor actually increases in subtlety and complexity the more that insecurity and loneliness enter the picture. That’s because humans evolved as a social species that always needed to be part of the family or the pack for survival. This means that, even today, feeling cut off from our tribe is still life-or-death scary.
o Coherence - like familiarity and accessibility - is a crude proxy in our brain for “safe,” even when the desire for coherence leads us to go against our own best interests.
o It’s the comfort we take in the familiar and the coherent that leads us to continue seeing ourselves based on how we saw ourselves as children. How we were treated as children is then used by us as adults to predict how we’ll be seen and received today, as well as how we deserve to be treated, even when it’s derogatory and self-limiting.
o By the same token, information that challenges these familiar and therefore “coherent” views can feel dangerous and disorienting, even when the disconfirmation shines a new, positive light.
o Fear of success, or fear of even being “okay,” can lead to self-sabotage, including underperformance in school, being a slacker, or ruining an otherwise healthy relationship because you haven’t “earned” it.
o We can undermine ourselves in service to coherence when we stay in a dead-end job, allow ourselves to get dragged back into a family drama, or, in extreme circumstances, when we take back an abusive spouse.
o These self-sabotaging responses are not what we choose to do; they’re what we’ve been conditioned to do, and will continue to do until we unhook from the flight to the familiar and find the agility to shut down the autopilot, show up, step out, and take agency of our own lives.
o That’s how we’re able to continuously embrace the challenges that allow us to thrive.
o For many people, the familiar and comforting identity that hooks them, especially in times of stress, is a holdover from way, way back. The high school baseball star and the beauty queen of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” come to mind as perfect examples.
o The more emotionally agile path involves letting go of the “moldy oldie” aspirations that were a very narrow and perhaps naive definition of self, and working to strengthen the meaning derived from actions that embody the more mature values appropriate to the here and now.
o Avoidance is the enemy of great.
- Avoidance- particularly avoidance of discomfort - is even the enemy of good. It’s the enemy of the growth and change that lead to flourishing.
- When we say, “I don’t want to fail,” “I don’t want to embarrass myself,” “I don’t want to get hurt,” we’re expressing what I call dead people’s goals.
- That’s because the only people who never feel discomfort for having made fools of themselves are—you guessed it—dead.
- The same goes for people who don’t change or mature. As far as I know, the only people who never feel hurt, vulnerable, mad, anxious, depressed, stressed, or any of the other uncomfortable emotions that come with taking on challenges are those who are no longer with us.
- The dead do not annoy their families or coworkers, cause problems, or speak out of turn. But do you really want the dead to be your role models?
- There’s an old adage that if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.
o To stay truly alive, we need to choose courage over comfort so that we keep growing, climbing, and challenging ourselves, and that means not getting stuck thinking we’ve found heaven when we’re simply sitting on the nearest plateau.
o We also don’t want to be overwhelmed by taking on unrealistic goals, or by thinking we can get to our personal mountaintop in one sudden burst of effort.
o Perhaps the best term to describe living at the edge of our ability, thriving and flourishing, being challenged but not overwhelmed, is simply “whelmed.” And a key part of being whelmed lies in being selective in our commitments, which means taking on the challenges that really speak to you and that emerge from an awareness of your deepest values.
o Whatever we choose to take on, the trick is to remain whelmed, to get the balance right between challenge and competence.
o We can break through the plateau of being “good enough” by embracing challenge. We take on new goals and try to beat new targets with no incentive other than the same joy in personal growth that drives us to learn to tie our shoes.
o Effortful learning means mindful engagement that continues to expand the boundaries and increase the sophistication of one’s knowledge and experience.
o Remember when you learned to drive? Before you first got behind the wheel, you were unconsciously unskilled in that you didn’t know what you didn’t know. Then, when you registered for driver’s ed, you became consciously unskilled as you realized just how much you had to learn. It’s in that receptiveness to new experience that effortful learning kicks in. Once that happens, you can then become consciously skilled as you go through the punch list in the driver’s handbook, buckling the seat belt, carefully adjusting your seat, checking the mirrors, and putting the car into gear before you get the rocket rolling. And while you may panic the first time you have to merge onto the interstate, you start to get the hang of it after a few tries. But not long after you get your license, unconscious skill takes over. You simply get into the car and drive, often arriving home without knowing quite how you got there.
o It’s when you’re in this autopilot phase that you are, in essence, parked on a plateau. When you’re consciously unskilled or consciously skilled, you’re still within the zone of optimal development because you’re open to receiving more knowledge. You may be a beginner, and therefore a little shaky, but at least you have the beginner’s mind, which includes the desire to grow and the willingness to learn. You might also be a little stressed - which is not a bad thing.
o For decades we’ve been taught that stress is Psychological Enemy Number One, a killer of well-being to be avoided at all costs. Certainly, stress does have its downside. Biochemically speaking, chronic stress can wreak havoc on our systems, fueling inflammation that contributes to heart disease, cancer, and compromised immunity to infections.
- But the right amount of stress - whelmed but not overwhelmed - can be a great motivator. As uncomfortable as it feels at times, it’s the stress that keeps us moving . forward.
- It’s seeing losing numbers on the scoreboard - down but not too far down - that spurs an exhausted team to pull off a come-from-behind victory in the last two minutes. It’s the stress of a deadline - tight, but not too tight -that fuels the creativity and motivation needed to finish the project.
- Stress is also pretty much a given if you want to do more in life than flip channels on the remote control. It is a natural and expected complement to challenge, and the learning and flourishing that comes with it. You can’t climb Mount Everest without putting in a lot of effort and taking on a lot of risk.
- The same goes for raising a well-adjusted child, or staying happily married for fifty years, or running a business, or running a marathon.
- No one ever got anywhere that mattered without stress and discomfort.
So, how can we apply what we’ve just learned to our own efforts:
o CHOOSE WHAT IS WORKABLE
- The workable choice is the one that’s appropriate for whatever short-term constraints you face, but that also brings you closer to the life you want to live over time.
o KEEP GOING, KEEP GROWING
- Flourishing means expanding both the range of what you do and the depth or skill with which you do it. As for range, ask yourself, “What have I done lately that scares me? When was the last time I tried something and failed?” If you draw a blank, you’re probably playing it too safe. As for depth, when was the last time you felt vulnerable because you were investing your full passion and really laying it on the line, perhaps in creativity on the job, perhaps in a relationship?
o GRIT VERSUS QUIT
- Even if we choose courage over comfort and engage with life at the edge of our ability, emotional agility is not always a matter of charging full steam ahead, damning all the torpedoes, and tackling your objectives no matter what the cost. If you’re making choices genuinely aligned with your values, there may come a time when the only smart thing to say is “enough is enough.”
- Grit embodies - but is not the same as - resilience, ambition, and self-control. The University of Pennsylvania psychologist and researcher Angela Duckworth defines it as passion and sustained persistence in trying to achieve a goal over the very long haul, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way. Resilience is about overcoming adversity; ambition, at some level, suggests a desire for wealth, fame, and/or power; self-control can help you resist temptations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re persistently pursuing a long-term goal. Grit is a special case that, according to Duckworth’s research, is an important predictor of long-term success. Teachers who are gritty stay in the profession for longer and are more effective than those who aren’t. Students who are gritty are more likely to graduate. Men who are gritty stay in marriages longer (a finding that, interestingly, doesn’t apply to women).
- Emotional agility can help one develop grit, since it allows us to unhook from difficult emotions and thoughts, manage setbacks, and identify our values so we move toward a long-term goal worth pursuing. But it also allows us to let go of those goals once they no longer serve us.
- While Duckworth’s work accounts for the importance of values alignment, popular usage equates grit with a never-say-die attitude, and those who fail to press on no matter what get labeled as weak, lazy, or even cowardly. But emotional agility leaves room for the considered decision to quit something that is no longer helping you.
o Hanging on to unrealistic or harmful goals, often driven by unexamined emotions, is the worst kind of rigidity, leading to all sorts of misery and missed opportunities.
o If you’re faced with a grit-or-quit decision, here are some things to ask yourself:
- Overall, do I find joy or satisfaction in what I’m doing?
- Does this reflect what is important to me - my values?
- Does this draw on my strengths?
- If I’m completely honest with myself, do I believe that I (or this situation) can really be a success?
- What opportunities will I give up if I persevere with this?
- Am I being gritty, or am I being stupid?
o Emotional agility is about getting on with life. It involves moving toward clear, challenging, yet achievable goals that you pursue not because you think you have to, or because you’ve been told to, but because you want to, because they’re important to you. When you continue to pursue new knowledge and richer experiences, when you follow your . heart and your honest answers to the questions that matter to you, you’ll find that you aren’t stuck on a seesaw. Instead you’ll be soaring, opening up not just your mind but also your world.
Chapter 9 – At Work
Chapter 10 – Raising Kids
Chapter 11 – Conclusion: Becoming Real
o Those of us in the “real” world may not be able to tap ourselves with a magic wand and instantly transform ourselves into the people we most long to be.
o But if we practice emotional agility, we don’t need magic.
o Because emotional agility allows us to be our authentic selves for everyone, every day. Emotional agility is the absence of pretense and performance, which gives your actions greater power because they emanate from your core values and core strength, something solid and genuine and real.
o We reach that level of emotional agility, not through magic, but through a series of tiny steps in everyday moments over the course of a lifetime.
o Here’s how you can start this journey today:
- Appoint yourself the agent of your own life and take ownership of your own development, career, creative spirit, work, and connections.
- Accept your full self - rubbed-off nose, shabby ears, “good” and “bad” emotions, the whole package - with compassion, courage, and curiosity
- Welcome your inner experiences, breathe into them, and learn their contours without racing for the exit.
- Embrace an evolving identity and release narratives that no longer serve you.
- Let go of unrealistic dead people’s goals by accepting that being alive means sometimes getting hurt, failing, being stressed, and making mistakes.
- Free yourself from pursuing perfection so you can enjoy the process of loving and living.
- Open yourself up to the love that will come with hurt and the hurt that will come with love; and to the success that will come with failure and the failure that will come with success.
- Abandon the idea of being fearless, and instead walk directly into your fears, with your values as your guide, toward what matters to you. Courage is not an absence of fear; courage is fear walking.
- Choose courage over comfort by vitally engaging with new opportunities to learn and grow, rather than passively resigning yourself to your circumstances.
- Recognize that life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility. We’re young, until we’re not. We’re healthy, until we’re not. We’re with those we love, until we’re not.
- Learn how to hear the heartbeat of your own why.
- And finally, remember to “dance if you can.”