Emotional Agility Improves Relationships
Interviewed by Kyle Benson
Susan David, Ph.D. is an award-winning psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and the CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, a boutique business consultancy. Her new book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life teaches a counterintuitive approach to achieve your true potential, which was heralded by the Harvard Business Review as a groundbreaking idea of the year in 2016.
Kyle: What is emotional agility and how does it impact our romantic relationships?
Susan: Emotional agility is the ability to have a full range of emotions and experiences, including more difficult ones, and still choose to act in ways that are concordant with our values. This is more important to our romantic relationships than any other aspect of life because in our relationships we are often emotionally agile.
Kyle: What does being emotionally inagile look like?
Susan: Being emotionally inagile happens when our thoughts, emotions, and stories start to dominate our behavior with our partner, which dominate our actions and ultimately take us away from the relationship.
When I say thoughts, emotions, and stories, these are the kinds of things people have in their relationship. Thoughts like:
- I’m not good enough.
- There’s no point in having this conversation, so I might as well shut down.
- If I reach out to this person, will I be rejected?
We have thousands of thoughts every day and a lot of these thoughts are around our relationships. We experience anger, anxiety, and concern about rejection that come up and we often tell ourselves stories. For example, I just talked with someone yesterday whose parents got divorced and whose husband was divorced before, so they both had this story that relationships don’t last.
Or we have stories about what our values are or what we deserve. It’s really important to realize that these thoughts, emotions, and stories are normal. All of us have difficult thoughts. All of us have difficult emotions. And all of us come to the world with stories. It is the way that we start to make sense of life. And it helps us sort out what is and is not important because we can’t pay attention to everything.
Kyle: In your book, you talk about how we get hooked on our stories. Can you explain how this impacts our behavior?
Susan: Stories are really important in keeping us sane and functioning, but these stories can start to take up more space in our life and dominate our actions in ways that don’t serve us.
One of the things I talk about in Emotional Agility is how people get hooked. Maybe for you, you say something like, “There’s no point in talking” and you just keep quiet. You end up having this fusion where your thoughts, emotions, and your stories actually drive your actions. So you have to ask yourself, “Who is in charge?” Is it your emotions, or the person who is experiencing all of the emotions? Who is in charge of the story? The story or a person who has many stories?
When we get hooked, our thoughts, emotions, and stories take charge and take us away from behavior and actions that are congruent with our values with the way we actually want to love.
Kyle: One of the things I loved about your book is how you connect our values to our actions. Can you speak to that in terms of relationships?
Susan: Yes, absolutely. So in my book, I talk about different ways of being with ourselves.. Not like slashing your story or telling yourself, “I shouldn’t have that emotion.” But rather recognize that we can be with ourselves in a way that is compassionate and learn the function of our emotions, stories, and thoughts, such as is it showing up to protect us. It’s important to have compassion because there will be times when we will act in ways that are not congruent with our values.