By suppressing troublesome thoughts, they wind up manipulating us. Here’s how accepting mental agility helps one navigate the universe as it is.
We are trapped in a static society that emphasizes constant positivity above emotional agility, genuine resilience, and success, says Susan David, Ph.D., a Harvard Medical School staff psychologist and author of Emotional Agility. And as we put away painful feelings to accept false positivity, we neglect our opportunity to cultivate meaningful skills to help us cope with the reality as it is, not what we wish. In this TED Chat, Dr. David discusses why difficult feelings are important to a life with meaningful meaning and, indeed, satisfaction.
“In South Africa, where I come from, ‘sawubona’ is the Zulu word for ‘hello.’ There is a beautiful and strong purpose behind the word since, simply interpreted, ‘sawubona’ implies, ‘I see you, and by seeing you, I carry you into being.’ So what’s the way we perceive ourselves? Our feelings, emotions, and stories that help us survive in an extremely complicated, volatile world? Susan David, Ph.D.
This critical topic was the core of my life’s job. And how we treat our inner life drives all. How we love, how we work, how we parent, and how we lead. Conventional emotions perceive as good or evil, optimistic, or pessimistic is linear. And difficult rigidity is dangerous. We need more cognitive agility for real durability and flourishing.
Conventional emotions perceive as good or evil, optimistic, or pessimistic is linear. And difficult rigidity is dangerous.
My quest with this calling started not in a university’s holy rooms, but in life’s chaotic, tender company. I grew up in the white suburbs of apartheid, a nation and culture dedicated to not believing. To refuse. It’s ignorance that enables 50 years of discriminatory laws because citizens remain persuaded that they’re doing nothing wrong. And still, I first heard about the destructive force of personal rejection before I knew what it was doing to my homeland.
My dad died Friday. He was 42, and I was 15. My mother whispered before I went to school to say goodbye to my father. So I set my backpack down and crossed the passage to where my father’s heart laid dying of cancer. His eyes closed, but he realized I was there. I still feel shown in his presence. I said I loved him, said farewell, and left for my day. At college, I drove to biology from chemistry to mathematics while my father slipped from the earth. From May to July, September to November, I went with my normal grin. I didn’t lose one grade. When asked how I was doing, I would shrug and reply, “Yes.” I was hailed as powerful. I was the okay boss.In South Africa, where I come from, ‘sawubona’ is the Zulu word for ‘hello.’
There is a beautiful and strong purpose behind the word since, simply interpreted, ‘sawubona’ implies, ‘I see you, and by seeing you, I carry you into being.’
But one person didn’t buy into my grief victory tale. My eighth-grade English teacher fixed me with blazing blue eyes as she circulated blank notebooks. She said, “Write your thoughts. Tell the facts. Write like nobody’s reading. “And just like that, I was asked to turn up to my sorrow and suffering. It was an easy gesture, but nothing short of a revolution. This movement began 30 years ago in this blank notebook that influenced the work of my life. Myself ‘s private, quiet correspondence. As a gymnast, I began going beyond the rigidity of rejection into what I term mental endurance.
The beauty of creation is inseparable from its fragility: before we are. We stroll sexy through the streets before one day we know we’re unseen. We nag our kids and one day remember that there’s quiet where the kid once was, finding his way through the future. We’re safe before our knees are examined. The only consistency is confusion, but we don’t treat this frailty effectively or sustainably. The World Health Organisation reports depression is now the single leading cause of global disability — outstripping cancer, outstripping heart disease. And at a moment of greater uncertainty, unparalleled technical, political, and economic shift, we are seeing how people’s propensity is progressively trapped in static emotional responses.
On the one side, we might be obsessively brooding our thoughts, trapped in our minds, hooked incorrectly, or victimized by our news stream. On the other hand, we may bottle our emotions, pushing them aside, and having only certain emotions considered valid.
In a recent survey I conducted of over 70,000 participants, I noticed a third of us — a third — either blame us for possessing so-called “weak feelings,” including sorrow, rage, or even grief. Or deliberately brush these emotions back. We do this not just for ourselves, but also for those we value, including our kids — we can unintentionally bully them out of feelings viewed as harmful, leap to a remedy, and struggle to make them see these feelings as intrinsically beneficial
Natural feelings are often seen as good or evil. Positivity has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are immediately advised to be hopeful. Men, avoid getting mad. And the collection begins. That’s a dictatorship. It’s positivity tyranny. It’s unfair. Unkind. Unkind. And ineffectual. And we do that to ourselves, and to others.
If there is one general characteristic of brooding, bottling, or false positivity, both are fixed responses. And if there’s a single thing we should draw from apartheid’s eventual collapse, it’s that strict denial doesn’t function. It’s unsustainable. For communities, households, economies. And when we see the ice caps disappear, it’s unsustainable for our world.
But as we drive out real feelings and accept fake positivity, we neglect our opportunity to build abilities to cope with the world as it is, just what we wish.
Data on emotional repression reveals that feelings become deeper when put back or neglected. Psychologists call enhancement. Like the irresistible chocolate cake in the oven, the longer you want to forget it, the stronger your keep. You may believe you regulate unwelcome feelings when you neglect them, but they really regulate you. Mental suffering still appears. Still. Still. Who pays the price? We’re doing. Our families, friends, societies.
Now, don’t mistake me. Not anti-happiness. I like to be satisfied. I’m a happier guy. But as we drive out real feelings and accept fake positivity, we neglect our opportunity to build abilities to cope with the world as it is, just what we wish. I’ve got hundreds asking me what they don’t like to experience. They suggest something like, “I don’t want to continue because I don’t want to be upset.” Or, “I just want it to go down.”
“I understand,” I claim. “Yet you have the ambitions of dead people.” And dead people never get unwanted by their emotions.
Just dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never get upset by the loss. Tough feelings are part of our life contract. You don’t have a fulfilling job, raise a baby, or exit the earth without difficulty and pain. Discomfort is the expense of a meaningful life.
So, how can we dismantle rigidity and accept mental agility? As that young schoolgirl, I began to end the thoughts on what I could be thinking as I leaned into those blank pages. And instead opened my heart to what I felt. Pain. Pain. And sadness. And it’s a failure. And I’m sorry.— Gilbert K. Chesterton”]
There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds and this is real.
Analysis already demonstrates that progressive recognition of all our emotions — even the chaotic, challenging ones — is the foundation of survival, flourishing, and real satisfaction. Yet emotional agility is more than emotional approval, we all recognize that consistency counts. I considered the words key in my own study. We also use short, simple labels to identify our feelings. “I’m stressed,” I hear more often. But there’s a lot of difference between depression and dissatisfaction or tension, and the knowledge-dread of “I’m in the wrong profession.” By correctly marking our thoughts, we’re better likely to distinguish the exact source of our feelings. And what scientists term our brain’s “readiness capacity” is triggered, making us take immediate action. But not only some moves, the correct moves. Our emotions are info. Our feelings include flickering lights that we think for.
In our environments, we prefer not to experience heavy emotions to objects that represent little. If you’re upset reading the news, maybe the anger is an indication you respect justice and fairness — and an incentive to take proactive action to mold your life in that direction. When we’re open to challenging feelings, we may produce values-aligned reactions.
Although there’s a major caveat. Emotions are info, not orders. We should stand up.