Think back to the last thought that ran through your mind. (It was probably about one tenth of a millisecond ago.)
It may have been something along the lines of:
'I'm not good enough to go for that job.'
'I'm being undermined.'
'My relationship is going nowhere."
How did it make you feel? And what story did it conjure up?
Human beings will have somewhere between 50,000 - 70,000 thoughts on average per day. (Yes, it is something that researchers have looked into -- and deliberated). And whilst the number isn't so important, what we can agree on is this: that is a whole lot of thoughts.
What you are left with is a crowded mind, interwoven with a range of emotions and feeling that lure us into thinking that they are nothing but pure fact. And so they drive our actions.
So how can we cut through the noise?
Let us introduce you to the term 'emotional agility'.
In order to effectively deal with our emotions, we need to understand the scope of them. Harvard-trained psychologist Dr Susan David has written a whole new book about it.
"Emotional agility is the ability to have a full range of emotions and experiences, including difficult ones, and still choose to act in a way that enables you to live your life in a way that is in accordance with your values," David told HuffPost Australia.
We need to have the ability to be agile within ourselves in order to cope with, be resilient and thrive within the context of life as it is, not as we wish it to be. Susan David
"It's all about learning how to deal with our thoughts, emotions and the stories we tell ourselves about what we deserve."
So thoughts, feelings and emotions are all different?
Yes. Yes, they are. And before we go any further, it's helpful to understand how.
"An example of a thought might be: 'I'm being undermined in a meeting'. Or, simply, 'I'm stressed'. Emotions might be things like sitting in your meeting and feeling a sense of anxiety or dread. Stress isn't an emotion in itself but it certainly goes into the experience of how we feel," David said.
"The story that we then tell ourselves might be: 'I'm being undermined. Every time I try to make a conscious contribution to my life, I never get through.' So I may as well give up."
While there is nothing inherently wrong with these thought processes, society has been built to react negatively to them.
"A lot of popular psychology takes the approach that having bad thoughts is undesirable, and good thoughts will materialise positively. By the same token, we are taught to believe that there are good and bad emotions," David said.
When we see them as being 'bad', we push them aside, we fail to learn to adapt effectively.
"We as human beings have evolved with these thoughts and emotions because they help us to move forward. What makes them difficult is the societal narrative that there is something wrong with them. And when we treat them as direction, they start to own us."
A look at stress:
"Stress is often seen as being inherently bad. While we know from research that when people have excessive and unwarranted stress that there is a negative impact, the idea that stress equals bad is untrue to the reality of human experience," David said.
"If you take the opposite of stress -- which is always being in a place of comfort -- what you have is someone who actually isn't growing. Moving in the direction of things that are uncomfortable is how we learn."
Have you ever felt stressed about your stress, paradoxically creating more stress?
"This secondhand stress can actually be more detrimental than the core stress itself," David said.
As such, common behaviours are 'bottling' and 'brooding'.
"Often when people are feeling stressed, instead of noticing it for what it is, they bottle it. They feel it, but they push it aside," David said.
"The opposite is where you go over and over it in your mind. Neither of those ways helps you to deal with the stress itself. Very rarely are you moving to a point of clarity."
How can I learn emotional agility?
Show up to your emotions.
According to David, the first step to learning emotional agility is to actually recognise and accept how you feel.
"It's so important to show up to that stress, for example, and to accept it with compassion, courage and curiosity," David said.
One truth of human behaviour is that only when we accept where we are currently can we then start to make change.
"So often we beat ourselves up for feeling a certain way. Instead of asking, 'why am I not coping when all of my colleagues are?', think 'I'm doing the best I can with the resources that I have'. When we are accepting of our emotional experience, we can start to accept our reality."
Step away from them.
Once you've showed up, step out. (Yes, we're still talking about emotions).
"A lot of the time when a person is stressed, they'll use black and white labels, such as 'I'm stressed'. But there's a world of difference between feeling stressed versus anxious, or disappointed," David said.
When you say, 'I'm stressed', you are 100 percent conflating yourself with your stress.
"What is critical is being able to label your emotions in a more nuanced and accurate way, to articulate exactly what you are experiencing."
"Notice the thought or feeling for what it is. It might sound simplistic, but this starts to create powerful space between you and the emotion. In that space, what choices do you have?"
Bring in your values.
"Emotional agility is not just about saying, 'I feel stressed, therefore I should do something different.' Part of what is critical is starting to recognise who we want to be and how to bring our values into these situations," David said.
While we tend to see values as somewhat abstract, David describes them as "qualities of action".
"If you're in a difficult meeting, and you choose to speak out, see this as a choice based on you valuing growth, not one based purely on your job description."
And start to make some changes.
If you find that you're taking your work stresses home, in a way that is inconsistent with your values of being a connected partner or parent, David suggested bringing in 'value-aligned habits' to piggyback your old habits.
"Put your keys and your phone in the draw when you get home," she said.
That's a start.
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