Emotional Agility

  |   Patricia Tiernan
Meaningful life

The key to living a fulfilling life – Emotional Agility


How often have you regretted overreacting to a situation or ignoring your gut instinct? Did you stop to ask what your emotions were really telling you? Or did you feel shame for having uncomfortable emotions in the first place, that you should be grateful for your lot?

What if you could develop a skill that would support you feel more connected, not sweat the small stuff and build resilience in the face of adversity?


What is Emotional Agility?


Emotional Agility is a critical skill that drives how we love, live, parent, work and lead. How we deal with challenging situations, like the pandemic, break down of a relationship or loss of a job.


Dr. Susan David a Harvard Medical School Psychologist and leading expert in Emotional Agility defines it as

“Emotional agility = an individual’s ability to experience their thoughts and emotions and events in a way that doesn’t drive them in negative ways, but instead encourages them to reveal the best of themselves.”

Emotional Agility is the ability to look within at – your thoughts, emotions, and stories – without getting hooked. It is normal to have thousands of thoughts, emotions and stories going on every day. It’s normal to have difficult thoughts, emotions and stories. It’s not the having the negative thoughts, it’s the getting stuck in them and not being able to move forward in a way that is aligned with our values that causes so much heartache. Emotional agility is key to thriving.


For example as a Career Coach, I work a lot with people who are really unhappy about their career. It is common for me to meet people who are feeling sad and demotivated. Some people may ignore their feelings for years and do things like over shop, over drink etc. to numb the pain. Others can get sucked deeper into the story that they hate their job, watching out for all the evidence that supports that, he said/she said, can you believe what they did now. Ruminating on the thoughts only to feel more miserable and to act in a way that does not sit with their values. For example, they might start talking about a coworker, purposefully doing the bare minimum of work, snapping at loved ones etc. Only for their actions to cause them to feel even more unhappy.


Emotional agility is zooming out and recognising that unwanted feelings are actually serving you a purpose. A negative thought isn’t bad and positive thoughts aren’t good, they just are. They are information, which tells us something.


With curiosity we can recognise, that I am not sad, at this moment I feel sadness. What is it that is causing me to feel sad at this moment? So for example, a client I worked with recently dug deeper and realised she was sad because she didn’t feel her profession was valued and she wanted to work in a skilled role, where she could feel she was helping people. With this knowledge, she was able to take action to look for a helping professional role that could meet those values.




The way we navigate our inner world – our everyday thoughts, emotions, experiences, and stories – determines our success and happiness. As Shakespeare said ‘Nothing is either good nor bad only thinking makes it so”. It drives our actions, careers, relationships, happiness, health; everything. Instead of getting stuck and sucked in by our thoughts, emotions, experiences, you’re able to learn from them. They are like signposts.


For example: Do we let our self-doubts, failings, shame, fear, or anger hold us back in our career or personal life? Does it stop us from asking someone out, or going for a promotion? Are we able to face our fears to achieve our life goals, but just as importantly, have the courage to recognize when these goals are not serving us, and adapt accordingly? Are we able to make real and important decisions, form habits, and take actions that serve how we want to live?


How do you build emotional agility skills?

Emotional Agility

Dr. Susan David in her book ‘Emotional Agility. Get unstuck embrace change and thrive in work and life’ pin-points seven ways to build our emotional agility muscles.


  1. Foster the courage and compassion to face your difficult emotions.

So for example instead of giving out to yourself that you should be grateful, you have a job, with curiosity, self-compassion and courage ask yourself what is behind your unhappiness at work.

Letting go of self-criticism and expectations of perfection (within yourself, your work, your life at home). Letting go of the thought that you are supposed to feel happy all the time.

In fact, research shows the opposite – that self-compassion sharpens your edge. Appreciating that self-compassion is not about lying to yourself. People who are self-compassionate are more likely to face the truth about themselves and their weaknesses than those who lack self-compassion.


  1. Shift perspective zoom out to take a different view

Look at what the situation might look like from another person’s point of view. Ask yourself is my thought true? How might someone I admire view my reaction? How might they react? What are my values, how might I react in accordance to them? What really matters here?


  1. Let go of being right

So for example, I have worked with people who have felt wronged when overlooked for a promotion and thought it unfair. They get stuck in this thinking, it affects their work and their relationships. They become demotivated. They get stuck in being right.

It can be helpful to zoom out and look at what may have caused them to be overlooked. Are there similarities in the types of people who get promoted? Is there a gap in their skills? What is their visibility like at work? What are they known for? What is in their control? What is out of their control?


  1. Identify your why

What are your core values? What brings meaning to you? Useful to think about the highs and lows in life. Can be when values or being met or not. When people are unhappy in work or indeed in their relationships it can be that a core value is not being met.

What matters most to you? Keep track of moments in your day that you find most meaningful and see if there is a pattern.

  1. Walk your why. Make daily choices that reflect what matters to you.


You would think it would be easy to walk our why but with ever-increasing distractions like social media, fast food, online shopping, demanding work commitments, working from home etc. etc. we can get sucked into other peoples why’s and brought further and further from our own. Every day we have hundreds of choice points. Do I contribute to the meeting or do I shut down?


Small shifts of habits that impact every aspect of how we love, parent and lead.


It takes courage and effort to make daily choices that reflect what matters to you. So for example you may value connection with friends and family. However, you are really busy and keep pushing back on making real-time for them. You don’t want to do another zoom call you find them draining. Ask yourself what action will move you towards your values. Even knowing that can support us to take meaningful action, like picking up the phone instead or arranging to meet for a walk outside.


  1. Take on challenges that push you to the edge of your ability, even when it is uncomfortable.


It’s a myth that if you are doing what you want to do you won’t feel discomfort. For us to grow and develop change is needed. Change brings uncertainty and often awkward unwanted feelings. When we look back on life, it is when we challenged ourselves to stretch we gain the most pride and satisfaction for what we achieved.

Choose courage over discomfort.


  1. Be open to change.

If the pandemic has thought is anything it is a reminder that life changes, you change. Know when to grit and when to quit. Recognise when your value may be causing you harm. For example, I have worked with people who value social justice, sacrificing income, social life to give their all to their work. Only to be left burnt out as they did not honour their others values in life. Sometimes you need to dial down a value or dial-up another.