The Gift And Power Of Emotional Courage With Susan David

Our emotions are powerful things. They can be both the passion that drives us towards our goals, but also the fear that prevents us from taking the first step. Psychologist Susan David is all too aware of the danger of not knowing how to deal with our emotions.

For her, the revolution was in understanding the concept of emotional rigidity. Our default responses to emotions are, in essence, quite rigid. We judge ourselves for feeling “bad” emotions – fear, sadness, anger – and respond with false positivity and denial.

But these are bad responses to completely normal emotions. Repressing a seemingly negative emotion is the worst thing you can do; it’ll always resurface at some point. This might be as the original emotion, or it could be a physical symptom or over-blown response to a minor inconvenience.

Rigid responses don’t work. If you’ve experienced any kind of negativity that you’ve tried to suppress, you’ll know this to be true. Unfortunately, this is a society-wide problem caused by the overwhelming abundance of positive people. However, what we don’t see is that they’re mostly faking it.

What Is Emotional Agility?

Emotional agility can be rephrased as the “correct” response to these “bad” emotions. It’s essentially developing the skills needed to deal with emotions in a way that allows us to not become overwhelmed by them. There are a few ways to do this:

1. Don’t Hate Negative Feelings

We all have negative feelings about one thing or another. The importance is to not treat them as bad; they’re completely normal. Accepting emotions for what they are – emotions – is one of the most important steps on the journey to resilience. Know they will happen and be ready for them.

2. Develop Your Emotional Language

It’s all too easy to reach for a quick emotional identifier: “I’m stressed”, “I’m angry”, “I’m sad”. But, in essence, these mean very little because they’re incredibly overused.

Instead, dig a little deeper into what your mind is trying to tell you. Does “I’m stressed” mean “I’m anxious about an upcoming event at work” or does it mean “I’m finding it difficult to deal with everything that’s happening”? It’s vital to expand our emotional vocabulary if we want to deal with emotions correctly.

3. Understand That You’re Not Your Emotions

Importantly, this leads to the final step: you are not your emotions. When you say “I’m stressed”, you become the emotion – it is you. However, when you say “I’m feeling stressed because…” you put a degree of separation between you and the emotion. It suddenly becomes something you feel rather than something you are.


Working through these steps builds emotional agility. When faced with a challenge, being able to identify and describe your state of mind is vital for working out a plan of action. Your emotions are data that hold value but shouldn’t direct you. Making this simple change in your language and thinking holds the key to truly processing emotions – both positive and negative.

You can check out Susan David’s full TedTalk here.