A Leading Harvard Psychologist on How to Cope with Difficult Emotions—Without Shutting Them Down

“Recognize that emotions, even difficult emotions, are normal.”

Susan David, PhD, is a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, co-founder of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, and the author of Emotional Agility. Her writing has been featured in Harvard Business Review, New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and more. She was recently joined by Daniel Pink, bestselling author of Drive and To Sell Is Human, for a Heleo Conversation on why we should stop smothering our emotions and learn to listen to the valuable information they offer.

Daniel: We’re going to talk for a few minutes about emotions and about how to deploy them successfully, how to avoid emotions getting us down. Susan, what is emotional agility?

Susan: Emotional agility is the ability to be with your thoughts as well as the emotions that come with them and the stories we tell ourselves, in ways that don’t derail us.

Daniel: That means positive and negative emotions?

Susan: All emotions. It’s recognizing that our emotions contain really important data, which is often forgotten in our “think positive” happy culture, where we want to push difficult emotions aside.

Emotional agility is the capacity to be open to all emotions, but also recognizing that emotions are data, not directions. It’s a process by which people can recognize, name, label, and be effective with their emotions, and move forward in ways that are congruent with their values and intentions.

Daniel: Emotions are data not direction—but give us a little bit more on what that means?

Susan: We live in a society that tells us to think positive, be happy, and everywhere we turn, we are effectively encouraged to push our difficult emotions aside in order to develop that positive thinking orientation.

What the research shows is that those processes don’t work. When individuals strive to be happy they actually become less happy over time. What I mean when I talk about emotions as data is that emotions contain very important information about our life directions. I have never met a depressed person who isn’t concerned about how to better be in the world, someone with social anxiety who isn’t saying, “How can I belong there?” A parent who feels guilty is often experiencing dissonance with really being present.

If we can stop smothering our difficult emotions and rather become open to them and what they might be telling us, we can use that as an important data point in terms of how we shape our goals and priorities, what we say yes to, how we live, love and lead.

Daniel: Okay, so give me an example of how you use emotions as data rather than direction.

Let’s say that I’m sitting in my office, I’m really, really frustrated. How do I use that as data rather than direction?

Susan: What often happens when people experience frustration is they’ll say, “You know, I’m really frustrated, but I’m just going to do my two hours of work today.”

Daniel: Just push past it.

“If I don’t want to think of chocolate cake, what do I do? I dream of chocolate cake. I don’t want to go to the meeting, what do I do? I become more and more resentful.”

Susan: What we start to do, instead of just breathing into the frustration, is wrap ourselves in what I describe as “have to” goals.

Daniel: Right.

Susan: “Have to” goals are goals that are constructed out of a sense of obligation or shame. For example, I have to lose weight. Or I have to go to this meeting even though I really just don’t want to. We know from emotions research that when we construct “have to” goals, we tend to psychologically automatically rebel against those.

If I don’t want to think of chocolate cake, what do I do? I dream of chocolate cake. I don’t want to go to the meeting, what do I do? I become more and more resentful. If you can start thinking of your frustration as, ‘I’ve got this important message that I’m trying to get across, and I may not have found the right route at the moment, but this is the intent.’

When I go to this meeting, it’s important to me that we connect and deliver a particular experience to our customers.

So what we start doing is moving from “have to” goals to “want to” goals, that are genuinely autonomously connected with our values.

Daniel: I think that’s the key: the difference between self-direction and control.

Susan: Absolutely, and so often the control in our organizations is externally imposed.

We as individuals can construct lives where we are controlling ourselves, where it’s all about, “I’ve got a set of goals to achieve and I’ve got to be disciplined.” We actually lose the heartbeat of our own why—why we want to be doing this particular thing, what the message is for us, who we want to be.

Daniel: The other aspect that you talk about is the importance of labeling your emotions. Why is that essential?

Susan: We know that so many people use very non-nuanced labels for their emotions. For example, we come home from work and say, “I was stressed today.” Then the next day, “How was your day?” “It was just a little bit stressful.”

There is a world of difference between being stressed versus disappointed, frustrated, angry. When we label something with this broad stroke, it doesn’t enable us to take this difficult experience and to put it into a shape that we can act on.

There’s this beautiful body of research that shows that when people become more accurate at labeling their emotions, in particular their difficult emotions, it helps them not just to integrate that experience effectively, but to activate the readiness potential in our brains. We start to prepare for action, for goal-setting, in ways that are critical.

Daniel: Right, because it’s specific rather than general. If I’m feeling a general sense of malaise, there’s nothing I can do about it. If I’m feeling distressed because of a particular moment or circumstance, then I actually have a potential solve the problem.

What does this mean for parents? How do parents understand this concept of emotional agility and use it to help their kids?

“The World Health Organization predicts that by 2030, depression, not heart disease, not diabetes, not cancer, will be the leading cause of disability globally.”

Susan: I’ve got a whole chapter in the book on this and recently had an article in the New York Times on how to teach your child emotional agility. This is critical. The World Health Organization predicts that by 2030, depression, not heart disease, not diabetes, not cancer, will be the leading cause of disability globally.

When we function in an environment at home where we don’t allow, often with the best of intentions, our children to experience jealousy, frustration, anger, anxiety, then what happens is they don’t become competent with navigating them. We know that parents often unwittingly convey what are called “display roles.”

A “display role” is where there’s this implicit expectation in a family of “we don’t do anger here.” When you’re angry, go to your room. We don’t do sadness, when you come home and you’re sad because no one would play with you. I’ll take care of it. I’ll speak to the mean kids’ mothers’ and deal with it.

Daniel: Right.

Susan: What we are messaging to our children is that these emotions are to be feared, that somehow the emotion is bigger than us. A critical part of helping our children to develop emotional agility is being okay with all emotions in our household. That doesn’t mean that every emotion needs to be acted upon.

If my child is angry with his little sister, it doesn’t mean that he can give her away just because he wants to.

We’re trying to help children to develop this willingness and acceptance around emotions. The second critical aspect of this is helping children to label their emotions at a very young age.

Daniel: Interesting.

Susan: Research shows that at two and three years old, if we say to our kids, “Are you feeling angry or sad?” that they are able to start developing language around emotions. Third, and most critically, is to help our kids problem-solve around their emotional experience.

This is not about us saying, “No one would play with you. Why don’t I bake cupcakes with you.” But much more about, “What would help you to feel better? Do you need some time to yourself?” I’m giving examples for younger children, but these same principles continue into adolescence.

Daniel: It reminds me of some of the problems that kids today have. I don’t want to sound like an old man saying, “Kids today…” but we have this upsurge in allergies, for instance. Our lives have become so sanitized. This reminds of an emotional sanitization. If a negative emotion comes in, we’re going to get out the hand sanitizer and scrub it away.

Susan: Yes.

Daniel: As a consequence, kids don’t build that emotional immune system.

“Often, with very good intentions, we take away the opportunity of our children to develop the resilience that they will need in a world that is unpredictable and complex.”

Susan: What you’re talking about is this idea that we can engage in emotional helicoptering. I had this experience many years ago, where I took my son to the doctor for his shots. He was a tiny little baby, had never even cried.

It was his first experience of the real world. I remember handing him over to the nurse and this little boy went from ga-ga, googly, everything’s fine into this look of outrage, his first tears. I remember picking him up and trying to console him and saying to him, “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

The nurse looked at me and she very calmly, compassionately said to me, “It’s not okay, Susan. Your child is experiencing pain. It will be okay, but it’s not okay.”

My point being that often, with very good intentions, we take away the opportunity of our children to develop the resilience that they will need in a world that is unpredictable and complex.

Daniel: You also write about management and leadership: what’s one takeaway for the legions of managers and bosses and leaders?

Susan: There’s this real paradox in organizations, which is that we are asking our employees to be adaptive, innovative, creative, inclusive, because times are complex. We need our employees to deal with this complexity.

From an evolutionary perspective, we know that when people face uncertainty and fear, they tend to do the opposite. They tend to become transactional instead of relational, closed-down on ideas instead of innovative, competitive rather than collaborative. For managers, a really important aspect of emotional agility is recognizing that all of us get hooked into “I need to be right, what I say goes here.” Leaders who go into meetings so focused on the task that they forget the objective.

For leaders, recognize that emotions, even difficult emotions, are normal. When managers start saying things like, “You’re either on the bus or off the bus. You’re either with me or against me,” what we’re doing is engaging in this non-nuanced way of experiencing emotions. So, number one, all emotions are normal.

Number two, is for leaders to ask themselves, “Are there any things that I’m doing where I’ve become so focused on being right that I’ve forgotten about does this thing serve the team, the organization? What’s the actual objective of this meeting?”

Daniel: Do a lot of leaders have the self-knowledge to have that conversation with themselves? To say, “Am I too concerned about being right? Am I focused on the objective rather than merely the task?” It seems like there’s some learning that has to go on at the executive level.

Susan: There is learning. At the same time, all of us become hooked in ways of being, and even know that we’re hooked. We’ve all had experiences when we’re getting more and more upset about something. Then that little voice goes off in our mind that says, “You might be upset, but yelling at this person is not going to help.”

How do we develop this meta-view? You’re absolutely right, part of this is about recognizing that we have stories that we tell ourselves, we have ways that we get defensive in patterned, predictable ways. If we as leaders can start recognizing that more effectively, then ultimately we can bring ourselves in better ways to the context that we face.

Daniel: Here’s a question from a follower on Facebook: ‘What if your child is highly sensitive and cries and other people don’t understand this?’

“Fundamentally, our children want to be seen. No matter what emotions they’re experiencing, if we can see them and those emotions, it can be incredibly important and helpful.”

Susan: There’s fabulous research showing that when we simply are present with our children when they’re experiencing difficult things, when we literally show up, before we even start trying to label or do anything, this feeling of being seen helps to de-escalate children’s emotional experience. There’s this beautiful phrase in South Africa, “Sawubona.” “Sawubona” is the greeting that Zulu people say when they’re basically saying hello to one another. “Sawubona” quite literally means “I see you.”

I see you and by seeing you I bring you into being. Fundamentally, our children want to be seen. No matter what emotions they’re experiencing, if we can see them and those emotions, it can be incredibly important and helpful.

Daniel: Does this idea of being seen apply to employees, as well?

Susan: Absolutely. I did some research with a very large professional services organization. There were 180,000 people in the organization. We looked at the hot spots in this organization, the pockets of the organization where there is outstanding engagement, revenues, brand favorability.

We coded individuals’ responses about what helps you to bring the best of yourself to work. Every word that was three letters or longer got coded into an analysis. One of the core aspects of effectiveness is what we called individualized consideration: the idea that when I was seen as an individual by my leader, by my manager, it helped me to feel that I could bring the best of who I was to the workplace.

Daniel: It’s at the most granular level. ‘Most employees expect stoicism and lack of emotional recognition.’ What do you think about that?

Susan: I recently wrote an article for Harvard Business Review on the concept of emotional labor. When we go to work, we also do emotional work. The most well known of this might be in a call center, where no matter how much you’re being yelled at, you’re expected to go through the script and smile and so on.

When people are asked to act in these ways that are so disconnected with how they truly feel, it’s predictive of high levels of burnout, and high levels of stress and anxiety. On the other hand, when people are allowed to be who they are at work, and to connect with their own sense of purpose, and their own “want to” goals, the level of acting is not as strenuous and there are low levels of burnout.

Daniel: If you put it all together, it distills into something that is fundamentally human. You’re basically saying, “Take every person as he or she is. Don’t think of them as a population, don’t think of them as a symbol. Just treat them as an individual.” That’s on the manager’s side. On the individual side, it’s saying, “You are a rational creature, but you’re also an emotional creature.”

Susan: Yes.

Daniel: These emotions, as you say, are not problems to be solved, they are data to be harvested. You’re trying to reawaken this idea that, as individuals, we’re complex, we’re differentiated from each other, and that we’re not merely a brain walking around in an upright body.

Susan: Yes. We so often live life as a problem to be solved.

What I talk about is the idea of ending any struggle that you have with your emotions by dropping the rope. By not questioning whether you should or shouldn’t be upset or disaffected in your job, or whether that’s an okay experience to have. Rather, notice it, label it, breathe into it, and then to choose who’s in charge here, the thinker or the thought. Who’s in charge, the emotion or me, the person who’s big enough to experience my emotions. We don’t get to that place by jostling and hustling with what is okay or not okay to experience.

Daniel: So much of what you’re saying goes back to this idea of self-determination. Ultimately, healthy people have a sense of sovereignty over what they feel, what they do, what they think, how they navigate their way through life. You don’t want to have emotions be a captor. They are not that, they’re just another part of who you are, and they are a facet that you can use in your own self-determined life.