Why We Should Embrace Rather Than Push Away Our Difficult Emotions

“In order to be effective, we need to develop strategies to be able to open our hearts to the emotion, ‘This is how I’m feeling.’”

Susan David is the author of Emotional Agility, a leading psychologist at Harvard Medical School, and the co-founder and co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital. She recently met with Beth Comstock, vice chair of GE and head of GE Business Innovations, for an installment of her Change Makers Book Club. They discussed the myth of positive thinking, how to bring your emotions into the workplace, and strategies for career transitions.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view Susan and Beth’s full conversation, click below: 

Beth: You bring a unique point to the power of positive thinking. You’re not such a fan.

Susan: Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-happiness. I’m a very happy person. In fact, at one stage I wrote an 80-chapter book called The Oxford Handbook of Happiness, which is literally the end-to-end, what do we know about human happiness.

But my concern about this positive thinking movement, and this focus on happy, happy, happy, is that we live in a world that is imperfect. There’s this beautiful saying, “Expectations are disappointments waiting to happen.” When we start to focus on happiness as a goal, and set expectations about our own level of happiness, we know from the research that over time those individuals actually become less happy.

Beth: Why is that?

Susan: What I think happens is that our difficult emotions are often signposts to the things that we most care about.

As an example, if I’m feeling guilty because I’m traveling a lot and I’m away from my children, while I might be saying, “Let me just be positive, let me just be happy,” that guilt is a signal that being a present, connected parent is important to [me].

If your idea has been stolen at work and you are angry about it, what that is signaling is that you have a value around equity and fairness. When we just push our difficult emotions aside, we fail to face into the learning that can come from those difficult emotions—about what is important to us that then helps us to navigate the world effectively.

Beth: I hear a lot of self-discovery in what you’re talking about. People have to stop and ask themselves, “Why am I feeling this way? What is important to me at this moment?”

Susan: Yes, and often in very practical ways. Think about change. So often when people are going through change, everyone says, “I’m just so stressed. I’m so stressed, I’m so stressed.”

Beth: Or “I’m so busy.”

Susan: “I’m so busy, I’m so busy.” Now that is a very normal thing. Everyone does it. But there is a world of difference between “I’m stressed” and “I’m disappointed,” between “I’m stressed” and “I’m anxious,” between “I’m stressed” and “I thought that my career would be so different, and my contributions so different, and I’m really sad about a loss of time.”

If I was working with an executive coaching client who said to me, “I’m just stressed” and I took that at face value, I would say, “Let’s learn how to delegate more.” But if what’s really going on is, “I think I might be in the wrong career,” then tips about delegation don’t cut it.

“When you label your emotions more effectively, it activates your readiness potential, your ability to set goals and to make real concrete changes.”

Beth: They’re not really going to help.

Susan: We know that people who are more fine-tuned about the label that they use for their emotional experience tend to be happier over time. They’re facing into their emotions. They’re not pretending in the service of happiness. But they actually land up being happier over time, they have high levels of wellbeing over time.

What’s really interesting is when you label your emotions more effectively, it activates your readiness potential, your ability to set goals and to make real concrete changes.

Beth: How have you dealt with change in your own life? Do you have advice for making transitions in career paths?

Susan: One of the most pivotal experiences that I had in my career was actually before my career even started.

When I was 16 years old my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. And I experienced firsthand what so many of us experience in the day-to-day world, what a friend of mine described as the tyranny of positivity. She said to me, “You know, if it was just a case of being positive, the friends in my stage-four breast cancer support group would be alive today. Because they were the most positive people that I know. And keeping on getting this messaging of ‘I’ve just gotta be positive, I’ve just gotta be positive,’ makes me feel culpable in my own death. That somehow I wasn’t positive enough to think my way out of it.”

So my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I had so many people coming to me and saying, “Just be positive, everything will be fine, everything’s gonna be okay.”

But it wasn’t okay. My father was dying, and then dead.

And I had this remarkable English teacher who engaged me in what became a secret, silent correspondence. She invited us to keep journals, and every day I would write in this journal about what I was going through, the pain that I was facing, and I would hand it in to her, and then she would respond with notes and thoughts and poems and comments.

Now, what I realized afterwards was it was not the “ignoring, just grit through it, everything will be fine” that helped me. What enabled me to move through that transition was facing my emotions, labeling my emotions. I wrote an article recently on the science of journaling, how incredibly helpful it is if you’re going through change at work, a job loss, a relationship change.

Beth: How do we do that? Just write down how we’re feeling?

Susan: Research has shown clearly that twenty minutes a day for three days a week—

Beth: Doesn’t matter if you write bad?

Susan: You just write. People who are going through a job loss, for example, who write about those difficult experiences for twenty minutes a day for three days—six months later they are significantly more likely to have been rehired. But more than that, they have higher levels of psychological health, higher levels of wellbeing, and greater levels of goal attainment in other areas of their lives.

To come back to this question of career transition, I would ask [a person considering a change] if there any goals in your life that are what I call dead people’s goals. Are you in a situation where you’re saying, “I want to apply for this job but I’m not going to because I may fail.” If you’re starting to things like, “I don’t want to be hurt, I don’t want to be sad, I don’t want to be rejected, I don’t want to fail,” you are setting a dead person’s goal. Because dead people never fail, dead people never get stressed. We don’t want dead people to be our role model. That is the first question I’d ask: Am I engaging in dead people’s goals?

The other thing that I would ask is, are you in situations where you are choosing comfort rather than courage?

Beth: Do you think you know that, if you’re in that situation?

Susan: I think a lot of people do. What’s really interesting is we get into patterns of being hooked, where we have the same argument time and time again, where we apply for the same job time and time again, we leave the same job time and time again.

Because our brain is wired this way—there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s normal—we often choose to be in situations of comfort rather than courage.

Beth: You advocate bringing your emotional self to work. Work is a hard place for people to feel comfortable in general, but especially when being vulnerable with their emotions. How do you advise people to take those steps?

“If you try not to think about something, in about one minute you will think about that thing 40 times. Pushing our emotions away doesn’t work.”

Susan: We don’t get a choice as to whether we bring our emotions to work or not. If you’ve got a team leader who says, “I’m really angry with my team, but I’m just not going to say anything because we’ve got to focus on the project,” that team leader is doing what I call bottling emotions. They might be doing it with the best of intentions, but when you push emotions aside, there is what we call in psychology amplification.

All of us have experienced this. You don’t want to eat chocolate cake because you’re trying to eat healthy, so you try not to think about it, and what do you do? You dream about it. With amplification, the very things that you try to push out of your mind—”I’m just not going to say something to the team,” or “I’m going to ignore the fact that I’m angry with my brother-in-law,”—it comes out in a snide remark.
We also know that if you try not to think about something, in about one minute you will think about that thing 40 times. So pushing our emotions away doesn’t work.

Beth: We’re fooling ourselves.

Susan: In order to be effective, we need to develop strategies to be able to open our hearts to the emotion, “This is how I’m feeling.”

Beth: How do you bring emotions into the workplace while avoiding oversharing with your colleagues? You want to express yourself, but you don’t want to become a burden to your colleagues or for them to think you’re weird.

Susan: Bringing your emotions to the workplace is not the same as wearing your heart on a sleeve, telling people how you feel all the time. What I’m talking about is being connected with your inner heartbeat, your inner why, what is going on for you, labeling your emotions effectively, asking yourself how your emotions are serving you or not.

So often what we do in the workplace is we get stuck in our emotions. We have a thought: “I’m not good enough,” or “My boss is an idiot,” we have an emotion—fear, stress—or we have a story, “I would love to put my hand up for that job or role, but I’m just not good enough.”

And so we have these thoughts, emotions, and stories, and they’re normal. But when you crawl into a thought, emotion, or story, and allow it to drive your actions in ways that are values-incongruent and misaligned with who you truly want to be, that’s being “hooked.”

So for example, “I’m not being heard,” or “My boss is an idiot,” [might lead to] “I’m just gonna shut up.” Or “My partner’s starting in on the finances, so I’m just going to walk out the room.” You wind up having this lack of space between your thought or emotion and your action.

Beth: So give yourself some space is what you’re saying.

Susan: Give yourself some space.

Beth: Is it like saying “I’m going to sleep on it,” and you go home and think about it? Do you say, “I’ll get back to you?” What’s a good tactic?

Susan: Victor Frankl, who survived the Nazi death camps, had this beautiful attributed idea, which is: Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose. And it’s in that choice that comes our growth and freedom.

So you’re sitting in that meeting and saying to yourself, “I’m so upset, I’m just going to keep quiet,” or, “There’s no point in talking in these meetings anymore,”—yet if you asked yourself, “Who is it that I want to be in the world?” you might find that who you want to be is a contributor. A collaborator. A team player.

But when you’re sitting in that meeting, shutting down, you are hooked. Your thoughts and emotions are driving your actions, rather than your values. Our hooks stop us from being the person who we most want to be.

Beth: How do we unhook?

Susan: There are distinct and important aspects to it.

The first is what I call showing up. Recognizing that we don’t need to struggle with whether our emotions are good or bad. They just are. There’s this beautiful phrase in South Africa: when Zulu people are saying hello to one another say, “Sawubona.” And sawubona quite literally means, “I see you. And by seeing you I bring you into being.”

“Who’s in charge? The thinker or the thought?”

Beth: So showing up is a way of accepting that there are imperfections?

Susan: Showing up is recognizing that all of us, every single one of us is doing the best we can with who we are, what we’ve got, and where we find ourselves in the world.

The second part of emotional agility is being able to step out of your emotions. Who’s in charge? The thinker or the thought?

When you’re hooked, your emotions and thoughts are driving you. Stepping out is the ability to start creating space that allows you, in the fullness of who you are, to be in charge.

There are very simple ways that we can start doing this in the meeting. Instead of just saying, “I’m stressed, I’m stressed,” ask “What is really going on with me? I’m feeling disappointed, or I’m feeling sad, or I’m feeling undermined.”

Another practical strategy is noticing your thoughts and feelings for what they are. They are thoughts and feelings. They are not who you are; they are data, not directions.

The third aspect of emotional agility is what I call walking your why. We all go through life in such a busy way that we often stop paying attention to our own inner why.

Imagine, for example, you are trying to be healthy. You’re tying to lose weight. Now, you get an on an airplane, and you are sitting next to a seatmate, and you don’t even know your seatmate, but your seatmate buys candy on the airplane. Your chance of buying candy increases by 30%.

This is the phenomenon that we call social contagion: someone else is buying candy, we’re going to buy candy. We’re in an elevator and people are looking at their phones, we look at our phone. Everyone else is moaning about what’s going on at work, we start moaning about what’s going on at work.

What protects us from that? What helps us? Having a sense of: Who do I want to be? What kind of me do I want to be?