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Episode 130
The Doctor's Farmacy

Attaining Freedom Through Emotional Agility

Open the Podcasts app and search for The Doctor’s Farmacy. If you’re viewing this site on your phone, you can just tap on the

Tap the subscribe button and new shows will be added to your library.

If you’re using a different device, our show is available on the following platforms.

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How do we want to show up, especially when things get tough? This is a great question to ask ourselves right now. 

But many of us are resistant to acknowledging when things just don’t feel all that great. We’ve grown up trying to gloss over uncomfortable feelings and society has put an emphasis on avoiding vulnerability. Being vulnerable and showing up in our difficult emotions are actually super important steps, though, if we want to be emotionally agile.

On this episode of The Doctor’s Farmacy, I was excited to chat with Susan David about emotional agility and skills for dealing with the real world from an open and honest place, without running from the feelings that we don’t like. 

We kick off our conversation by looking at the differences between emotional fragility versus emotional agility. In this emotionally trying time, it’s important that we feel strong in our ability to handle whatever the world gives us. We don’t always have to be positive and find the silver lining, in fact, evolutionarily it serves us to acknowledge uncomfortable emotions so that we can effectively adapt and shape our experiences. Emotional agility is being compassionate and curious with our thoughts, feelings, stories, and emotions so that we can do that. 

Susan explains how societal norms have gotten most of us stuck in a place of rigidity and how we bottle and brood our emotions and stories, rather than sit with them, and why that is so detrimental to everything from our careers to relationships, health, and so many other areas of life. 

We discuss how to take value connected steps—physical actions to help us show up in difficult times—so that we can strengthen our emotional agility and find gentle acceptance. 

Susan is such a wealth of knowledge when it comes to taking on the emotional and psychological stressors of life, which most of us are feeling especially pressured by right now. I hope you’ll tune in to learn from her insights in this episode.

Get your copy of Emotional Agility here.

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I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD
Mark Hyman, MD

In this episode, you will learn:

  1. The key question that drives Susan’s work
    (3:55 / 7:55)
  2. How an invitation to, “write like no one is reading” started Susan on her path to understanding the importance of emotional agility
    (7:37 / 11:37)
  3. Emotional agility vs. positive psychology
    (8:50 / 12:51)
  4. How bottling and brooding emotions negatively impacts us
    (13:02 / 17:03)
  5. How being outpaced by technology has affected our emotional lives
    (17:54 / 21:55)
  6. What is emotional agility, and what are values-connected steps?
    (21:22 / 24:05)
  7. Why we need to become more aware of how we treat our difficult emotions and do away with the judgement we have about certain emotions
    (34:45 / 37:28)
  8. The importance of practicing greater emotional granularity
    (40:02 / 42:45)
  9. A tool for working with someone who feels stuck
    (47:52 / 50:35)
  10. The emotions of fear, grief, anxiety, and anger that so many of us are feeling during the coronavirus pandemic are normal
    (52:20 / 55:03)


Mark Hyman, MD

Mark Hyman, MD is the Founder and Director of The UltraWellness Center, the Head of Strategy and Innovation of Cleveland Clinic's Center for Functional Medicine, and a 13-time New York Times Bestselling author.

If you are looking for personalized medical support, we highly recommend contacting Dr. Hyman’s UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts today.

Susan David

Susan David, Ph.D. is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist. Her new #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Emotional Agility, describes the psychological skills critical to thriving in times of complexity and change. Susan’s TED Talk on the topic went viral with over 1 million views in its first week of release. She is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and guest on national radio and television. Susan is the CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, a Cofounder of the Institute of Coaching (a Harvard Medical School/McLean affiliate), and on the Scientific Advisory Boards of Thrive Global and Virgin Pulse. 


Show Notes

  1. Take the free Emotional Agility Quiz here.
  2. Watch Susan’s TED Talk, The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage here.
  3. Listen to Susan’s podcast, Checking In with Susan David here.

Transcript Note: Please forgive any typos or errors in the following transcript. It was generated by a third party and has not been subsequently reviewed by our team.

Susan David (00:00):
I think that really life is asking all of us right now, “Who do you want to be? Who do you want to be and how do you want to show up?”

Dr. Mark Hyman (00:11):
Welcome to The Doctor’s Farmacy. I’m Dr. Mark Hyman and it’s Farmacy with F. F-A-R-M-A-C-Y, a place for conversations that matter. And today’s conversation is with Susan David, who’s an extraordinary psychologist, and a woman who’s going to talk to us about something called emotional agility, which is something we should all pay attention to today because it’s a very emotionally trying time for all of us, for many reasons, not to mention the pandemic, which is mirroring the 1918 pandemic economic collapse, which is mirroring the Great Depression and the racial strife. And it’s a tough time for everybody. But we have an extraordinary woman here to talk to us today, who’s a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, her new book, Wall Street Journal’s number one bestselling book, Emotional Agility, is based on the concept. That the Harvard Business Review heralded as a management idea of the year and winner of Thinkers50 Breakthrough Idea Award, which is I think what it should be.

Dr. Mark Hyman (01:10):
It’s kind of right up there with emotional intelligence as a new concept of how we navigate life. She describes the critical skills we need to thrive in times of complexity and change. Her TED Talk, which is fantastic, went viral with over 1 million views its first week. And it’s over 7 million views. I just looked at it. She’s a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. She’s a guest on national radio and TV. And she’s just an extraordinary woman who’s got a lot to say about why we’re so messed up and how to get un-messed up. So thank you so, so much. Yeah. Thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Mark Hyman (01:47):
We’re in amazing time right now, unlike any in our history. I just was speaking to a man who has been through it all. He’s been senator and secretary of state and all this, just had an extraordinary perspective on history. And this is really unprecedented. I think we’re in a moment where we’re seeing a collection of events happen all at once that are fraying the edges of our society and that are challenging us to show up in new ways and to think differently about our lives. I mean, we’re all socially distanced. We’ve all been all of a sudden, given a giant timeout by God for being maybe bad kids. I don’t know. It’s stopped us in our normal lives and it allowed us to stop and think about who we are and what we want and how we want to live, how we manage this.

Dr. Mark Hyman (02:35):
And some people are thriving. Some people are drowning. It’s all driven in a way by our thoughts and our ways of dealing with life. And you have a very interesting perspective on how we deal with the challenging things in life, the twists and turns that happen and the challenges. And I think that’s what’s so great about your work. So this whole idea of emotional agility is actually a science-based concept. It’s not just airy fairy thing. And you talk about how, regardless of how people are and how intelligent they are, how educated they are, how creative they are and what type of personality they have, that it’s actually how they navigate their inner world that determines their success, their feelings or thoughts, their self-talk, their inner dialogue.

Dr. Mark Hyman (03:21):
So tell us about how you came up with this idea. Because you had a very interesting challenge in your own life that led you to this and with your father. And maybe you could share a little bit about that and how this has led you to this idea of emotional agility.

Susan David (03:37):
Thank you. Yeah. These are all important questions for the times that we live in. And I think that really life is asking all of us right now, “Who do you want to be? Who do you want to be and how do you want to show up?” And there really is an invitation to all of us. So yeah, I mean, I have focused my work on one key question and it’s this, what does it take internally in the way we deal with our thoughts, our emotions, and also the stories that we tell ourselves that help us to thrive in the world. Because as you mentioned, it doesn’t matter how educated or how smart we are. Fundamentally, how we deal with our inner world drives everything. It drives how we come to our careers, what careers we even put our hands up for, our relationships, our parenting, our health, every aspect of how we love, how we live, how we parent and how we lead.

Susan David (04:40):
And yeah, I really started working on this idea not in the hallowed halls of Harvard, but as so many ideas and careers are forged in the messy tender business of life. I grew up, I was a white South African. I grew up in apartheid South Africa in a white community. And it was really a community that was committed to not seeing, to not seeing the other, to denial. And then when I was around 15 years old, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. And I recall my mother, I talk about this in my TED Talk, I recall my mother coming to me and saying to me, “Go and say goodbye to dad.” It feels like yesterday, I remember going through to where my father, the heart of our home laid.

Susan David (05:41):
And his eyes were closed, but I knew that he knew, as one does, when you feel seen by a person, I knew that he knew that I was there. And I kissed him goodbye, I told him I loved him, I went off to school. That day he did die. On the Monday, my mother came and said that we should go to school. My father had been dead for two days, but she felt that it was really important for us to keep a routine and keep a sense of continuity in our lives. And this was going to be really helpful. I remember going to school and essentially going from one subject to the next, from math to history and what was May became September, became November. And I went about with my usual smile.

Susan David (06:30):
And people would say to me, “How are you doing?” And I had grown up in a community in which you would pretend you are being, that everything was okay or where there was this narrative of denial. So I was like, “I’m okay. I’m okay.” And I became the master of being okay. But in truth, we know that internal pain always comes out. Internal pain always comes up, whether it’s for us as individuals or in our families or in our communities, internal pain comes out. And for me, this was my experience, which is on the face of it I was saying to people, “I’m okay.” But behind closed doors, my family was struggling. My mother was grieving the love of her life. She was raising three children and the creditors were knocking. We were struggling.

Susan David (07:21):
And I really was unable to deal with the weight of my grief. And for me, as so many young girls do, that took the form of bingeing and purging. Shortcut the story, which is really being in English class one day and an English teacher handing out blank notebooks. And she said, and I’ll never forget this, “Write. Tell the truth. Write like no one is reading.” And that invitation, that profound invitation to show up authentically to what I was experiencing really shaped my life. And it shaped what you mentioned earlier, which is this idea that in order to be thriving human beings, we need at a fundamental level to be healthy with ourselves, to be healthy with our emotions. And it’s only when we move into that space that we are able to forge ways in our communities, in our larger perspective and narrative of mental health and wellbeing, and in creating a world that we most want to raise our children in. So these are the skills that I focus on, which is the internal health and wellbeing, which I can define further, but which I’ve come to call emotional agility through my work.

Dr. Mark Hyman (08:49):
Yeah. This whole idea of emotional agility is very different than this positive psychology, which is like just buck up and think positive thoughts. And you’re saying that doesn’t work and it just gets suppressed and it comes out sideways and all sorts of things like bingeing and purging or eating too much, or having bingeing on sugar, laying, watching Netflix all day. It doesn’t actually serve you to be a happy human. And you’re seeing sort of happiness comes through dealing with, and success comes through dealing with these dark places. So it’s almost like the dark side we press down and ignore in favor of the light side, but it doesn’t actually go away. So it comes out in ways that harm us. Talk about how you sort of stop this judgment of bad emotions and good emotions and this sort of dichotomy that we get into.

Susan David (09:37):
Yeah. I think this is really important. If we think about the world that we’re in right now, which is a world of complexity and challenge. And then we think of who is probably one of the most profoundly important voices in talking about evolution. And of course, it’s Charles Darwin. So what was this perspective on emotions that Charles Darwin had? It wasn’t that there were good emotions and bad emotions. It was that actually every single one of our emotions, even if they don’t feel good, every single one of our emotions has evolved to help us to adapt in the world.

Susan David (10:18):
So if you simply push aside difficult emotions, if you said to yourself, “I’m struggling right now, but there are many people who are struggling more, therefore I’m not allowed to you feel that I’m struggling.” Or if you’re bored at work and you say, “Gee, but I shouldn’t be bored, I should at least be grateful that I’ve got a job.” What you are doing is you are pushing aside some of the core signaling functions that we have as human beings, that then help us to adapt and shape our world in ways that affect us.

Susan David (10:51):
So there’s this really interesting narrative that exists in society, on social media, this idea that we’ve just got to think positive, that we’ve got to find silver linings all the time, that we’ve got to be positive, that if people are negative, we’ve got to push them out of our lives. And this, on so many levels, this is unhealthy. For us as individuals it’s unhealthy because when we push aside our difficult emotions, it’s not like they just go away. Really what you’re doing is if you’re pushing aside difficult emotions in the service of forced positivity, you are failing to actually develop skills to help you to deal with the world as it is, which is filled with grief and pain and suffering and complexity. So you’re failing to develop a skill to deal with the world as it is. Instead, you’re forcing positivity and trying to kind of move into some false illusion of what you want reality to be.

Dr. Mark Hyman (12:03):
That’s true. It just reminded me of this experience I had when I was a … I went through a tough time and I was talking to this psychologist, psychiatrist I was seeing, about the difficult relationship I was in. He said, “Are you going to relate to the person in front of you or the person in your head?” It’s like, I had an idea of what I wanted and what I thought should be and the positive notion of it, but I wasn’t actually dealing with the reality in front of me. And I was being in denial of actually what was happening. And it caused tremendous suffering for me. And until once I realized that I was like, are you going to write to the person you want or the person you have?

Susan David (12:37):
That’s such a beautiful insight. And it’s so profoundly important because again, these difficult emotions don’t go … Just disappear. We know that when people push aside in the way that this therapist was saying, you don’t face into the reality of what is. When we don’t do that, what we often do is we start to hustle with our feelings. So we start to either on the one hand, what I call bottling, where we push aside the emotions. We say, “I shouldn’t feel that. It’s a negative feeling. I’m not allowed to.” We might only allow emotions that seem legitimate, like joy or positive. And basically what we’re doing is we’re bottling those emotions.

Susan David (13:21):
But what is bottling? Bottling is avoidance. And with avoidance often comes the kinds of behaviors that you spoke about earlier. It’s like we’re avoiding what’s going on, but we’re drinking more. We’re doing Netflix more. We aren’t facing into a heartbreak that might be right in front of us and that if we face into, we’ll be able to prepare ourselves more for. So that’s one of the things we do when we don’t face into the reality of our experience. The other, which looks completely different from bottling, is brooding. So brooding is when we get so stuck in our difficult feelings. I feel so bad. This is terrible. Why every time does this happen to me? And what we’re doing is we’re doing a denial of a different form. We’re so focused on ourselves that we aren’t able to see-

Dr. Mark Hyman (14:15):
We’re becoming a victim.

Susan David (14:16):
Yeah. You’re not seeing the child in front of you. You’re not seeing your loved ones. You’re not seeing your colleagues because we’re so focused on ourselves. And as it turns out, bottling and brooding look so different. The one is about denial and the other is about getting stuck in. But both of those, when you look psychologically at the outcome, what you find is that brooding and Butler both associated with lower levels of wellbeing, high levels of depression, anxiety, lower capacity to actually problem solve, get your resume together, have the tough conversation, do what needs to be done.

Susan David (14:54):
And it is also associated with, of course, as you could imagine, lower quality of relationships. Because when you aren’t able to be vulnerable with your emotional experience with others, they don’t see you as human and connected and authentic. So that’s, again, the bottling part. The brooding, when you’re so focused on what it is that you’re feeling, it’s difficult to connect. So there’s a really tough impact when you in habitual ways deal with your emotions in this brooding or bottling. And of course, again, our societal narrative in many ways conspires against us being healthy with our emotions. It’s somehow conveys this idea that if you’re just positive, things will be okay, but it just doesn’t work out that way.

Dr. Mark Hyman (15:43):
Throughout about human history, I imagine, we’ve not been that much awake as human beings. Is this an age old problem and we’re just naming it and identifying it now, or is this something new, given the stresses and challenges of our society? Because it seems like there’s way more depression, way more mental health issues and challenges we’re seeing. You’re suggesting that part of the mental health issues we’re facing are a result of flaws in our thinking and flaws in our relationship with our emotional life that get us into these troubles, whether it’s brooding or bottling or what other challenges we face in actually having an authentic relationship with our feelings.

Susan David (16:23):
Well, and that’s a really important question. I think that there are parts of that thinking about emotions that are historical, that if you look at how learning of particular subjects that seem more literal and able to be quantified, for example, mathematics, those types of subjects in schools have historically been elevated. And then, of course, the default becomes that the things that are much more difficult to quantify are put in this bucket of so called soft skills. And it’s not that they’re soft. Of course, there’s nothing soft about them. They are the most critical skills, but there’s definitely been a historical demonization of emotions.

Susan David (17:16):
We see this in psychology itself. So in psychology, if we think about the whole transition of psychology, where we had the focus on Freud and your internal world. And then of course, the behaviorists came out and said, “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. If you can’t measure it, it’s not important.” So emotions went into again that, well, it’s difficult to measure. Therefore, it’s not important. We know it’s important. We know it’s important. So I think there’s some things that are historical, but there’s also a couple of things that are going on in our reality. In our reality, we as human beings have been outpaced by technology. We’ve been outpaced by technology.

Dr. Mark Hyman (18:03):
What does that mean?

Susan David (18:04):
Well, think of something as simple, not simple as social comparison. 20 years ago, if you were comparing yourself, you might compare yourself to a person who you didn’t like in high school, who’s now driving around in a Ferrari. Okay? But it was one person and you were comparing yourself to that person. Now we are comparing ourselves to literally millions of those people on social media. So our capacity to actually process all of the different pieces of information that are going on, firstly, about social media, but about other things as well, where the more we are faced with information that feels very complex, that we don’t know, that feels ambiguous, the more, as human beings, we default, as human beings, to fear, trying to fill in the blanks, trying to create stories of what could be.

Susan David (19:02):
We then find that this fear that we often experience gets transposed into much more of an us and them, because if I can protect myself from the other. So we find greater levels of stereotyping, more rigid thinking. So a very long short answer to your question is that I think that the signs of this are historical, but I think that there’s something that’s happening in the moment, which is this nexus of technologies, social media, difficulty in being able to process the information that exists, that basically leads us as human beings to often engage in what I call cognitive rigidity or emotional rigidity, where rather than being emotionally agile, we go on autopilot. What am I doing here? Who don’t I like? Who do I like? We engage in habits that don’t connect with our intentions and we suffer. We really suffer.
Speaker 3 (20:03):
Hi, everyone. Hope you’re enjoying the episode before we continue. We have a quick message from Dr.
Dr. Mark Hyman about his new company, Farmacy and their first product, The 10 Day Reset.

Dr. Mark Hyman (20:13):
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Speaker 3 (21:20):
Now, back to this week’s episode.

Dr. Mark Hyman (21:22):
Can you talk a little bit about how you define emotional agility?

Susan David (21:27):
Yeah. Emotional agility at its core is about being firstly compassionate with ourselves, our thoughts, our emotions, and our stories. I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second. But first, it’s about being able to enter into a space in which we are compassionate. The second aspect is about being able to be curious with our thoughts and our emotions. What is this emotion signaling to me about what’s important. If I feel rage when I watch the news, that rage is a signpost that I value equity and fairness. So our difficulty emotions, what I’m proposing here is that our difficult emotions aren’t just things we need to get through, but that our difficult emotions actually signpost what is most wise and connected and values aligned and intentional for us as human beings.

Susan David (22:31):
So emotional agility, it’s the ability to be able to be compassionate, curious with our thoughts, our emotions, and our stories. But also, it’s not just this abstract idea. It’s the ability to be courageous enough to take values-connected steps. So a very big part of emotional agility is-

Dr. Mark Hyman (22:53):
Can you just define what are values-connected steps? That seems like an important phrase.

Susan David (23:01):
It is. If I, again, going back to the example that I mentioned earlier, if I feel rage when I watch the news, I could push that aside or I could be hooked on the rage and just act in a way that hurts me. But if I’m able to show up to that rage and say to myself, “You know, what is it that I’m feeling right now? What is this difficult emotion that I’m experiencing? What is this emotion signaling to me that is important?” Okay. So for me, the rage is signaling that I value fairness and justice. And there isn’t enough of it.

Susan David (23:41):
Values-connected steps are then about saying, what are actual physical actions that I can take that bring me towards my values? And what’s really important here is you not doing this in the heart emotion. You’re not doing it in the rage and so now I’m acting out. Rather, you’re doing it in a way that feels intentional and connected and that is bringing you closer to being the person you want to be. And I use that example with rage, but I can give you a different example, which is imagine you’re feeling bored at work. So that boredom, and it doesn’t matter how busy you are, because you can be busy bored as well.

Dr. Mark Hyman (24:24):

Susan David (24:25):
That boredom can be a signpost that you value growth and learning and that you don’t have enough of it. Now, if you simply push aside that difficulty motion and say, “Well, at least I’ve got a job.” Then you aren’t able to enter into the space of using that emotion effectively. In five years time, you could turn around and say, “Gee, I’ve been in this boring job for the past five years.” But now you’ve lost five years of opportunity to do something about it. So values-connected steps is this idea that when we become more able to metabolize discomfort, because sometimes the emotions we’re facing into are uncomfortable, they’re telling us about a society that feels wrong or a job that isn’t going to work out or even a relationship that isn’t going to work out.

Susan David (25:16):
But when we face into that discomfort and when we become better at metabolizing discomfort, we are able to be more intentional and to be more aligned with who we want to be as people. And this is the hallmark of integration and psychological health and wellbeing, which is about feeling connected and aligned as human beings.

Dr. Mark Hyman (25:42):
Amazing. One of the things that you talked about, which is very interesting, which is, we often collapse our thoughts, our emotions and our actions into one thing. So we think something, then we have an emotional response and then we have a behavior that happens all at once. And what you’re talking about is a different way of relating to this, slowing that whole thing down and doing what you call stepping out or detaching from or observing your thoughts and emotions and seeing them for what they are, not just thoughts and emotions.

Dr. Mark Hyman (26:12):
This reminded me a lot of the teaching of Buddhism, where you sit and observe your thoughts and you realize you’re not your thoughts. You’re not your emotions. You’re not even your body. And it allows you to witness with what they call witness consciousness, what’s actually happening in your mind. Instead of being so carried along by the waves of your mind, you’re actually watching them and then you can choose to respond or not respond. That is a very difficult thing to do. So you’re talking about something that I think is right and that we all need to do, but it seems really hard to do. So first, what is the value of stepping out and how do you do it? Because it seems like a super hard thing to do. I mean, unless you spend days and days meditating.

Susan David (26:56):
Emotional inagility or emotional rigidity is where there’s no space between us and our response. Examples of this might be, you think something, “I’m being undermined in this meeting so I’m just going to shut down.” Or, “There’s no point in me applying for this job because I’ll never get it,” is the thought that you have. And therefore you don’t apply for it. And we can be emotionally rigid, both in situations that exist at work and in our general lives. But we can also, even within our homes, be very emotionally rigid, as we know. We can have precious time with our families and then use that precious time on our cell phone at the dinner table.

Susan David (27:44):
So what we can often do is without even thinking, we engage in these habitual responses to our thoughts, our emotions and our stories. A thought might be, “I’m not good enough. There’s no point in me even putting my hand up yet.” An emotion might be, I’m stressed and so what I automatically do is go for the chocolate. And a story might be a story that was written on my mental chalkboard when I was five years old, a story about who I am, what kind of love I deserve, whether I’m creative or not creative. And the first thing that is really important with this is to recognize that these thoughts, emotions and stories are normal.

Susan David (28:30):
There is nothing inherently wrong with having a tough thought or a tough emotion. In fact, we have around 16,000 spoken thoughts every single day, thoughts that course through our mind, should I do this? Am I good enough? Is that person good enough? They just want some criticisms and all of these things. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this. This is your mind, your body doing the job that it was meant to do, which is to protect you and position you in the environment so that you can be effective. And if we even just think about it at a kind of basic level, there’s all of these noises and sensory pieces of input that come through into our worlds every day.

Susan David (29:25):
And it’s my story-making capability that says to me, “Oh, that noise, that noise is your washing machine. You can ignore it. But that noise is the noise of your child crying. Don’t ignore that.” So as human beings, we weave together these thoughts, these emotions, these stories in ways that are coherent, that make sense to us and that are critical in order for us to make our way through the world. But what sometimes happens is we sometimes buy into, we get hooked by a thought and emotional story. So I feel something, I feel sad, I’m just not going to get out of bed today. My husband’s starting it on the finances, I’m going to leave the room.

Susan David (30:19):
When we’re getting hooked, when we’re being rigid, what’s happening is there’s no space between us and the thought, the emotional story. We just feel something, we treat it as fact and we act on it. And I’ll always think here of the beautiful Viktor Frankl idea that is so profoundly important right now in this moment in history that we’re all in. It’s this Viktor Frankl who survived the Nazi death camps, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose. And it’s in that choice that lies our growth and freedom.” When we are hooked-

Dr. Mark Hyman (31:02):
So for people who don’t know the story, this was an Auschwitz concentration camp who made a choice not to let his external circumstances affect his internal happiness and experience, even though he was in a concentration camp faced with death. That is the most extreme situation you can imagine yourself in. And yet, he was able to disconnect his experiences from his emotional state, which is a really rare thing, but it’s an incredible lesson of how our happiness is not necessarily determined by our external circumstances, but it’s determined by our thoughts and emotions and our beliefs.

Susan David (31:37):
Yeah. And what Victor Frankl’s doing there is he’s describing something that’s incredibly powerful, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose. And it’s in that choice that lies our growth and freedom.” When there’s no space between stimulus and response, that’s when you’re hooked. That’s when you are rigid. I feel upset. I’m going to shut down. So that is this rigidity. The psychological term for it is fusion. We become fused with our story or our thought or our emotion, we start treating it as fact. So what emotional agility is, it’s the skills that enable us to firstly, show up to those difficult emotions because we don’t get any place by ignoring them.

Susan David (32:28):
We’ve got to face into our difficult emotions with [inaudible 00:32:32] levels of acceptance and compassion than society would dictate, particularly these kind of just be positive narratives would dictate. But the other thing that we need to do is we need to develop the skills that enabled us to recognize that our emotions are data, yes. But they are not directives. Just because I feel sad and I show up to that sadness doesn’t mean I need to listen to it. It doesn’t mean that I need to then do anything that the emotion tells me. We own our emotions. They don’t own us.

Dr. Mark Hyman (33:14):
Not for most people.

Susan David (33:16):
So you say, and I think you’re so right. You say this is a tough skill. It’s a tough skill. And of course it is. A lot of times people say, “Well, the emotion just caught me off guard. I didn’t see it coming. It’s difficult for me to create the space.” But what I’ve found in my work is that actually most of us, we might say that our emotions catch us off guard, but for most of us, actually, we live into pattern responses. If we think about an argument that we might have with our spouse, we’ve had that argument 20 times before. There’s a pattern response that we’re living into.

Susan David (33:55):
So one of the most important parts of being more emotionally agile is recognizing what are some habitual ways of responding. That if you can say, “Gee, this is habitual way, but it’s not serving who I want to be.” Then we can start interceding. Because of course, what is the difference here? The difference, it’s not about whether a thought and emotional story is good or bad. It just is. What makes it not effective is when it’s taking us away from our values, when it’s taking us away from being the partner or the loved one that we most want to be. And that’s when we need to be creating that space.

Dr. Mark Hyman (34:43):
Powerful. The challenge is, how do you teach people how to do the stepping out? Because you can think about it, but in the moment you’re just in it. So how do you get people to create that space between stimulus and response? Because it’s a great idea, I think we all want to do it. We just find it very difficult to do it.

Susan David (35:04):
The first thing I would say is that before we even create the space, it’s important to even think about how do we treat those difficult emotions. Because if you’re not even aware of the fact that you angry and then you say, “Oh, that anger caught me off guard.” But actually, the anger started 15 or 20 minutes, but you weren’t even aware because we’re disconnected with ourselves. We’re living in our heads. We’re not actually connected with our bodies. We’re not actually kind of experiencing the emotion. There are a couple of things that I think are really important to this.

Susan David (35:42):
The first step towards becoming more emotionally agile is to see if you can do a way with judgments about whether an emotion is good or bad. All of us have these judgements very often and some of these judgments born out of our childhoods. We can have situations where if you said, “Go to your room and come our when you’ve got a smile on your face.” Or, “We don’t do anger here.”

Dr. Mark Hyman (36:14):
We don’t cry here.

Susan David (36:14):
Or we don’t cry. If you’ve got a child who comes home from school and is upset because they’ve been rejected, as a parent with really good intentions, you can say to the child, “I know Jack didn’t play with you today.” Or, “I know Jack didn’t invite you to the birthday party, but don’t worry. I’ll play with you.” And we try to kind of paper over our children’s emotions and we do it with really good intentions. But what is it signaling to the child? It’s signaling that sadness is to be feared, sadness is to be done away with, and that being happy is what counts and that if you want to explore latter, as it relates to children, it actually undermines our children’s resilience.

Susan David (37:03):
But what’s happening here is we often have these display rules, these display rules that exist in our culture or in our families about what emotions are okay versus not okay. And the first way to step into greater levels of emotional agility is to really think about like, are there some emotions that you don’t do, that you have those disparities with? So that’s the first thing, is moving away from judgment of emotions being good and bad. They just are. And I think it’s really important for all of us in the space that we’re in right now to face into ourselves and our situations with greater levels of what I might call gentle acceptance.

Susan David (37:56):
What do I mean by this? Gentle acceptance, it’s like if you went outside and it was raining, gentle acceptances is gee, it’s raining. Okay? Not gentle acceptance is gee, it’s raining and why does it always ran when I don’t want to train? Just when I thought I was getting ahead of the rain, it starts raining again. And what we’re doing is the more we try to control what is uncontrollable, the more we increase our level of suffering. And the same applies in ourselves. The more we try to control whether we should or shouldn’t feel angry, sad, frustrated, the more our suffering and the less our ability to then step out of emotion because it’s going to catch us off guard.

Susan David (38:45):
So the first thing I would say is see if you can practice greater levels of gentle acceptance. What does that mean? It means that what you feel is what you feel. There’s no wrong or right. It just is. It just is. So that’s the first step. The second is the stepping out. And if it’s helpful to you, I can talk about some strategies that might be useful to people.

Dr. Mark Hyman (39:09):
Yeah, I would think it would be good. Because I think practically I’m wondering how do you create that space between stimulus and response in a practical way. I mean, rain is easy to accept, but if your spouse is yelling at you or you think your boss is mad or you feel like you’re in a situation, you lost your job. I mean, these are harder things to deal with. And we tie our emotional wellbeing to our external circumstances, which is understandable, but it’s really a way of thinking about freedom, you’re talking about freedom. So emotional agility is freedom from being hooked into the various traumatic or difficult or stressful experiences that we have and having those determine the quality of our life, as opposed to it being determined by our inner resilience.

Susan David (39:51):
Yes. Yes. And there is profoundly important research and strategies that can help people with this. I’ll give you an example. If someone’s facing into difficulty right now and they’re saying, “I’m stressed. Okay. I’m stressed.” Often, as human beings, what we do is we use these very blanket labels to describe what it is we’re feeling and I’m stressed as the most common one. What I’ve found in my work and what others have found in their research is there is a concept that’s called emotional granularity. And emotional granularity is quite simply this, how to be more accurate with what it is that you’re feeling.

Susan David (40:36):
Because when we label our emotions as stress, when we say, “Gee, someone’s just stressing me out.” There is nothing that I can really do with that as a person. If I’m feeling stress, that stress becomes all-encompassing, but there is a world of difference between stress and disappointment. Stress and that knowing, knowing feeling of I’m in the wrong job or the wrong career. Stress and the discomfort of this relationship that I hope is going to work out isn’t working out. Stress and I feel depleted.

Susan David (41:27):
When you label everything as stress, you don’t know what to do with that. When you just go a lower level into the emotion and you say, “What is this emotion in a more granular way?” What we know is that the simple act of just labeling that emotion more accurately allows our bodies and our psychology to understand what is the cause of the emotion and what do I now need to do in relation to it. So someone who feels disappointed, maybe the action is the conversation. But for someone who feels depleted, maybe the action is gee, I’m in a situation here, but I actually need time for myself. I need self-nurturance.

Susan David (42:19):
One of the first things that I think is really important is for us as human beings to practice greater levels of granularity. And you’d mentioned earlier that example of you know, when you’re in the midst of a fight for instance. I had a client that I was working with and I thought this was just such a beautiful example. He would label all of his emotions as angry. And in fact, he would label or to be his team’s emotions is angry. Everyone, according to him, was angry. He would say, “The team’s angry with me.” Like, “I’m angry.” And we started just thinking about like, what is this label that he’s using and what is really going on?

Susan David (42:59):
So I would say to him like, “What are two other options?” Like, “What are two other options?” And he started saying to me, “Well, yeah, I realize that I’m always jumping to that everyone’s angry, but I think actually the team is mistrusting. I’m seeing it as anger, but I think actually it’s mistrusting. What I’m seeing me that I’m calling anger is actually fear. I’ve got a fear that I’m not performing in this environment as I should be.” Now, of course, when he was in the meeting he would say, “Gee, I’m angry and the team’s angry.” But the more we slow down into thinking about … Dan Kahneman has got that beautiful model around the way we kind of often jump into making conclusions, but how we can just slow ourselves down that the restoration that happens in all of our lives is what happens in the pause.

Susan David (44:03):
Yes, you might’ve had a tough meeting at work today, but when you go home and you think about it and you give yourself the space to do so, you are more likely the next day to then not be hooked by the emotion because you’ve given yourself the space of restoration. Restoration happens in the pause. This guy was so fascinating. Months later I went out for dinner with him and his wife, who were good friends. And she said to me this completely changed their relationship, because he would come home from work and he would say to her, “It looks like you’re angry with me today.” And she would be, “I’m not angry. I’m tired.” Or, “I’m not angry. I just need to be seen.”

Susan David (44:54):
So you can see that this, when we invite greater levels of emotion granularity into our lives and into the way we describe our experience, we start automatically creating greater levels of space, maybe not in that one fight in the instance, but over the experience that we are having that is incredibly important. So that’s one strategy. There’s another that I can give you as well that might be helpful.

Dr. Mark Hyman (45:24):

Susan David (45:25):
But yeah, just, if you feel … Another is often when we describe our emotions, we’ll say things like, “I am.” “I am sad.”

Dr. Mark Hyman (45:37):
Oh, yeah.

Susan David (45:40):
“I am stressed.” “I am angry.” Of course, what we’re doing here is we are describing the emotion as if we, all of us, 100% of us is that emotion. I am sad.

Dr. Mark Hyman (45:57):
I’m a man. I’m a woman.

Susan David (46:00):
I’m defined by my emotion, but of course you aren’t your emotion.

Dr. Mark Hyman (46:05):
I’m feeling angry. I’m feeling sad.

Susan David (46:07):
You aren’t your emotion. You are much more than your emotion. Your emotion is a data source to be evaluated, but you’re much more than that single emotion. You’re your intentions, your values, who you want to be in the situation. So again, it’s such a simple strategy. And of course, this strategy is mostly thought of around kind of more Buddhist spirituality. But this, psychologically, is called diffusion. Diffusion is that experience when you are sitting in the meeting instead of, I am being undermined, I’m noticing the feeling of being undermined. I’m noticing the thought that my boss is a complete idiot. I’m noticing that this is my I’m not good enough story and there’s no point in contributing. When you notice your thoughts, your feelings, your stories for what they are, they are thoughts, feelings, and stories. They’re not fact.

Dr. Mark Hyman (47:12):
Something like meditation is a great technology for helping to slow that down so we can just sort of witness those things. Because that’s the whole practice, you just said, “I can’t meditate. I’m always thinking.” Like, that’s the point. You’re just watching and you’re noticing your thoughts.

Susan David (47:24):
You’re noticing. You’re noticing and you can bring that noticing into a meeting. You can bring that noticing into a fight. You can bring that noticing into your rage. And start saying like, “What is the value that this rage is signaling?” We can bring it. And when we do it, we start creating space. Because of course, what is this? This is linguistic space that we’re creating. We’ve often had this experience, as human beings, where we’ll talk to ourselves. If you’re going through a tough time, it’s very powerful to say to yourself, instead of, “Gee, I’m struggling here.” “So Susie, what would you do right now?” This is what we call changing the third person perspective. And we know that when we do this, when I’m working with clients and if you’ve got listeners today who are feeling stuck.

Dr. Mark Hyman (48:24):

Susan David (48:24):
Okay. So people are feeling stuck and often when people are feeling stuck, they’ll say, “I don’t know what to do in this situation.” They’ll go to a coach, they’ll go speak to a manager and they’ll say, “I don’t know what to do.” And the manager says, “Well, what are some solutions? What are some suggestions?” And the person says, “I don’t know. By definition, I’m stuck, and that’s why I’m asking you for your advice.” Okay. This is such a fascinating thing that happens. When you are working with someone and that person is stuck and you say to them, “What are some ways that you could move yourself forward, given what you’re facing?” Whether it’s job loss or you’re struggling in a relationship. The person will often say, “I’ve got no suggestions. I don’t know what to do. I just feel so immobilized.”

Susan David (49:12):
You can say to the person, “Imagine bringing into this room an individual who loves you, who cares for you, who is the wisest person you know.” And we ask this person, “Person, what do you recommend for this situation?” All of a sudden this individual who’s been saying, “I’m stuck. I’ve got no suggestions.” When they bring an imaginative person into the conversation says, “Well, they would advise me that I should get my resume together. They would advise me to do this. They would advise me to have a conversation.” Yeah, it’s the same person. All we’re doing is we’re changing perspective. And of course, mindfulness is an alternative perspective. Writing brings a different perspective. Asking yourself in the third person, so, “Susie, what would you recommend now?” Brings a perspective. All of this is about creating space between yourself and the response.

Dr. Mark Hyman (50:13):
I’d like to sort of end with a question for you, which is in your own life, how has adopting that perspective of emotional agility helped you? Where has it changed how you relate to the things that matter for you in your life? Can you share your story?

Susan David (50:30):
It’s changed me enormously. The first way that I think it has changed me profoundly was actually something that I think circles back to the story from early on with my dad, when I was the little, when I was about five years old, I became aware, as many young children do, of their own mortality. At around that age, children become a way that one day they will die or one day their parents will die. And I recall going night after night, after my parents had put me to bed finally, into my parents’ room and I would lie between my mom and my dad and I would sob. And I would say to my dad, “Promise me you’ll never die.”

Susan David (51:19):
Now, at this point, my father hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer. He was completely well. Neither of us knew that in 10 short years he would be gone. And I would say to my dad, “Promise me you’ll never die. Promise me.” And my father would comfort me with soft pets and kisses, but he never lied. He didn’t try to build some false buffer between me and reality. He could have said to me, he could have said, “Oh, don’t worry. You’ve got nothing to worry about. I’ll always be around. I love you no matter what.” He could have done that, but he didn’t. He said to me, “Susie, it’s normal to be scared. We all die. It’s normal to be scared.”

Susan David (52:07):
And what I felt he tried to guide me through and that I’ve tried to use in my own parenting is I think he was trying to guide me into this idea that one of us, especially now, are feeling difficult things. Fear, grief, anxiety, anger. There’s so much going on. And those emotions are normal. Those emotions are actually normal. We are experiencing a virus. We are experiencing threat. These emotions are normal. These emotions are normal. It’s normal to be scared. But we can face into those emotions with compassion, with curiosity. What are they trying to teach me? What venues are the emotions trying to point me to?

Susan David (52:58):
And what I feel he was trying to show me is that courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is about noticing your fear, but then moving forward in your life in ways that are values-congruent. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking. So how have I use that in my own life? I think firstly, in my parenting, I try that even when my children are sad or upset or frustrated, I try to show up to those emotions and create space for those emotions. Or try never to suggest to them that some emotions are welcome and some are unwelcome. But again, to recognize that I can show up to my son’s frustration with his baby sister, it’s not the same as endorsing his idea that he gets to go away to the first stranger he sees in a shopping mall. We own our emotions. They don’t own us.

Susan David (53:58):
So this idea of showing up to ourselves, but then saying, “What venue is being pointed to here and how can I move towards that value, even if it’s uncomfortable.?” And I’ve tried to do that. What does that look like for me? Sometimes it looks like it’s uncomfortable for me to apologize. But my value is one of apologizing because that’s important in the relationship. I’m not perfect at it, but I try to be kind around those emotions and to show up to them, but also moving towards values, even if it’s uncomfortable or even if I want to be right moving towards those values. So I think that’s … It’s not my lesson. It’s my father’s lesson.

Dr. Mark Hyman (54:46):
Yeah. That’s beautiful. Well, thank you for sharing that, Susan. Your work right now is more important than ever. I think the notion of emotional agility, the ability to be resilient in the face of all the challenges we’re all facing is so important and your work is such a voice for that. And I encourage people to check out your TED Talk, The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage, which is fabulous. Your book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Sounds like a good tagline to me.

Dr. Mark Hyman (55:15):
And for those who want to learn more about emotional agility, there’s an amazing quiz on emotional agility that you can go find at So thank you so much for being on the podcast, Susan. We loved having you. And for those listening, please share with your friends and family on social media. I think they need this one. Leave a comment, we’d love to hear from you. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And we’ll see you next week on The Doctor’s Farmacy.

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