The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 50

Susan David

Emotional Agility

How can you break the unhealthy patterns in your life? In her new book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, Dr. Susan David argues we need to make room for our emotions so that we can make sound decisions when we are in triggering situations. Discover the questions you can ask yourself to understand your emotions in the moment, how to avoid “bottling” and “brooding,” and the danger of setting happiness as a goal.


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Book: Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life
Bio: Susan David, Ph.D., is a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School; cofounder and codirector of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital; and CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, a boutique business consultancy. An in-demand speaker and advisor, David has worked with the senior leadership of hundreds of major organizations, including the United Nations, Ernst & Young, and the World Economic Forum. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including Harvard Business Review, Time, Fast Company, and The Wall Street Journal. Originally from South Africa, she lives outside Boston with her family.


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most. With us today is Susan David. She’s a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, and she wrote a fantastic book called Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.

Those of you who listen to this podcast regularly know that I am a strong fan of emotions and that I believe strongly, and I’ve said this before, that if you’re willing to feel everything, then you can do anything, that the only thing that stops us from having a hard conversation, taking a risk – The reason we get defensive when someone criticizes us – is because there’s something we don’t want to feel. If we expand our capacity to feel, we expand our capacity to act. I’m particularly delighted to have Susan with us today who’s written this book about, in effect, how to feel more and more capably. Susan, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Susan: Thank you so much for having me on the show.

Peter: Let’s start with what is emotional rigidity, and why is it bad? It seems obvious, right? It seems like it would be obvious. Rigid anything we don’t really want to be, but I think it’s important to ask.

Susan: Absolutely, and it’s a great question. In essence, when I was writing the book Emotional Agility, I was focused on a core question, and that is what does it take internally, in the way we deal with our thoughts, our emotions, and our stories, that helps us to thrive in the world? So often what we do is what I describe to be emotional rigidity. Emotional rigidity is, for example, when we have stories that we tell ourselves time and time again and that stop us from doing things. For example, “I’m just not cut out for a particular career or a promotion, even though I would love to do it.”

Another example of emotional rigidity is when we get into patterns, ways of being that don’t serve us. There might be conversations that we don’t have. There might be interactions that we shy away from, or there might even be conversations that we have in particular ways time and time again but that aren’t actually reflective of who we want to be in the world. These are all examples of patterns of ways in which our thoughts, our emotions, and our stories drive our actions in patterned and rigid ways, rather than allowing [inaudible 00:02:57] breathing space into our values and how we want to be in the world.

Peter: In a way, the rigidity chains us, kind of prevents us from being free, in a certain sense, if I’m going to reduce it. Emotional agility increases our ability to freely act in ways that, ultimately, we decide are in our best interest.

Susan: Absolutely. The different ways that we can be rigid- We can be rigid through foreclosing on ideas too quickly so, for example, through biases. We can be rigid in having particular ways that we live in the world. For example, “I don’t do such and such. I don’t dance,” or, “I don’t take risks.” There are many stories that we tell ourselves, and one of the things that I describe in Emotional Agility is this very beautiful quote by Viktor Frankl.

Viktor Frankl survived the Nazi death camps, and in the writing that he does after this, he describes this idea that between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose, and it is in that choice that comes our growth and freedom. Rigidity is when we do not have a space between our stimulus and our response. We just act in a way that is prematurely almost committed to a particular outcome and that doesn’t give voice, doesn’t breathe room into any space or any different way of being.

Peter: One of the things I love about this podcast and about this conversation is that we can begin to see trends. There’s moods of what we are all talking and writing about. The last book I wrote was called Four Seconds, and it’s about leveraging that space between stimulus and response. It’s about taking a deep breath and making a choice that could be different. Marshall Goldsmith, who’s also on this podcast, just wrote Triggers, which is sort of the same thing. It’s about saying, “How do we resist the temptation to act in ways that we’ve always acted and make better choices?”.

The hardest part about that that we’re all kind of working on and talking about is that moment, how we act differently in that moment. One of the things that you write in the book is choosing courage over comfort, but comfort is so comfortable, right? It’s very easy to choose comfort and to say, “I’m okay with this, even though I’m dissatisfied, even though I’m not getting the results that I want. This is who I am. Take it or leave it,” and they might even be saying this to themselves, not to someone else but to themselves. How do we help people do something with that gap between stimulus and response that helps them move closer to what they long for?

Susan: A very beautiful and a very important question. I come at this from my particular background, which is first having experienced a lot of chaos growing up in apartheid South Africa. Even though I was a white South African and wasn’t subject to the same kind of traumas and difficulties that many of my fellow South Africans and friends were subject to, I still grew up in a society that experienced a huge amount of chaos. I describe in Emotional Agility experiencing the very early, when I was a child, the death of my father and the difficulty in facing this. Really, what this prompted in me and my own thinking is coming to my work and coming to this question from the perspective of emotions research. I went into and did my PhD. and my postdoc in emotions research.

I think that so much of the answer to this question actually comes before the space itself. In other words, there’s ways that we can be with ourselves. There are capacities that we have within ourselves to be honest and full and whole and connected with our emotional world. That means that when we are in that immediate stimulus-response space reaction context, we are ready for it. I actually think that part of the work, part of the capacity to develop these skills actually happens before we’re in that moment. Part of what I describe in Emotional Agility is the need to be able to make room for ourselves, to make room for our emotions and our emotional world in a way that lends a meaning, that we are more attuned with ourselves and more ready to be effective when we actually are called upon to be effective.

Peter: What are some of those ways?

Susan: Well, the first thing that I argue and talk about in Emotional Agility is this whole idea of happiness, that we live in a society where everyone tells us that we should be happy all the time and if we’re not happy, we should think positive. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-happiness. I’ve written an entire book on happiness and the core determinants of happiness, but what’s really interesting is when we live in a world that lauds the value of happiness over anything else almost- is we can start engaging in ways with ourselves that we know from research are counterproductive. For example, when people set up happiness as a goal or where they are overly focused on the idea of being happy and being positive and forging forward, for example, as a leader, what that can often have us doing is ignoring our emotions.

We might feel upset in our jobs, or we might be experiencing a sense of disaffection or dissatisfaction. Yet, we can say to ourselves, “You know, at least I’ve got a job. Let me just forge forward,” or, “I’m just not going to go there.” What we start doing is we, in effect, start engaging with ourselves with this experience of internal struggle. In the same way as when we’re thirsty, we don’t say to ourselves, “Oh, I shouldn’t be thirsty. Why am I thirsty? This thirst is bad. I’m thirsty today more than I was yesterday. What’s going on?” We, rather, just enter into a space where we accept our thirst, and we notice it. We do something about it.

With our emotions and our thoughts, we don’t treat them in this way. Instead, what we do is we second-guess ourselves. “Why am I thinking this? Why have I got this thought? My thoughts create my future. I shouldn’t have this thought.” One of the things that I describe in Emotional Agility is quite literally the idea of opening our hearts up to an experience of willingness to experience our thoughts and emotions. Now, that doesn’t mean that our thoughts and emotions are right. It doesn’t mean that they’re fact but, rather, being able to recognize that our thoughts and our emotions are important data. They’re not directions, but they’re critical data.

Peter: It’s interesting because, in some ways, we do what we do with thirst, we do with our emotions, which is that we say, “I’m feeling something. It’s uncomfortable. I’m going to do something to make that discomfort go away. I’m going to read a book on happiness. I’m going to try to be happy. I’m going to try to push that emotion away because that emotion is making me unhappy,” which is what we do with thirst.

We go, “I’m thirsty. I’m uncomfortable. I’m going to fix that by drinking.” The emotion itself is a derivative of an experience, and it’s informing you. When you push the emotion away, you’re pushing the information away. You’re not pushing your unhappiness away. If you’re thirsty, that’s a communication that your body needs water. The thirst is just a signal. The emotions, you’re saying, are a signal, and that signal is informing you about something that’s going on in your life. You should pay attention.

Susan: Absolutely. One of the most, of course, amazing people in this field is Charles Darwin who wrote a lesser-known book called The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. What Darwin describes is this critical idea that our emotions exist for evolutionary purposes to help us to not only communicate with the world- It’s really important to know if someone is running to you that you’re under attack, and you should not reach out and hug them- but that our emotions also communicate with ourselves. They enable us to surface experiences and values, and so one of the things that I describe in Emotional Agility is that so often, underneath our emotions, are signals to things that we care about.

I’ve never met someone who isn’t depressed or who’s depressed who isn’t, at some level, concerned about how to better be in the world. I’ve never met someone with social anxiety who isn’t, at some level, concerned about the value of belonging. I’ve never met someone who is in a business context whose idea is stolen, for example, and who’s feeling undermined who isn’t, at some level, concerned about issues of equity and fairness.

I’ve never met a parent who’s feeling guilt who isn’t, at some level, concerned about their level of presence with their children. So often, underneath our emotions are signals to core values, things that we care about as human beings, and again, it doesn’t mean that that emotion is right or that it needs to call the shots. Simply taking time to pause into, to say, “What is this emotion trying to tell me?”, can be incredibly, incredibly helpful in then enabling people to listen into the data and make effective changes in their lives.

Peter: In effect, if I care deeply about fairness and justice and I know about that because I get so angry that someone’s taken my idea, I have two choices. One is to let it inform me and do something about it so that I reclaim my idea. The other is to do work on myself to say, “I have to let go of my ideas. I’m putting my ideas out there for people to use them, and I’ve got this issue with equity and fairness. Maybe I need to address that issues with equity and fairness.”

In a certain sense, I have to reduce my concern about equity and fairness if I have a competing value which says I want everyone to know about this work. This is a question: Can you work on it on both sides, either by letting the emotion drive your action or by letting the emotion make you aware of your action and then changing that underlying issue that drove the emotion in the first place? Are those underlying issues so powerful and ingrained that, ultimately, I’m never going to let go of my need for fairness?

Susan: The first thing is really to open yourself up to the learning from the emotion because if you open yourself up to the learning from the emotion, what you are able to do is to connect into a couple of things. First, what is this emotion trying to tell me? Secondly, is the way that I am describing the emotion, is the way that I am labeling that emotion truly accurate? Very often, one of the things and, again, one of the things that I talk about in Emotional Agility is people will use very broad brushstrokes to describe how it is that they’re feeling.

They’ll say things like, “I’m angry. I’m angry. I’m angry,” or, “I’m stressed. I’m stressed. I’m stressed.” There is enormous power in being able to accurately label an emotion. We know that there is a big difference between stress versus disappointment versus stress versus betrayal versus stress versus- The ability to accurately label emotions is shown by a body of research to be incredibly, incredibly powerful in enabling us to then come through with effective actions. These are fundamentals. In terms of, you know, this idea of, “Do you let go of one value versus another, or how do you react?”, is- Again, one of the things that I describe in Emotional Agility is the need to really think about what is it that is fundamentally important to you.

So often, people will say, “Well, you know, I’ve got competing values. I value being at work, and I also value being a parent,” or, “I value my career, and I value being a parent.” They’ll often describe this idea of having competing values. One of the things that I talk to is that, in general, our values are not competing. We may have multiple values, and some of them just like a diamond, a facet of a diamond, some of those values are more front and center at some times in our lives or sometimes in our day or our week, whereas others are more in the background, if you like. Usually, what happens is our values aren’t actually competing.

Often, what is competing is our goals that we simultaneously- I might value a sense of equity and fairness, but what I haven’t totally sorted out in my mind is whether my goal through that value is that I then get all the credit or whether … credit should come to my team or whether, actually, equity and fairness is much more about doing a good job for the customer and, therefore, sharing my information is really important here. It’s not necessarily that the value is in conflict with another value but much more that we haven’t sorted out, in our own minds, what it is that we are trying to achieve, how we want to be in the world in a way that brings that value about and brings that life force into our workplace.

Peter: That’s a great distinction. Thank you. You talked on this conversation and in answering that last question and also in your book about- it’s the first step of a four-step process: showing up and really … paying attention, noticing your emotions. Now, I just read an article someone had just sent me written by a man who was saying he tried to … really be in touch with emotions for a week and to speak about his emotions, and he found it excruciatingly difficult, not because it was painful as much as it was almost inaccessible, that there are so many of us- I think there is a gender divide here to some degree but so many men, especially, who are taught really not to have emotion in many ways. They’re certainly more constricted, in terms of the emotions. I’ll say we are constricted in some way, in terms of the emotions we were allowed to have.

Anger is fine. Men are very comfortable with anger, sadness a little less so. The emotions that make us big powerful people were sort of more acceptable. Emotions that are affiliated with weakness in some way, culturally, those were emotions that we were not allowed- I’m sure it’s not just men. It’s women also, but I’ve heard this a lot for men- emotional we are dissuaded from an early age from showing. It’s telling the boy not to cry kind of thing. How do we handle that? How do we become more in touch with emotions we don’t even know that we’re having and also help us with the courage to feel those things, even when there are societal and cultural messages that say, “Feeling those things make you weak or less effectual.”

Susan: Absolutely, a multi-faceted question, and it’s fascinating.

Peter: I realize I’ve been asking you, Susan, a lot of multi- This is such a topic that I’m so engaged with and interested in already that I’m making your life a little challenging with the number of different questions I have in every question.

Susan: No, it’s actually wonderful. Firstly, what are some of the gender differences? Are there gender differences in relation to some of these capacities or core ways of the being in the world? In general, I don’t love to make too much of gender differences because, of course, people are unique. They respond in their own real ways, but there are pieces of research that really do come out in suggesting that men, in general, even though, of course, there are going to be many exceptions, are more likely to do what we call “bottling.” In Emotional Agility, I describe this idea of bottling emotion is really pushing the emotion aside. “I know I’m unhappy in my job, but at least I’ve got a job. So I’m just going to move on.”

On the other hand, there is a way of being with emotions that is more female-oriented, and that is called “brooding.” Brooding is this idea of dwelling on emotions, often ruminating about them, venting about those emotions, or even doing what we call “co-brooding,” where you go out with a friend of yours and you have a big fat moan about how your father-in-law can’t manage his finances. The marker of it is really that there’s this being with emotions and dwelling on emotions in a way that doesn’t allow one to develop a sense of insight and action around those.

There are these gender differences, and one of the key ideas in how these gender differences develop is that, from a very young age, both society and families have what we call “emotional display rules.” Display rules are very often the implicit but sometimes explicit rules around what emotions it is okay for us to experience or not. For example, “Boys don’t cry,” is a display rule. “We do happiness here, but we don’t do anger,” is a display rule. Even something that I recently was interviewed about for an article in the New York Times, this idea of, with the best intentions, our children coming home from school and being upset about something and we, as parents, might automatically try to rush in and fix and save that child from that difficult experience because, again, we are loving. We’re trying to protect our children, but the message that can send our kids is that emotions, difficult emotions are to be feared.

We absolutely, from a very young age, start to develop these ways of being around emotions that don’t necessarily serve us. For example, we know from research on both bottling and brooding that although these ways of being with emotions are done with the best of intentions, when they are used as key ways of being with our emotions, they are both associated with lower levels of well-being, high levels of burnout, lower levels of the ability to deal with stress. Also, what’s fascinating is the core problem, the core issue that the person’s having, their difficult job or the father-in-law and the finances, is less likely to be solved.

Peter: It’s clearly useful, then, to either not brood or bottle. It’s clearly useful. What can you say to people who will agree with you and say, “Yes, absolutely, it’s useful, and yet, I’m in a meeting. I should cry?” The ultimate expression of those emotions or maybe the distinction between feeling and expressing- Talk a little bit about how can help people feel comfortable enough to feel without necessarily feeling like they’re making themselves so vulnerable that they’re outside the scope of the culture that they’re in.

Susan: A really important question, and there was this lovely discussion recently between Brené Brown and Adam Grant on authenticity versus disclosure. There’s a very, very important distinction between what goes on inside of us, our ability to embrace and not be in struggle with ourselves, to be able to feel an emotion and experience a situation that we’re finding difficult, a job loss, a transition, a divorce, an illness. Life is beautiful, but life is also fragile. We can be in the place where we open our hearts to the reality of life as it is, not as we wish it to be, in a way that is authentic and real and kind to ourselves.

Being able to be with yourself in that way- Quite literally, in Emotional Agility, what I describe is the idea of being willing to be with yourself in a compassionate way and to open your heart up to emotions is not the same as expressing every single emotion you feel or wearing your heart on a sleeve. To go back to our example earlier, if you are upset about something at work, you could make a reasoned, values-based choice to have a conversation with the person that you are upset about and to give that person feedback. You could have a reasoned, values-based choice to actually decide to let that particular thing go because it’s in the service of something bigger and more important so, for example, getting a project done at this particular moment in time.

The difference here is that it is your values that are breathing space into your actions, as opposed to, “I’m feeling an emotion. Now I’ve got to respond.” As soon as you’re in the space of, “I’m feeling an emotion. Now I’ve got to respond,” whether that response is crying in the meeting or being forced or forcing yourself to automatically hide the response at the meeting, in that situation, your emotions are again calling the shots. What I describe in Emotional Agility is this very important process of firstly being able to be with our emotions in a way that is courageous and curious and compassionate but to also cultivate the critical, critical psychological skillset of being able to notice our emotions but to also helicopter above them.

Now, this might sound very abstract, but we’ve all had the experience. You are outraged with a customer service agent because your bill is wrong for the thousandth time in the past three years. You finally get a human being on the phone, and you are frothing at the mouth. That little voice goes off inside your head that says, “Susan, if you talk to the person in this outraged way, they will likely conveniently lose your file.” We all have the ability to experience an emotion but to also helicopter above that emotion, to notice that emotion for what it is.

Who is in charge here, the thinker or the thought? Who is in charge, the emotion or me, the person who is big enough to experience all of my emotions? Who is in charge, the story of, “This is so unfair,” or, “I’m so unhappy,” or me, the person who is big enough to experience many stories? In Emotional Agility, I describe not only this idea that we need to be able to feel our emotions, but also critical and very practical skills that enable us to helicopter above those emotions, neither ignoring them, bottling with them, or dwelling and brooding on them, and then being able to enter into the space of values-based decision-making.

Peter: It goes back to how we started this conversation, which is to leverage that Viktor Frankl space between stimulus and action and to feel what it is that we’re feeling and then make smart choices about how to act in a way that is consistent with our values and helps us to achieve the goals that we’re trying to achieve. In this situation, I’m going to actually close that gap and share the emotion that I have of total pleasure in having this conversation with you. I’ll express it that it’s been really, really fun. The book is Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Susan David, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Susan: Thank you.

Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as access to my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood, who created our music. Thanks for listening, and stay tuned for the next great conversation.


  1. Nikhil Singhal says:

    Great podcast. I would highly suggest everyone to read the book “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert to understand research based ideas on happiness and mind’s obsession with it.

  2. Armando Cordova says:

    Great conversation. My takeaway from this podcast is the important concept espoused by Victor Frankl. We need to remind ourselves at all times that there is a space between a stimulus and a response, and that we need to pause and examine whether our response (the only thing that we control) is aligned with our values, and will be for the benefit of all concerned.

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