Agile Ways: Regulating Negativity

Framing Negative Emotion

We need to talk about negative emotions. Dr. Susan David, author of the 2016 book “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life,” has much to say on this topic. As you can imagine, the notion of Emotional Agility has been significant in my research and practice into the world of Personal Agility. In fact, I would say that bridging the gap between the practical nature of existing Personal Agility frameworks and the theoretical, scholarly nature of Emotional Agility has been my primary interest in pursuing research on Personal Agility.

We need to think of our emotions as neither good or bad. The problem that has arisen out of the positive psychology movement and traditional schools of thought on self-improvement is that we have built up this idea that we should try to get rid of all negative emotion.

I could reference a bunch of research (actually, giving a shout out to Dr. David’s book is good enough for me. Please consider reading it and supporting her work!) but really, I think Disney brought this to light very effectively and artfully in their animated movie Inside Out. (Haven’t seen it? Do yourself the favor!)

Mindfulness: Subject to Object

We need to experience negative emotion. Negative emotions are just as important overall and often, depending on the situation, they are more important than positive emotions.

There’s nothing wrong with you if you feel sad. There’s nothing wrong with you if you feel mad. You’re not a failure for being annoyed or in a sour mood. Progress is made when we accept the whole of ourselves, not just the joyful and ultra-motivated parts.

In order to do this, we need to first become fully aware of our emotional state in the moment, whether positive or negative. Exercising this form of mindfulness will enable us to then view the emotions objectively. I described this a few months ago in Object-like Emotions. Viewing emotions objectively is important because it creates the space between stimulus and reaction that is so important in realizing that your emotions do not have to influence your behavior (this idea is based on the life’s work of Viktor Frankl).

The Real Payoff

Once you have achieved this type of honest objectivity about your emotional state in a moment, you get to make decisions. I said emotions don’t have to influence your behavior; what I really mean is that your emotions and your behavior are not identical; having anger does not necessitate acting angrily. The decisions you get to make are how to behave given all of the data you have about a given situation and this included the emotions arising in the moment.

The emotion of anger may influence you to talk responsibly to someone whose behavior may have contributed to your anger, for example. You can decide how you need to act in order to keep yourself moving toward your goals.

This is precisely what makes this an Agile practice. If perfectly fine and healthy for you to experience a full and wide range of emotions. Experiencing negative emotions is not a reflection on your character or worthiness at all; it’s just data. And based on the data that you have (that you are able to RECOGNIZE as data) you get to make decisions and act in way that keep you on track.

So don’t flog yourself for getting upset. Just flow with it! Create a space to assess your situation, choose to act according to your values and objectives, and keep on being your awesome self!

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