Thursday, September 14, 2017

Book Review: 'Emotional Agility' by Susan David

Long ago I realized that I could not control everything that happens to me but that I could control how I respond to most of what happens to me. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl speaks to this point when observing, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” In his classic work, Denial Death, Ernest Becker acknowledges that no one can deny physical death but there is another death that can – and must – be denied: That which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us.

I recalled Frankl’s and Becker’s insights when I came upon Susan David’s insightful observations in the first chapter: “By opening up that space between how you feel and what you do about those feelings, emotional agility has been shown to help people with any number of troubles: negative self-image, heartbreak, pain, anxiety, depression, procrastination, tough transitions, etc. But emotional agility isn’t beneficial just for people struggling with personal difficulties. It also draws on diverse disciplines in psychology that explore the characteristics of successful, thriving people, including those like Frankl, who survived great hardship and went on to do great things.”

It is important to keep in mind that David wrote this book for a wide and complex diversity of people who struggle — from time to time — with responding effectively to unexpected developments that can be either perils or opportunities, with managing effectively strong emotions that can be either depressive or liberating, and with making difficult decisions that can have either negative or positive implications and (potential) consequences. In other words, David is talking about an agile and flexible temperament that can react well to almost any human experience.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of David’s extensive coverage:

o Anxiety (Pages 2-5)
o Showing Up (11-12, 65-67, 69-78, and80-85)
o Balances between challenges and competence (13-14 and 164-165)
o Hooks (17-40)
o Trying to unhook anger (48-51 and 58-62)
o Brooding/Happiness (49-54)
o Negative emotions (56-61)
o Motivations (78-79, 230-232, and 146-153)
o Perspectives (92-96)
o Work/life balance (129-130, 190-192, and 209-210)
o Choosing challenges (173-176)
o Choosing courage over comfort (180-182 and 221-223)
o Workplace decisions (192-193)
o Biases (197-201)
o Take This Job and Tweak It (211-214)
o Raising emotionally agile children (217-238)
o Autonomy (229-233)
o Compassion in parent/child relationships (236-237)

So, how to develop and nourish an agile and flexible temperament that can react well to almost any human experience? Where to begin? In the final chapter, Susan David offers ten specific suggestions. They are best considered in context, within the narrative’s frame of reference. However, I feel comfortable suggesting that all can be acted upon immediately by almost anyone. There is one “if” (a HUGE one) that must be taken into full account. Almost anyone can become a real, authentic person with others if and only if they first become a real, authentic person to themselves.

This is what Polonius has in mind when offering advice to his university-bound son, Laertes:

"This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Act 1, Scene 3 of Hamlet

Good advice then...even better advice now.

Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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