537: Dr. Susan David on Building Emotional Resilience, Emotional Agility and Courage

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Katie: Hello, and welcome to “The Wellness Mama Podcast.” I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com and wellnesse.com. That’s wellness with an E on the end. You’ll have to excuse my voice, being a little strained today, but I’m so excited. I decided to do this interview, even though my voice isn’t 100% today because I’m here with someone whose work I really, really appreciate. I’m here with Dr. Susan David, who is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist. I became familiar with her through her book, “Emotional Agility,” which is based on the concept that describes the psychological skills that are critical to thriving in times of complexity and change. And we get into a lot of the nuance of this, in this episode. She has a TED talk on this topic as well. It’s been viewed by millions of people and she contributes in a lot of different areas on this particular topic.

And I think her work is really, really important, especially right now. And in this episode, we go through everything from what emotional agility is, and why it’s so important. And her quote that the important truth that life’s beauty and life’s fragility are very interwoven. She gives strategies for being emotionally healthy in an uncertain world. How we become fused with our stories about events in a way that we don’t need to be and a simple way to start putting space between the stimulus and response. We talk about the problem with the modern happiness movement. And we also go deep on something I mentioned on here before, but how the words I am and because are so powerful to our subconscious and ways that we can use a more powerful inner language. Why discomfort is the price of admission in a meaningful life, the importance of values, and how to name and cultivate them.

And then we talk a lot about parenting strategies and how we can help pass these same skills onto our children from a young age. So very, very impactful episode. This hour went by much too quickly. I learned a lot, and I hope that Susan will return as a second guest to follow up on a lot of these topics, but I loved this episode. I know that you will too, and I encourage you to check out her work as well. There’s a lot of links for that in the show notes. She has a lot of resources online that can help you learn more, but without further ado, let’s join Dr. Susan David.  Susan, welcome. Thank you so much for being here.

Susan: Thank you. I’m delighted to be with you today.

Katie: I am so excited to chat with you. I was introduced to your work through the concept of emotional agility. And I have since then read and listened to a lot of your work across…you’ve been pretty much featured everywhere and I think you’ve helped thousands and thousands and thousands of people. And I think that actually is a great jumping-in point is this idea of emotional agility because I think this might be a new term, at least for some of the people listening. So, can you just give us a broad overview and let’s start there?

Susan: Yeah, absolutely. So, thank you, I’m so excited to be with you today. And I’m going to start with a really simple definition and then we can expand out a little bit later, which is the simple definition is that emotional agility is the psychological skills that help us to be healthy human beings. That is fundamentally what it is. If I dig a little bit deeper, we all know that as parents and as human beings that every day we have many, many, many thoughts, emotions, and stories that cross through our minds. The thought might be, you know, “I’m just not a good parent,” “I’m not good enough,” and emotion might be an experience of stress or anger or rage or loneliness, and a story might be a story that was even written on our mental chalkboards when we were five years old.

You know, stories about the experiences that we had when we were children and what love means and what worthiness means. And we bring these stories, of course, into our adulthood. And as it turns out, of course, no surprises, that the way we deal with these thoughts, emotions, and stories drives everything. It drives our own well-being, it drives our relationships with the people that we love, how we parent, how we lead, and how we human in this world. So, emotional agility is the skill set that helps us to deal with these thoughts, emotions, and stories in ways that allow us to be healthy human beings, connect with mental health and well-being. But that also helps us to bring our values forward so that we’ll end up acting in ways that are congruent with how we want to be when we are interacting with our children and with others in our lives.

Katie: Yeah, and as you explain that, I can think of so many different ways this is gonna be applicable. I love that you brought up that inner speak and that maybe the idea of “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not lovable,” it seems like many people enter adulthood with some version of that story and I love that you said how we deal with those stories is actually what drives everything. Because I think often, it’s easy to think that these external circumstances are driving my experience. And so, I’d love to go a little bit deeper on the concept of this emotional agility and how to cultivate it specifically. It seems like this is an increasingly relevant topic, especially over the last couple of years and everything that’s happening societally. And I think that idea of emotional agility and that we at least control our own inner experience and the stories that we have internally, I think this is a huge jumping-in point for some really important conversations.

Susan: Yes, of course, the experience that we’ve had in the past couple of years has really pulled the rug out of this notion that we have that we can fix everything and that, you know, we’ve got our to-do list and our agenda and that we can control everything. And I think so much of the narrative that we have in society is this idea that when we don’t like things, we can fix them, we can buy a new cell phone, we can swap out our car, you know, we can do things to the stuff that we don’t like. And what COVID did in a really interesting experience, but not just COVID, beyond that, is it reminded us that this illusion that we have of being able to fix and control actually was always an illusion.

And I think that’s really a core part of my work, which is this idea that life’s beauty and its fragility are interwoven, that we all of us are, you know, healthy and then we have a diagnosis that brings us to our knees. We in a relationship in which we feel loved and seen and connected with and then sometimes that sense of connection and love is questioned, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in very profound ways. And so, this notion of being able to fix and being able to predict and being able to, you know, control is a very convenient narrative and yet, it is a narrative that is not true to the reality of us as human beings in the world.

And so, a really important part of the way we then come to ourselves in scenarios that are healthy is by recognizing choices, by recognizing strategies that can actually help us to be healthy in an uncertain world. And I’ll give you some examples of what I mean here. The first is that often when we have these difficult stories or thoughts, we become really hooked into them. So, the psychological term for this is that we often become fused with them. We’ll say something like, “You know, my child did this so I’m doing that,” “You know, my child disrespected me so now I’m acting out.” You know?

And what we have here is there’s no space, in Victor Frankl’s terms, Viktor Frankl who survived the Nazi death camps and describes this, I think, most powerful sentiment in human history, this idea that between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose and in that choice lies our growth and our freedom. So, when we are hooked, when we fused, there’s no space between stimulus and response. We’ll say something like, “I am angry, therefore, I left the room,” “My son is sad because someone didn’t invite him to the birthday party, therefore, he’s not going to invite that person to his birthday party.”

There is no space there between stimulus and response. And the most powerful way that we can start connecting with these ideas of emotional agility is recognizing that emotional agility are these learnable, practical, powerful skills that help us to create space between stimulus and response so that we can start bringing other capacities forward. Because we aren’t just the sad, we aren’t just the angry, we are also our values and our wisdom and our intention and the beauty of who we are when we go for a walk on a beautiful day and we feel the sun and our face and the earth feels connected with who we are and there’s a sense of expansiveness. And so, we have the capacity to create that sense of expansiveness and choice, but not control within our view.

Katie: I love so many things about what you just said. I’d love to talk a little more about that differentiation between control and choice because I think this is a really pivotal concept. And I love that you brought up Viktor Frankl, his book is one that I’ve reread every year in the beginning of the year to recenter and remind myself of that. And I’ve also learned through some of my own work in this and through reading your work, we do assign and, like, fuse, like you said, to those things, and I have learned to be very cognizant of the words that come after the words, “I am.” I think there’s a lot of power when we say, “I am,” whether it’s, “I am sick,” or, “I am angry.” And then the other one, “Because,” because we’re often assigning a causal relationship that may not even be there, but it seems like our subconscious responds very actively to some of those words.

Susan: Yes. Oh, my goodness. Okay, so hold on to those two things, the “I am” and the “Because,” and let’s start with this choice versus control. So, let me give you an example. When I was growing up, I had a number of difficult experiences as a child and some of them we’ll explore. And so, I had this idea in my mind this narrative that I was never going to have children and it was because “I am going to be a bad parent”. Okay? And what was happening there is I’d had these very real experiences in childhood but I was now bringing this narrative in a very fixed rigid way to my current view.

And the reason that it’s fixed and rigid is because, in order for me to move forward effectively, I would either need to have a new childhood, which is not possible, or to re-thread the story. And this is the difference, when we are controlled, there’s no space. It’s like we have these default assumptions that are often born of ways of being in the world that we’re functional, where, you know, maybe we learned that we couldn’t be vulnerable because if we were vulnerable, we were punished for it. Or maybe we learned as a boy that showing emotions was a sign of weakness, so now we’ve suppressed those emotions.

And so, we have all of these narratives and a lot of these narratives are internally based on our experience and some of these narratives are narratives that exist more broadly in society. You know, the narrative of, “I just want my children to be happy,” sounds like a really powerful and very special narrative. But what it can lead to is a situation where when our children come home from school and they are unhappy, where we now feel uncomfortable with these difficult emotions and we don’t know what to do with them. So, the difference between control versus choice is that control is a white-knuckled, holding on, grit-like teeth clenching experience, that is, in its depth and its wisdom against the truth of what we know, which is that control is an illusion.

Control of health, control of every aspect of relationship, control of COVID versus not COVID. In our world, control is an illusion. So then, we get to the space of choice. And choice is this part of us that we’ve all had as mamas and as papas and as parents and as loved ones, which is that we can all be hooked by a difficult story, we can all be hooked by difficult emotion. But we also know that all of us are beautiful and we have wisdom, we have values, we have capacity, we have intentionality, there are other parts of ourselves that we can bring into any situation. And we’ve all experienced this, you know, we’ve all experienced being cross with AT&T because they’ve lost your phone bill yet again, and you angry, angry, angry, and you now, you know, on your 363rd call, finally get hold of another human being, and you are angry and you are hooked by that emotion.

And so, you want to just let this person know how you feel right now and give them a piece of your mind. But then there’s a part of you that says, “If I tell this person exactly how I feel, they’ll conveniently lose my file or they’ll put the phone down on me.” And so, we all have this ability as human beings to both feel our difficult emotions but also to show up to them in different ways so that we can respond in a way that feels more aligned with who we want to be, what is workable, what is effective, what our values are. So, that’s some of what I see about the difference between control versus choice.

Control, as I mentioned, is a white-knuckled, teeth-clenching experience that flies in the face of the fragility and the reality of experience. And choice is a connecting in and a breathing into the reality of the experience, and naming of it, and naming of the emotions that come with it, a compassion that comes with it because humaning is hard and parenting is hard, and so there’s an enormous amount of compassion that comes with that. And so, choice is coming from the place that we all have, which is this groundedness and a centeredness, and who do I want to be in the moment and who do I want to be in this conversation. Do you want to pick up the “I am?”

Katie: Yeah, let’s do that and then I have a follow-up as well, but let’s do that first.

Susan: So, let’s do…okay, so wait, so we wanted to pick up two things, we wanted to pick up “I am” and “because” and I want to start with the because. So, words matter. Words matter and the words that we use towards ourselves matter in powerful, in practical, in psychologically profound ways. So, “because”, a very simple word. But when we have a thought and then we use the word “Because,” what we are doing is we are engaging in what I call thought blaming. Okay? “I yelled at you because you made me angry.” “I left the room because you started in on the finances.” Okay?

So, what are we starting to do is we, all of us, as human beings have literally thousands, some estimates are that we have around 16,000 spoken thoughts every single day, and many more thousands that course through our mind. And the very important thing to recognize is that these thoughts are normal.

Thoughts like, “Gee, I can’t stand my children,” or thoughts like, “I just can’t do this for another day.” These are normal, normal thoughts, emotions, and stories. These thoughts have evolved to actually help us to sense threat and to sense-make around threat. So, having really difficult thoughts and even having really difficult emotions, emotions of grief and sadness and loneliness, there is nothing wrong with these emotions.

Yes, we live in a world that tells us to smiley face everything. Yes, we live in a world where even in the midst of a pandemic, we were reminded that if you didn’t perfect sourdough bread baking, that there was something wrong with you, you know, or if you didn’t dust off your screenplay, there was something wrong with you. We live in a world that seems to usurp the narrative, which is the narrative of humanity and compassion and wholeness and the recognition that all of our emotions make us whole and human. And instead, we live in a world that seems to suggest that the narrative should be one of success and outcome and forced positivity.

So, we have thoughts, emotions, and stories, and some of them are difficult but what is crucial, from a psychological health perspective, is to recognize that they are normal. As soon as you start having a thought that is like, “Gee, I can’t stand my children right now,” that is what we call a Type 1 thought or a Type A thought. It’s a normal human thought. But what we then often do as parents and as people, is we start guilting ourselves about that thought. And I’ll just use that thought as an example, we start guilting ourselves and we start engaging in what are called Type 2 thoughts and emotions, and this is what it sounds like, “Gee, I don’t like my children right now,” “Oh, I’m such a bad mom because I had that thought,” dah-dah-dah.

And so, what we start doing is we start hustling with whether we should or shouldn’t feel particular things. And what this does is it gets us into a downward spiral of not just having normal thoughts and emotions and breathing into them and trying to understand them and connect with them. But now layering on emotions about emotions, thoughts about thoughts, guilt about a thought. “I’m unhappy that I’m unhappy,” you know, “I should be grateful because I’ve got all of this, why aren’t I happy?” So, the very first part of emotional agility, which relates to this “because” idea, is that these thoughts, emotions, and stories, as I mentioned, are completely normal.

And we need, as human beings, to recognize that and bring far greater levels of acceptance and compassion to them and stop this hustle with whether we should or shouldn’t feel something. We’re feeling what we’re feeling versus what we thinking, it is what it is in the most profoundly accepting self-compassionate way. Okay.

So, those emotions and thoughts are data, but they’re not directives. It doesn’t mean because I’m angry, I get to act on it. Or because I’m upset, I just get to say however I feel. And so, what starts to happen is when we start using this word “because”, we started to fuse where there’s now no space between stimulus and response, and we’re almost blaming the thought that we have for the action that we take.

And so, a really important part of emotional agility is, as I’ve already mentioned, this acceptance and compassion, but there are very important…I would go so far as to say there are emotional superpowers that help us to create that distance so that this wise part of ourselves that I spoke about earlier is able to come to play. So, can we get to the “I am” thing? Okay, so here’s an example, “I am sad,” “I am angry,” “I am being undermined.” We all do this, we say this every day, I am, I am, I am, I am, but words matter. When you say, “I am,” what you are in effect saying is, “I am, all of me, 100% of me is defined by sad, is defined by angry, there is no space for anything else.”

But again, we’re not our emotions, we are parents and loved ones and values and intentions and human and beautiful and messy. So, how do we create some space so that those parts of ourselves can come forward? Well, one of the most effective ways I think, especially when we’re having a tough day as a parent, is we ask our children to watch their words and so, we can extend the same invitation to ourselves, “You are not sad.” You know, yes, you are experiencing sadness. Yes, your sadness is real. Yes, your sadness is valid. Yes, your sadness is part of you. But you are not sad. Like I am not sad, I am Susan, you know, my sadness is part of me. So, when we say, “I’m sad,” it’s almost like the sadness is a cloud in the sky and you have become the cloud.

Instead, what you can start doing is you can start just noticing your thoughts and your emotions and your stories for what they are. They are thoughts, emotions, and stories, they aren’t fact, they’re our thoughts, emotions, and stories. So, here’s an example. I’m noticing that I’m feeling sad. I’m noticing the thought that I can’t stand my children right now. I’m noticing that this is my “I am unworthy” or “I’m not good enough” story. When you notice thoughts, emotions, and stories for what they are, which is that they’re not a fact, they are normal, physiological, and psychological phenomena that arise within us and they are thoughts, emotions, and stories, what you start doing is you start prying open the window a little bit so that a little bit of air can come in that then enables you to center yourself more. So, literally, all you’re doing is you’re creating linguistic space so that you then have greater levels of psychological space.

Katie: I love that, I think that’s such an important distinction, and several things really stood out to me about what you said. You mentioned earlier on about naming the emotion and I think this is…and not judging it, that I think an important distinction, like that kind of reaction that happens, those second-tier thoughts where we go, “Oh, I’m feeling sad and that’s bad,” versus, “I’m feeling sadness,” and just being with that. And I find as a parent, this has been really helpful, especially with younger children when they do feel big emotions, I think often I felt, as a parent, triggered by my own childhood emotions that when they got angry or they got out of control, “I felt uncomfortable,” and so I felt like that was a problem I had to fix.

And when I was able to separate that, it became the distinction between what are you feeling right now, what does that feels like to you, and where is it in your body and let’s validate this emotion. And also, there’s still the conversation of you may be feeling angry but that doesn’t mean you can act by hitting your sibling. Those are two different things, but your emotion is very valid and I want to be here as a parent to help you feel that emotion and name that emotion.

Susan: Yes, as you talk, it reminds me of this…in my TED Talk, I use this phrase, which is…you can hear from my accent even though I’m joining from Boston that my accent is very deeply South Africa. And in South Africa, there is this beautiful and powerful phrase which you hear every single day on the streets and it basically means hello, you know, it’s like hello, a greeting. And the word is sawubona. There is a beautiful and powerful intention behind the word sawubona because sawubona literally translated means, “I see you and by seeing you, I bring you into being.” And I love the sentiment because sawubona isn’t, “I fix you and by fixing you, I bring you into being,” it isn’t, “I band-aid you and by band-aiding you…you know, band-aiding your emotions, I bring you into being.” It’s, “I see you and by seeing you, I bring you into being.”

And a core part of my work has been asking this question, which is what does it take in the way we see ourselves, our thoughts, our emotions, and our stories that help us to thrive in a complex and fraught world? Because we don’t get to do away with tough emotions, we don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life. So then, what’s asked of us is, because there’s no way out of ever experiencing difficult emotions, we’ve got to learn ways, sometimes that are new for us because we weren’t raised with them, of seeing ourselves, of seeing our difficult emotions, and instead of trying to race for the emotional exits, instead have strategies that help us to sawubona ourselves to sawubona.

And a very important part of this is about this acceptance. And by acceptance, I don’t mean passive resignation, I don’t mean, “Oh, my goodness, like, I feel sad, therefore, there’s nothing I can do about it, there’s no point in trying.” What I mean by acceptance is opening the expensiveness of our hearts to the recognition that sadness is bound up in being alive and, like, that it is, that it just is. And so, if we can acknowledge that with acceptance and if we can come with compassion to that, because that then makes it hard to human, then we have this ability to start creating this, like, space separation.

And one of the things that you mentioned a little bit earlier is this beautiful notion of sawubona-ing your children and about helping them to understand the distinction. And I think the distinction for me becomes really clear with my children. I’ve got two kids, one of them is 13 years old and as an extremely kind of introverted cerebral child who loves reading “The New Yorker,” and, you know, is just very, very intellectual, and then I’ve got a younger daughter who’s extremely extrovert. And so, I can show up to my son’s frustration with his baby sister who’s now, like, literally trying to sit on his head while he’s trying to read a book, I can show up to his frustration with a sawubona, I can see it, I can love it, I can be in that space with him.

I can help him name it, I can help him label it. It doesn’t mean that I’m endorsing his idea that he gets to give it away to the first stranger that he sees in a shopping mall. You know, we own our emotions, they don’t own us. And this, I think, is one of the most crucial skills that we can teach our children because, of course, our children are growing up in a world in which this pandemic is probably the first of a number that they will experience in which their hearts will be broken, they’ll lose their jobs one day. So, I think it’s like a really important part of parenting in this moment is the parenting that doesn’t try to race for the exits, it doesn’t try to race for the light switch so we can turn on the light. It rather helps us to see better in the dark. It says, “There is this dark that happens, how can we see better in the dark?”

And the kinds of skills that we talking about, acceptance and compassion and moving away from “I am” are skills that help us to see in the dark. And the reason that I say that is because when our children come home and they’re upset about something and we race for the exits, we say to them, “I’ll phone the mean girl’s parents, I’ll bake cupcakes with you,” what we are doing is we are saying to our children those emotions ought to be feared, happiness is good, sadness is bad. And what we take away from our children is the recognition that all emotions pass, that there’s nothing in a single emotion that needs to be acted upon, that emotions aren’t to be feared, and these are crucial, crucial skills. But we can only model…we can only help our children to do them when we extend the same humanity and love to ourselves.

Katie: That does seem like the key across all aspects is we can say things but we have to model them. And I love that idea that being aware that if we basically judge those emotions for them, we’re teaching them not just a fear of those emotions but also maybe sending the message that they’re incapable of handling it and so I think there’s so much value in what you just said. And I also know from your TED Talk, you talk about the idea that you are a master of being okay.

And that really resonated with me because of a situation that I had at a very similar age, the one you talked about, where I became a master of being okay and I judged my own emotions and shut them down pretty harshly during that phase. And I think this is a good segue into this idea of happiness being the goal in modern society and this whole modern happiness movement. And I know you’ve written about this and have a lot of thoughts on it, but I would love for you to just maybe pull apart some of the ideas of this modern happiness movement that seems well-intentioned but often seems counter to what we’re actually trying to accomplish.

Susan: Yeah, I’ve been railing against this idea for literally 25 years. And I’ll share the story that you described, which was the master of being okay because I think it really speaks to this idea. So, when I was 15 years old, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was 42 at the time. And I had always had the experience with my dad of having a sawubona. You know, he was this warm-hearted, big-handed guide in my life. And I recall the day that I went to go say goodbye to him…I had talked about this in my TED Talk, my mother saying to me, “Go and say goodbye to daddy,” because he was dying of colon cancer, he was 42. And I go and I say goodbye to him, he’s in kind of hospice care in our house.

And his eyes are closed but I know that he knows that I’m there because I’ve always felt seen in his presence. And then I go off to school that day, it’s a Friday, and I go off to school and the day slips away and my father dies and the months slip away from like May, July, September, November. And what’s extraordinary is that I am dying inside, you know, I’m literally dying inside. But everyone says to me, “You know, you’re doing so well.” They praise me for being strong and they tell my brother at my father’s funeral like, “You’ve got to look after your mother.” There’s like all of this narrative about, “Put on the smile, be positive, everything happens for a reason.”

But I have literally lost the love of my life and my mother is raising three children and our entire family falls apart, the creditors are knocking, there’s like so much stuff going on. And I as a 15-year-old start to deal with this through bingeing and purging, you know, literally refusing to accept the full weight of my grief. And no one knows, like, no one knows. I don’t drop a single grade and everyone keeps praising me for being strong. And one day, I’m in a class and there is this English teacher. She hands up these blank notebooks and she knows that my father has died and she knows what must be going on for me because she’s also lost a parent. She hands off these blank notebooks and she says, “Write to tell the truth, write like no one is reading.”

Again, it’s an invitation to the class but it literally felt like it was an invitation to me, “Write to tell the truth, write like no one is reading.” And it felt in that moment like a revolution and most revolutions are actually the revolutions inside ourselves. Most revolutions are the simplest of revolutions. And for me, it was the revolution of telling my truth and writing it down in this blank notebook, which was just such a remarkable experience. Like we think of parenting and teachers but it was a remarkable experience because I every day developed…I developed this silent correspondence with this teacher where I would hand her this notebook of just, you know, depression and bulimia and regret and grief and sadness.

And every day, she would write back to me but what was so special is that Tuesday, I remember her writing in pencil, she write in pen, she wrote in pencil because it was my story and she was very gentle in the way she was holding my story. So, why was this a revolution? And how does it relate to this idea of what’s now come to be called toxic positivity? But again, it’s something I’ve been speaking about for years, which I often call the tyranny of positivity, this forced false positivity. So, why was it a revolution for me? It was a revolution because what I realized was that one of the, “Just be positive, you’re doing so well, isn’t everything great?” was actually cutting me off at my knees.

It sounds so good on the surface, but actually, it was making me more fragile. It was undermining my resilience. It sounds so strong but it makes us weak. And why does it make us weak? It makes us weak because when we focused on forced false positivity, we’re not in the world as it is. We’re just in the world as we wish it to be, in which, you know, the person is alive and in which everything is going well. So, false positivity sounds so good on the surface, but do not mistake it for anything other than an avoidant coping strategy and denial that is wrapped up in rainbows and sparkles and memes but is an avoidant coping strategy.

So, I started to become really focused on why is it that we have this narrative that sounds so good on the surface, but is actually just foundationally wrong? And then, what is it about this writing experience that I had with this teacher, that actually profoundly rethreaded my sense of resilience and connectedness and capability? And so, that became my life’s work. Like, this teacher, in this moment, started to create this journey for me, which ultimately saw me becoming an emotions researcher, you know, doing my Ph.D. and my postdoc in emotions research, because I was very interested in this idea of what is healthy versus unhealthy and how this often, very often rubs against our societal norms.

Katie: And I think that’s such an important conversation, that was something that really drew me in your work.

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And I know this also leads into another thing you talk about a lot, which is the idea of values and their importance, and I feel like this is a huge missing piece in a lot of these modern happiness conversations. So, can you walk us through what you mean by values and how those come into play?

Susan: Yes, yes. So, think about your…for everyone who’s listening right now, think about a difficult emotion that you’ve experienced in the past week, in the past month, in the past 18 months, and imagine you’ve got a blank piece of paper in front of you and you write that emotion down. So, for some of you listening, that emotion might be grief, sadness, loss, loneliness, overwhelmed, depletion, joy. Okay, we are capacious enough to experience all of these emotions. So, in a world of forced false positivity, you can imagine, what I would ask you to do is turn the piece of paper over and write down three things that you’re grateful for.

Because isn’t that what we do? But no, but no, because we are seeing what is often unseen and we are seeing the eyes behind the eyes, we are seeing the eyes behind the pen, we are seeing the eyes behind the word, we are seeing ourselves, we are seeing ourselves. And so, when we turn over the piece of paper, perhaps a more wholehearted invitation is the invitation that says, “What is your emotion signposting about what you care about? What is your emotion telling you about your needs and your values?” And so, I can give some examples which might be that you can be busy running around with children and work and Zoom and this and that and the next thing, you can be as busy, busy, busy, but you are bored.

And boredom might be signposting that you need more learning and growth, that you don’t have enough of it in your life. And it’s letting you know that you need to make choices and sometimes these choices are teeny tiny choice points. In the same way that if we are on a sailboat and we take the sailboat just two degrees a little bit and two degrees a little bit and two degrees a little bit, you’ll end up in a different place on the bay. So, sometimes those choices, those small changes that move us towards our needs are tiny but they are profound and they can only be surfaced when instead of saying, “Oh, well, I’m bored but I’m just going to ignore it because I’ve got three children and there’s nothing else I can do,” if you just give voice to the need and see if there’s a small way that you can connect with it.

Lonely, we can be lonely in a house full of people, we can be lonely as we brush up past our spouse in the kitchen, that person is on their phone, you on your phone, and we almost feel the distance go up between the person. Loneliness might be signposting that you value intimacy and connection and you need more of that. Grief. Grief is love. You know, grief is love looking for a home. Whatever that grief is for you as a person, whether it’s the grief of a life before or a grief that is a physical loss of someone, that grief is a tap on your shoulder that says, “Remember, remember the memories, remember the thing that’s lost and see if you can bring that into your space.” So, this is a really important part of my work, which is recognizing that these difficult emotions actually…this is the connection with agility.

If we think about what emotional agility is and we think about agility, imagine a gymnast, a gymnast is someone who is responsive to the environment but is not reactive. So, when there’s no space between stimulus and response, we’re reactive, we jump in, we’re reacting, we’re impulsive, there’s like all of this stuff going on. Responsive is when we’re grounded in ourselves and we are then making choices. And the groundedness that comes through ourselves is through the kinds of strategies that I’ve already spoken about around acceptance and compassion and the “I am” and the sawubona and the not judging.

But it’s also about the gymnast’s core, it’s about the inner core, it’s about the reminding yourself of what kind of parent you want to be. It’s about the reminding yourself of your values. You know, if I’ve value fairness, how fair am I being in this conversation right now with my child?

And what’s remarkable, Katie, is the research is so interesting in this area. What the research shows is that in families and beyond, we all start having what is called social contagion or emotional contagion. And emotional contagion, we saw this at the beginning of the pandemic where people were like one person rush and bought toilet paper and now everyone is buying toilet paper. And what emotion contagion is, is that literally what starts to happen is we start to catch other people’s behaviors. If you are on an aeroplane, or as we say in the U.S., an airplane, if you are on an airplane and your seat partner who you do not even know buys candy, your chance of buying candy increases 70%.

And that’s remarkable because what it starts to say, sometimes without even realizing it, our neighbors wearing clothes that we start feeling like we need to have or driving a car…you know, this goes on and on and on and on. So then, you start saying to yourself, “How does social and emotional contagion play out in other ways?” We know that it plays out in workplaces. We know, for instance, that when people in a team are busy and stressed, suddenly the whole team is busy and stressed. We also know that it plays out in families, that when one person is yelling very easily and is very out there and is very impulsive and very reactive, everyone starts being more, and when one person starts to become more grounded that other people start to be more.

So, the question is, how do you do this? How do you do this? What are we actually doing here? Again, all of the strategies I’ve spoken about but the most important that we know of is just re-grounding yourself in your values. When we have kids going from high school into college and those kids have grown up in families or communities where every message has been, “Oh, we don’t do college, we’re not college material,” “We’re not college material, we don’t do college.” But you’ve got that child and that child tries and studies and fights and then make it into college, then in the first semester, they fail a test because one day, you’re going to fail a test, and they fail a test.

At that point, the vast majority of those kids will drop out of college because the stereotype that they had in their community actually becomes turned against themselves, “Oh, they were right, you know, maybe I’m not college material.” Think of this about parenting. We start turning stereotypes against ourselves, “Oh, maybe I’m being too emotional, “Oh, maybe I’m being…” We even start taking stories from our childhood stories about whether we thought we would be a good parent or whether we’re worthy and we start, in times of stress, turning these stories against ourselves, “Oh, they were right, maybe I’m not cut out for this.”

How do we protect ourselves? We know that when we take these college students and we ask them literally for five minutes to reground themselves in, “Why are you studying what you’re studying? Why is this important? Why is this important to your life, career, and to the communities that you want to craft?” That this protects these kids two or three years down the tracks. And, again, it’s the same for us, it’s the same for us, fairness, collaboration, presence, love, community. When we remind ourselves of this, we’re able to connect in ways that are responsive rather than reactive.

Katie: And I love this idea of the emotional contagion, as you said, and it makes me wonder, it seems like social media would be a big potential influence on this and it seems like we’ve seen that play out quite a bit. So, I would love to hear any thoughts on maybe are there thoughtful ways to manage our social media presence that don’t lead to a negative emotional contagion? And also, anytime there’s a negative, there’s also a positive, so are there ways in our families especially or in our relationships that we can really hone using that emotional contagion for good? I think we’ve maybe all had the experience of someone who’s extremely positive who walks into the room who seems to be so contagious in their positivity and just there’s something about them that we almost gravitate toward. But are there some tangible ways we could maybe start being aware of that and using that as a positive?

Susan: Yes, so it’s interesting. What I would suggest is that when someone comes into a room when they’re positive, the connection that we have is not only their positivity. Because if that person came into the room and they were forced false positive, we would see them as being inauthentic and lacking vulnerability and it would actually create distance and stress in the environment. In fact, we know, for instance, that leaders when their team is upset, and when leaders are just like, “Oh, isn’t everything great? Let’s find a silver lining,” it actually increases the blood pressure of the team members even though the team doesn’t know that the leader is doing this false positivity.

So, I actually think there’s something that is, you know, an authentic experience of connectedness with the joy or the emotion here. And I think this is a really important part of my work. I’m not anti-happiness, you know, I love being happy. But happiness, true happiness is not born out of chasing happiness as a goal. True, authentic Happiness is actually a byproduct not of chasing happiness as an outcome, but rather living a life that feels concordant with our values and who we want to be in the world. And there is actually a lot of data that supports this. The data shows that people who connect on social media and who’ll end up having this idea that, “I will be happy when….,” you know, and the happiness is the outcome, “I’m chasing happiness,” actually, over time, they have lower levels of well-being, high levels of depression and anxiety, and high levels of burnout.

People who instead are saying, “What are the emotions that I’m experiencing? What values is this pointing me to? What is the groundedness of my core of who I want to be as a person?” And they’re reminding themselves of those and they’re making space for a lot of those emotions, those people actually, over time, become happier but not through chasing it, through a byproduct of living a life that feels wholehearted and concordant. And I think it’s helpful to think about this idea as it relates to our children because you mentioned a little bit earlier, this idea of…that one thing that is connected with you about my work is about emotions signposting the things that we care about.

So, when we’re trying to raise our children to have a sense of values and purpose and character, we can tell them until we blue in the face, you know, empathize, “You know, you’ve got to do this, you need to empathize, you need to invite the girl who wasn’t you, we’ve got to do all that.” Like, we’ve tried to do this like values…telling our children what values to hold. It doesn’t work. In fact, when we force, when we force our children to share or when we force empathy, there are numerous studies that show that it backfires and that children who are forced to share in subsequent experiments and in subsequent activities will end up sharing less and less and less and less. So, the question then becomes, “How do we help our children to develop this inner core?”

So, let’s move through some of this, which is your child…I’ll give you an example, your child feels upset because Jack didn’t invite him to his birthday party as an example. So, the child comes home from school, we’ve already spoken about how we want to jump in and fix but we’re not going to, we’re going to sawubona our child. That is showing up to those difficult emotions, showing up with compassion, showing up with acceptance. We also, as the second part of this, want to help our children to sense-make around the experience. So, moving from the “I am angry,” you know, “I’m noticing that I’m feeling angry.”

Something that you also alluded to in my work is helping children to label emotions and I think it’s really worth pausing for that because we know that, what I call emotion granularity or what is called emotion granularity in the psychological literature, really, what this is, is that often we give very broad brushstrokes to our emotions. We say something like, “I’m stressed,” but there’s a world of difference between stress and disappointment. You know, stress and that knowing and that feeling that you’ve made a mistake, or that a relationship isn’t working out, or that you’re in the wrong job or the wrong career, or that you need more support.

When we label an emotion with a broad brushstroke, literally, our body and our psychology doesn’t know what to do with it. Again, words matter. So, when instead what we do is we label our emotions with greater levels of granularity, “Oh, this thing that I’m calling stress is actually feeling unsupported,” or, “This thing that I’m calling stress is actually I’m disappointed,” what it literally does is it enables our body and our psychology to understand, “Oh, that’s the cause of the emotion and this is now what I need to do in response to it.” So, this is an emotional superpower.

And it’s a little bit like…when you say, “I’m stressed,” it’s a little bit like the stress is a cloud in the sky and you’ve become the cloud. But when you start saying, “You know, actually, this thing that I’m calling stress is actually a disappointment,” and you start doing what we spoke about earlier, “And I’m noticing that this thing that I’m calling stress is actually sad,” what you’re starting to do is you’re starting to create the space. Now, again, you are not the cloud, you know, you are the sky, you are capacious and beautiful enough to experience all of your emotions. So, when we become too hooked on a single emotion, “I am,” and then it’s this big, broad emotion, there’s no space.

But when we start creating a little bit of breathing room by firstly saying, “No, not I am, I’m noticing the feeling,” and we try to get accurate with the feeling, you’re starting to recognize, “I’m not the cloud, I’m the sky, I’m big and beautiful and capacious enough to experience all of my emotions.” So, getting back to the child example, you’ve shown up to the child’s difficult emotions, you’ve sawubona-ed it, now we want to create a little bit of space and we help the child to do this by labeling emotions. This is a superpower and it’s associated with…I can’t even describe the kind of power of this in children’s lives over time.

We want our children to…in a moment of temptation with drugs, we want our children to be able to connect with, “Actually, I’m feeling tempted but actually what’s going on for me is a sense of disquiet and maybe I can say…” Like, we want our children to be able to do this. But now to the next part, which is this character question. So, the child says, you know, “Mummy, Jack didn’t invite me to his birthday party, and the anger I noticed is actually sad, it’s sad and it’s rejection.” So, what is the value that the child is signposting? The child who is upset because they’ve been rejected cares about friendship. They care about friendship. And so, we have this extraordinary opportunity to have a conversation with a child of, “It sounds like friendship is important to you, how do you want to be as a friend? What does being a good friend look like to you?”

And when we do this, we start helping our children to develop their sense of character. I remember a couple of years ago having a conversation with my daughter who was really upset about something that someone had done. And she kept on going like, “She was, she was, she was,” you know, really just in big emotions. And when we’re having this conversation…and believe me, I’m imperfect at this as we all are because we’re all just doing our best. But I remember having this conversation with her and we kind of came together at the end saying like, “It sounds like you really value fairness, fairness is a really important value to you.” And it’s so interesting because it’s now years later become like a kind of guiding light for her. You know, she articulated, “I value fairness, I want to be fair in this conversation,” or, “I want to be fair with this person.”

Katie: That’s really beautiful. And it seems like I think we could have so many podcasts just on each of these as individual topics, it could be days and days of conversation. And it’s been a life work for you.

Susan: Yeah, and I’m doing a lot of talking, which I know I am, but hopefully it’s helpful at some level.

Katie: Absolutely. I’ve been taking so many notes for the show notes. So, for you guys listening, wellnessmama.fm will have a lot of this. And I know that you have many, many more resources available online as well through your website, through your TED Talk and your book. And you have a quiz, I believe, as well about emotional agility as well as a newsletter that touches on a lot of these topics regularly. But I’m guessing this is going to be a dipping endpoint for a lot of people to hopefully go deeper on your work. So, where is the best place to start if someone is new to you and wants to keep going?

Susan: Yes, so, thank you, thank you for listening. I hope this has been helpful. So, yeah, the first place is maybe if you wanted to listen to my TED Talk, it’s called “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage.” The second resource that is really helpful is…or that people describe as being helpful is I’ve got a quiz that around 200,000 people have taken, you can find it on susandavid.com/learn with a South African accent. And that quiz is a quick emotional agility quiz that gives you a 10-page report. And then on social media, I share lots of resources and assets and visuals. There’s one in particular that comes to mind right now, which is the emotion granularity, these beautiful umbrellas that we use with our children that helps them to go from the default emotion into helping them to articulate their emotions. So, different ways, different players, but in any way, please feel free to connect.

Katie: I’ll make sure those are all linked and I’m excited to keep diving in more. I was already familiar with your work but so many of the things you said today, I am finding it so helpful and I’m excited to go do with my children and then myself. I think that was a very important point we made which is doing that in ourselves that is the biggest indicator of being able to help others in our lives do it. And that’s why I’ve always been so focused on the moms, that I love being able to serve this community of moms and connect them with people like you because I think when we support the moms, we create that ripple for the whole family. And I know that you have this as a researcher and a mom, and I’m very, very grateful for your work.

Susan: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Yes, I think internal pain comes out, and so as moms and as stewards of the world and the community, it’s about raising healthy people, and hopefully, our little people become the healthy stewards of our communities.

Katie: And the last wrap-up question I love to ask is if there’s a book or a number of books other than your own that have had a profound impact on your life? And if so, what they are and why?

Susan: Well, I think for me, the most profound one is the “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the Viktor Frankl book. You mentioned it earlier and it seems like, you know, an obvious one to say, but I just think it is this human spirit and this human capacity that we sometimes forget we have. I had a podcast recently with Brene Brown in which she asked me questions about systems and I was like, “You know, it’s really interesting because the most disempowering way we can be in the world is to blame the system.” You know, it’s to say like, “We’ve got no power, it’s all about the system.” The most disempowering way we can be in the world is to blame ourselves, you know, in other words, what I’m really talking about here is there’s this boldness that when we have these emotional skills that help us to rethread ourselves and rethread our lives, we also need to be rethreading our systems in which we are and I think “Man’s Search for Meaning” for me is powerful in that way because it’s about the human spirit in the context of very difficult experience.

Katie: I wholeheartedly echo that recommendation. It’s been a very profound book for me as well as yours and I’m so, so grateful for your time today and for all the work that you do. Thank you for being here.

Susan: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Katie: And thanks, as always, to all of you for sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy, and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did and I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of “The Wellness Mama Podcast.”

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

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