Emotional agility and the power of values

What are my values? What are the things that sit at the core of who I am, what I believe and who I want to be as a friend, family member, wife, colleague and (eventually) parent? These are the questions that have been buzzing around in my head this week after listening to a recent episode of the Rich Roll podcast.

The episode, with Dr Susan David, addressed the concept of emotional agility, that is, our ability to acknowledge and embrace the full spectrum of our emotions (be they joyful or sorrowful) and to approach them with ‘courage, compassion and curiosity’. It is our ability to manage these inner experiences and rather than allowing them to ‘hold us hostage’, we are able to ‘learn from them, evaluate the situations we face, be clear-sighted about our options’ and act in a way that is intentional, mindful and true to our values.

Here values are defined as qualities of action. They are the overarching things that dictate the direction in which we choose to navigate our lives. Values are not things that can be completed, rather, they are ways of being that we can work towards through goal-setting. When trying to establish our values, David suggests looking back the day and thinking ‘what was the most worthwhile thing that I did today?‘ She distinguishes ‘most worthwhile’ from ‘most fun’ or ‘most exciting’, because with ‘worthwhile’ there is often a degree of effort or difficultly involved, and yet the sense of satisfaction enjoyed following the activity can act as a clue as to what motivates to you. She also offers a quiz on her website, listing values including cooperation, caring, flexibility efficiency, reliability, trust, community, change, responsibility, confidence, adventure, autonomy, bravery, accuracy, accountability and generosity, encouraging you to consider which of these resonates with you.

Establishing our values is only the first step to realising them. Everyday, our decisions and actions provide opportunities to pull ourselves closer to our values or to push us away from them. So often our thoughts, emotions and the stories we tell ourselves can drive our behaviour in a way that’s not aligned with how we want to be in the world. David argues that it is only when we have emotional agility (as opposed to emotional rigidity) that we are equipped to behave in a way that is value-aligned and authentic, rather than exhibiting insincere emotions, such as false positivity.

She explores how the stories we tell ourselves about who we are act as powerful predictors of future behaviour and can often leave us living in a way that is reactive rather than intentional. For example, if we tell ourselves that we are shy, stressed, or unhappy we find ourselves living out those characteristics. Similarly if we keep telling ourselves that we must be positive or happy when this isn’t actually how we feel we risk being unable to deal with our true emotions, leaving them to bubble and swell beneath the surface, unattended to, until they burst out.

David also introduces the idea of social contagion. This is the way in which we can ‘catch’ behaviours and emotions from other people, often without even realising it. In some cases this can be innocuous; say, for example, you are in a lift and everyone around you gets out their phone, David posits that their actions would increase the likelihood of you getting out your phone as well. Sometimes, however, social contagion may lead to behaviour that is misaligned with your values. Say, for example, your colleagues regularly turn up late for work or take an excessive number of duvet days, this behaviour may be transferred to you, impacting negatively on your timekeeping and work ethic. This process is a product of subconsciously comparing ourselves to others, wanting what they want, normalising the behaviours we see around us and adopting these behaviours.

So how do we avoid non-value-aligned behaviours and sleepwalking down a path that may leave us questioning ‘how did I end up here?’ According to David, having a clear sense of what our values are can protect us from this. By regularly reminding ourselves of our values – just spending 10 minutes a day thinking about who is the person/wife/friend/colleague/parent we want to be – starts to bring them to the front of our minds, allowing them to more easily inform our actions and act as a driving force directing our lives.

That’s not to say that value affirmations alone make living in a value-aligned way easy and David acknowledges that consistency does require cognitive effort. To help remove some of this effort she suggests trying to adopt positive habits. Habit piggybacking, where you attach a new habit onto an existing one, may also help in this regard. For example, if your value is to be engaged and present in your relationships but you find that you are always being distracted by your phone, perhaps you could get into a habit of putting your phone away with your keys/bag/coat when you walk in through the front door so it no longer hinders your engagement with your family and friends.

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All of this brings me back to my first question: what are my values? When I think about David’s ‘worthwhile’ day, for me this involves time spent with my family, husband and friends, some form of exercise, learning something new through books, articles, blogs and podcasts (and writing about it!), making progress on a project at work, going to an art exhibition or museum, trying a new recipe, making sure the house is clean, and knowing that I have filled my day as productively as possible. From this it becomes clear that relationships – be they with my friends, family or husband – are incredibly important to me, as it self-improvement and challenge – both from a work/academic and physical perspective – and efficiency – the best kind of day is one when I have achieved the maximum amount of the above-listed things! With this in mind, I hope I can now actively live in a way that is more closely aligned with these values and allow them to inform my decision making going forward.

Until my next, thank you for reading and as always I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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