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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A good influence?

Like many health and wellness bloggers I try to surround myself with positive and inspirational people and media, not only to stay abreast of the latest fitness and diet trends to report back on here, but also to keep me motivated, optimistic and to try to help mould me into the best version of myself (or a slightly better version at least!).

Occasionally I find that something I read, hear in a podcast, or glimpse on social media resonates with me in a much more profound way than the usual interesting, but less effecting, information. While so often the latter type of nuggets will have an instant impact, their effects are, more often than not, only short-lived – a magazine article that pushes me out of the door do a workout, or an Instagram picture that drives me to make a healthier meal choice. However, on the occasions that I read or hear something which has a deeper influence, I find it seeps into my subconscious in a way that goes on to shape the way I think, behave and interact with others well beyond the initial point of impact.

This was of course the case when I switched from a vegetarian to a vegan lifestyle some ten years ago now after learning more about the dairy industry and realising the effects that dairy products had on my body. Once I was equipped with this knowledge the fact of veganism seemed an obvious conclusion.

In recent weeks I had my eyes opened again in this regard as I listened to an interview with Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, makers of the documentary film Cowspiracy. While this documentary had been on my radar, I hadn’t prioritised watching it as I had thought it would just be a case of preaching to the converted. However, what the interview revealed was how little I actually knew about the detrimental effects of animal agriculture on the environment and why grass-fed meat is not the often vaunted ‘sustainable’ solution that many meat eaters claim. Again, equipped with the knowledge that the animal agriculture industry is responsible for more of the ‘human-produced’ greenhouse gasses than all means of transport combined, or that whole ecosystems are disrupted by the land requirements for grazing cattle, and that this is the leading cause of species extinction, habitat destruction and wildlife culling, reaffirmed in my mind my lifestyle choices and made me want to share the message with others (with almost evangelical zeal!).

My attitude to exercise has also taken a positive turn in recent months and this was further solidified by a excerpt in Adharanand Finn’s new book,The Way of the Runner, which I read this week.

After a series of hip issues and my decision not to run the marathon this year I had felt my relationship with running sour somewhat. However, once the pressure of training for an event was removed, and I was able to let my body recover without the anxiety of missed training sessions, I found that I was able to reconnect with the real reason I go out running: just because.

Finn voiced these sentiments perfectly in his book:

I know some people run to loose weight, to get fit, or maybe they’re running to raise money for a charity. But for me…these are just by-products. Running itself has its own raison d’être…[W]e run to connect with something in ourselves, something buried deep down beneath all the worldly layers of identity and responsibility. Running, in its simplicity, its pure brutality, peels away these layers, revealing the raw human underneath…[I]f we push on, running harder, further deeper into the wildness of it all, away from the world and the structure of our lives…we begin to float…Our minds begin to clear and we begin to feel strangely detached, and yet at the same time connected, connected to ourselves…

In this modern world we need excuses…The world is set up to cater for the rational, logical mind, which needs to see tangible reasons and benefits behind any effort. We need to dangle the carrot of marathons and best times in front of ourselves to justify this strange habit of getting up, running around outside, coming back having not actually gone anywhere…And this, on some superficial level motivates me to run. But really, deep down, I know it’s just a front. What I really want to do is get away from all of the structure, the complexity and chaos of my constructed life, and to connect with the simple human that lies buried under everything else.

I don’t doubt that this is a message that will resonate with many other runners.

Finally, with my daily practice of yoga and discovery of the wider mindfulness and meditation movement, I can feel another shift taking place. Partly responsible for this greater sense of connectedness and peace with myself is my recent discovery of Rich Roll. Roll’s podcast is full of interviews with inspirational ‘paradigm breakers’ in different fields from business, music, fitness, meditation, sleep and nutrition, and his unapologetic approach to health, wellness and veganism (the tagline to his bio is ‘a life transformed by plants’), have all served to motivate me to feel more at peace and proud of my lifestyle choices, while also compelling me to strive for more in work, exercise, wellness and diet.

You need only to listen to his interviews with Ariana Huffington, John Joseph, Light Watkins, Jedidiah Jenkins, Mishka Shubaly, or indeed any of the other motivational interviewees he has had on the show to realise what an incredible resource this is.

There are some really powerful lessons to be learned: Roll is a recovering alcoholic turned ultra-athlete and he is pretty frank that to make a change in any element of your life you already know what to do:

There is no secret bullet or life-hack that is going to help you to accomplish what you want to do, it’s simply a case of stopping what you doing and switching to take the actions that will move you closer to your goal. It’s tough to hear because people want to hear that there is an easier, softer way. The short-cut is to make that goal your absolute one priority and do anything you can to achieve it.

The podcast makes me think about life in a holistic sense: in an interview with Jason Garner, Garner highlighted the problem of compartmentalising different aspects of our lives and how ‘we talk about work life balance as if work isn’t part of our life’, something which really struck a chord with me. In another episode our engagement with social media was brought into question and the focus was placed on the importance of ‘being’ rather than ‘appearing to be’, a shift that would serve many of us.

At it’s essence is the message that life, success and happiness is all about perspective – two people can have the same experience and perceive it totally differently, so what you have to ask is how much responsibility are you prepared to take for your mindset and approach to life?

I will finish with a Viktor Frankl quote that I particularly like, which Roll cited in an episode I was listening to this week:

Between stillness and response there is a space and in that space is our power to choose our response and in our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Happy inspiring.