I stumbled upon an important extension of my last couple of blogs about Emotional Intelligence and it was in a TED talk by Susan David, Ph.D. entitled “How to be your best self in times of crisis,” filmed March 2020.
Susan David teaches psychology at Harvard, is co-director of The Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, and author of several books, including “Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.” Here I will summarize the nuggets of what Dr. David said in this talk.
So often in our lives, we focus on the narratives of goal setting and having to be positive all the time. While is sounds like the right thing (“just be positive”), we have a judgment that happiness is the most important emotion to have. The “bad” emotions (sadness, grief, depression) are to be avoided at all costs. We often pair “happiness” with “expectations” (like going out with our friends), when more long-lasting happiness actually comes with being compassionate and accepting as we live our lives each day.
The circumstance we are in is not something we asked for but life is asking each of us to move into the place of wisdom in ourselves.
We may find that “coming into our emotions,” rather than brushing aside sadness and anxiety, is more healing. Susan told a story about being 5 years old and begging her parents to promise they’ll never die; her father said to her “It’s normal to be scared. We all die. We need to reach inside ourselves and find courage.” This made an enormous impression on her and she felt that her father’s wisdom enabled her to bring the best of herself forward and teach her how to be emotionally agile.
She defines ‘emotional agility’ as the ability to “un-bottle” emotions, which are the principles of psychological health and wellness. This is the ability to be with our full emotional experiences in ways that allow us to be compassionate with ourselves and others. Rather than pushing aside negative emotions, become curious about them and what they’re telling you. Develop a sense of what courageous steps you can take.
We are also deciding whether we let the media’s narrative own us or whether we will exert some empowerment over the experiences. Dr. David describes an important insight from Viktor Frankl’s enormous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” It’s so important to think of how we often jump from stimulus to response. However, between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space is our power to choose. We often go mindlessly into our news feeds and immediately feel overwhelmed and stressed. Instead, we could think of the space between stimulus and response and allow ourselves to be open to what we are experiencing and consciously be intentional about using strategies to deal with that stimulus.
Bring healthy skills to these issues. One such skill is to think of social distancing as physical distancing and remain social by staying in touch with people with meaningful quality interactions. Loneliness comes from having interactions with others that are not meaningful. Think of some small changes you can make to ameliorate loneliness, such as reaching out to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while or speaking TO, rather than past, another person. She describes a South African greeting “sawa bona” which translates into “I see you.” A more developed translation includes “I respect and acknowledge you,” or “by seeing you I bring you into being.” It means to look deeply into the other person and see their soul, love, light and hurt. This meaning can bring us out of loneliness and social isolation.
When we are fearful, our minds try to fill in the blanks. We might make it a larger problem than it is. It often provokes more anxiety and fear. We can also experience emotional contagion by picking up on the negative emotions of other people. Think about acting intentionally: rather than being stuffed into your experience of constantly watching your news feeds, ask the question of whether doing that is actually helping you. You might want to create a garden, read some books, call someone with whom you had previously had an argument. Ask whether your usual, old actions are really serving your best self.
Ask yourself what are ways that you can combat the loneliness by connecting in an intentional and values-connected way. Susan David says to be compassionate with yourself as well – for many of us are lonely and it might help to breathe into it.
Often we say “I AM… sad” or “I AM lonely.” This says I am and it means it defines ALL of me. Rather, it is better to say “I NOTICE that I am feeling sad.” “I NOTICE that I am feeling lonely.” “I notice the urge to shut down this conversation with a friend.” Our emotions do not own and define us. Be compassionate and curious about your emotions but do not get stuck in them. This labels your thoughts, emotions and feelings as just those things and not you, yourself. This is Frankl’s suggestion of acting between stimulus and response. For example, “I NOTICE that I’m feeling sad AND I wonder what that tells me about what I care about.”
How can we be compassionate for others now? There are many ways for us to contribute, even by doing something small in our community. It might just be a phone call to someone. Values-connected actions are important. It is courageous to just stay home to be safe for others. This shows that it is profoundly important to you to take care of others. Ask someone “how are you feeling?” rather than “you’ll be fine and you just need to get over it.” Ask them what they need right now.
She challenges us to think of how labeling a feeling can have an impact: there is a huge difference between saying “I’m stressed” vs saying “I’m disappointed.” Being more granular about the emotion – deciding what the emotion really is will help us understand the cause of the emotion and the pathway forward. For instance, if instead you call your emotion “being overwhelmed,” you can handle that by moving tasks into smaller pockets that you can control. “Lonely” can be lead to you deciding to reach out to someone for social connection. These are much more effective ways of dealing than merely saying you are “stressed.”
Aim to move into the spaces of compassion, being, resilience, grace and dignity. To help with focus, Susan David suggests that one recognize what they are doing that is sucking the life out of their day. Try to establish pockets of control: we can control how we respond; how we connect; how we are able to segment our time off. It might mean putting your cell phone in a drawer for an hour a day. It could be dancing around the room. It might mean meditating and/or simply being quiet.
Humans have a well of wisdom and humanity. We try to solve the problems with our minds but we need to move into our hearts and our compassion instead. Through history, there are stories of humans helping others. Move beyond right or wrong and think about what another person is experiencing that is driving a particular response. Be creative and be loving with yourself and with others.
This is a powerful TED talk with such important messages. I feel fortunate to have been able to share it.