When I reflect back on all of the things I’ve learned along on my path to emotional health, the three things that stand out to me the most are:
1. There seems to be an unspoken rule in both domestic and professional environments that women should never express, discuss, or react to any form of distress.
2. Doing so makes them unfit for any activity where stress can lead to such behavior.
3. As a result, most women neither seek guidance about how to deal with the emotions that inevitably come with stress nor actively surrender to a self-care routine that could help them manage the stress that they aren’t supposed to acknowledge in the first place.
A simple internet search reveals that this is especially prevalent amongst high-functioning, educated, success-driven mothers and women, who are in many ways expected to exude professionalism, confidence, and poise when they are on and off the clock. Furthermore, and speaking from my own experience, if these attributes are problematic behind closed doors, the woman who has unconsciously been trained by society to still do everything in her power to not appear emotional, upset, sad or depressed often complies with the expectation of her outer world, while denying a powerful opportunity for change.
The obvious problem is that by not allowing yourself to experience the natural ebb and flow of emotions, you miss out on valuable opportunities to develop emotional agility and the ability to manage your thoughts and actions while simultaneously observing the emotions associated with challenging external circumstances.
When you habitually suppress negative emotions, you eclipse the possibility of exploring deep-rooted issues that are giving rise to the emotions you are experiencing. Consequently, you are evading the responsibility of better understanding the reason the emotion emerged while cutting yourself off from any other outcome that could result from fully understanding your emotional behavior.
So, what typically happens?
We cling to unhealthy emotional patterns that unconsciously teach us to negate and devalue our gut reaction. If you practice this behavior enough, you train your brain to reach for counterfeit responses that will most likely lead to inauthentic, stoic leadership that doesn’t serve you.
By way of example, let’s say Woman A aspires to leadership in her company. She’s educated, outgoing, and agreeable. She goes above and beyond to support the decisions of her colleagues and build consensus on her team. However, because she is agreeable, she is often overpowered by others who have strong opinions about projects and business decisions. She doesn’t talk to anyone about her feelings. She doesn’t have a self-care routine. Over time, as she becomes more and more stressed out, beginning to avoid professional situations that trigger negative emotions. As a result, she eventually gets overlooked for advancement opportunities, not because she isn’t a good worker, but because she quietly eliminated herself as an option through her inability to deal with whatever feelings were being triggered in her work environment.
To illustrate this another way let’s say Woman B is identical to Woman A in every aspect, except, but instead of avoiding professional situations she ends up overcommitted to or overextended by projects because she doesn’t want to appear to be a poor sport. Eventually, she gets so overburdened and stressed that she falls behind with projects and ends up overlooked because she appeared to be a poor project manager. These are two different women dealing with two different work environments, but both are inadvertently using the same logic to make decisions: if I don’t want to look bad or feel negative thoughts, I’m going to do whatever is necessary to avoid feeling them. Both end up emotionally and professionally fragile and typically don’t realize until it’s too late that by avoiding those feelings they weren’t keeping up with their ambitions. You see, being in leadership, or being at the helm of any project or company isn’t about being agreeable. It’s about understanding how to manage your emotions and your actions in a way that is still in alignment with your desired outcome when you aren’t. Anything less leaves you fragile and susceptible to self-sabotage.
Emotional agility, on the other hand, offers you an additional skill set by which you can evaluate your feelings, allowing you to observe them without being overwhelmed.
The best way I came to understand the concept was by learning to treat my emotions like clothes. Some clothes are nicer than others. Some are trendier or more fashionable than others, and some are of higher quality. Some are more expensive. Some are cheap. Some are simply tried, true, and comfortable. They can be seen, felt, or even admired. Clothes and how you style them can give you a sense of identity, and some make you feel better than others. But at the end of the day, they are all just adornments for your body. You wear them and take them off when you are done with them. And when you outgrow them, you toss them. In this sense, emotional agility would be wearing what you want to wear, and not being moved to change your outfit because someone said they didn’t like it. Furthermore, it would also be the quality of questioning yourself about why you’d want to change just because someone didn’t like what you were wearing, and making the decision to change or not based on what you believe to be true about your outfit and how you feel in it. Being agile instead of fragile helps you identify what your emotional patterns are and how they impact your behavior.
The Anatomy of Agility-Driven Behavior
Agility-driven behavior consists of five key components:
5. Inspired Action
The basis of agility is being conscious of your resting place. It is also having awareness about any factors that could impact your emotional health. It’s impossible to know when you’re experiencing a shift if you don’t know where you started. This stage is the starting point for every agility driven-action to follow.
The second stage is acceptance, or being open to whatever emotions arise during your gut reaction. It is showing up for whatever emotions come to the surface and not cutting them off, no matter how they feel.
Stage three is about your ability to observe your emotions and be objective about why you are being triggered into feeling how you feel. So, let’s say you see a picture of your friends having lunch together on social media. Generally speaking, your initial reaction would be to get mad and vow to give all of them the silent treatment until someone explains why you weren’t invited. Now, in this case, an objective mindset would enable you:
1. To ask yourself why you are upset. (Does this kind of thing trigger pain from being excluded in high school, for instance?)
2. To consider if this is something that happens all of the time and, if so, why it continues to happen. (Do you break plans frequently? Do people feel that you would have genuinely enjoyed the occasion?)
And, finally . . .
3. To consider all the possible reasons you could have been excluded. (Is there a possibility that you've just been overlooked? Is it possible that you missed a text, call, or email about the event?) All before making any vow to take any direct or indirect action.
Stage four is owning and accepting the truth behind your triggered emotion. If we continue with the aforementioned example, it would be to accept the truth that, given all of the objective information you have, you may be overreacting based on feelings or experiences that don’t have anything to do with that isolated event.
And lastly, stage five is all about your ability to use the information you’ve evaluated in a way that is in alignment with your desired outcome. In the scenario above, if your desired outcome is to be invited to the next outing, or on a more consistent basis, then inspired action would be whatever action or behavior is likely to get you an invite. If you were to give everyone the silent treatment, you’d be less likely to get an invite. A more inspired action might be to have a conversation with one or two of the women involved to see how the event came about, and ask to be included next time.
Once you get the hang of it, the applications and possibilities are endless.
Here are a few to consider . . .
Emotional Agility at Home
Integrating the skills of emotional agility at home can help parents nurture resilient children. Additionally, agile parents, through the awareness of their own emotional health, can consciously create a healthy social and emotional environment in which the child can learn. Imagine how beneficial this could be for families who have been stuck in behavioral and emotional cycles.
Emotional Agility in Your Relationships
When used in relationships, romantic or not, emotional agility can help people evaluate the reasons they choose and maintain certain kinds of relationships. While it doesn’t guarantee that there won't be fights or disagreements, it can help partners to better understand the motivation behind their behavior and situational reactions.
Emotional Agility in Your Professional Life
We’ve already explored a few examples of how emotional agility can be beneficial to women in the workplace. But, to expand even further, it arms women with the emotional tools necessary to remain resilient under stress. Not only does it open the door to the upward movement for women in corporate, nonprofit, and political environments, but it allows them to survive more easily in these areas as well.
These are just a few ways emotional agility can be applied in a way that is beneficial for women. What additional ways could you imagine its application in your day-to-day life?
Putting Emotional Agility into Practice
To get started on your emotional agility journey, you must first establish an awareness of your current emotional state. I’ve created a simple exercise to help you gain awareness of the emotions you feel on a daily basis.
A Starting Place
You will need one piece of paper and two different colored pens. Read all the emotions below and identify the top ten that you feel on a regular basis. From that list of ten, whittle your number down to your most common five emotions (and if emotions you feel are not listed, feel free to add them to the list). Then, without judgment observe whether this makes you pleased, content, or disappointed.
What Factors are Impacting You?
Once you have your list of five emotions, draft a paragraph about how or why you believe these emotions are most prevalent in your life. Some things to consider might be your history with . . .
Feelings of Inadequacy
Narcissistic Partners or Parents
Put it into Action
Lastly, after you’ve completed the above assignment, get a piece of paper and reflect on the exercise and what you have discovered. Then make this an opportunity to go into the next seven days with more awareness of which feelings arise in particular situations and with whom. Return to the list after a week, and write down any patterns you identified from your notes Consider ways you may need to alter your behavior in situations where you were disappointed with the outcomes.
In Case No One Has Told You:
You deserve to live and work in environments that allow you to show up and be present for the range of emotions you feel. You have the power to observe your behavior and change your circumstances by being agile.