Emotional agility – how to stop thinking negative thoughts

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All healthy human beings have an inner stream of thoughts and feelings that include criticism, doubt, and fear. The question is, how can we avoid getting “hooked” on these thoughts – and letting them run our lives?

How do we building our Emotional Agility?

This blog post is based on this Harvard Business Review article.

Here is a case study illustrated in the article: Cynthia is a senior corporate lawyer with two young children. She used to feel intense guilt about missed opportunities—both at the office, where her peers worked 80 hours a week while she worked 50, and at home, where she was often too distracted or tired to fully engage with her husband and children. One nagging voice in her head told her she’d have to be a better employee or risk career failure; another told her to be a better mother or risk neglecting her family. Cynthia wished that at least one of the voices would shut up. But neither would, and in response she failed to put up her hand for exciting new prospects at the office and compulsively checked messages on her phone during family dinners.

Here are some recommendations for Cynthia from the article:

Recognizing her Patterns

Notice when you’ve been hooked by your thoughts and feelings – there are telltale signs: Your thinking will become rigid and repetitive like Cynthia with her self-recriminations. Your mind is telling a story that feels like a rerun of past experiences – you need to realize you are stuck before you can initiate change.

Label Your Thoughts and Emotions

This is the “mindful” part of the strategy. Call a spade a spade, call an emotion and emotion. Instead of saying “I am not doing enough at work” becomes ” I am having a thought that I am not doing enough at work”. As the article states: “Labeling allows you to see your thoughts and feelings for what they are: transient sources of data that may or may not prove helpful. Humans are psychologically able to take this helicopter view of private experiences, and mounting scientific evidence shows that simple, straightforward mindfulness practice like this not only improves behavior and well-being but also promotes beneficial biological changes in the brain and at the cellular level. As Cynthia started to slow down and label her thoughts, the criticisms that had once pressed in on her like a dense fog became more like clouds passing through a blue sky.”

Accept Them

The opposite of control is acceptance—not acting on every thought or resigning yourself to negativity but responding to your ideas and emotions with an open attitude, paying attention to them and letting yourself experience them. In Cynthia’s situation, this means recognizing her criticisms as signals about her values, and experiencing them without judgment helped her make decisions more clearly.

Act on Your Values

When Cynthia considered her values, she recognized how deeply committed she was to both her family and her work; she loved being with her children, but she also cared passionately about the pursuit of justice. Unhooked from her distracting and discouraging feelings of guilt, she resolved to be guided by her principles. She recognized how important it was to get home for dinner with her family every evening and to resist work interruptions during that time. But she also undertook to make a number of important business trips, some of which coincided with school events that she would have preferred to attend. Confident that her values, not solely her emotions, were guiding her, Cynthia finally found peace and fulfillment.

The article illustrates that: “It’s impossible to block out difficult thoughts and emotions. Effective leaders are mindful of their inner experiences but not caught in them. They know how to free up their internal resources and commit to actions that align with their values.”

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