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Book Reviews

Emotional Agility by Susan David – Summary

Emotional Agility is a book that deserves your attention. It shows you how emotions are more than you thought they were. You are not weak when you are experiencing certain emotions. And you are not a tough person when you choose to dismiss your emotions.

The Hooks

Getting yourself hooked begins when you accept thoughts as facts.

Hook 1: Thought-blaming 

‘I thought I would sound stupid, so I didn’t say it.’

The speaker blames his or her thoughts for his or her actions or inactions. When you start thought-blaming, there’s not enough space between stimulus and response to exercise actual choice.

Hook 2: Monkey Mindedness

Monkey mind is the internal chatter that leaps from one topic to the next like a monkey swinging from tree to tree. This leads to ‘awfulizing’ or imagining worst-case scenarios or making too much of a minor problem.

Monkey mind is obsessed with the push of the past (‘I just can’t forgive what he did’) and the pull of the future (‘I can’t wait to quit and give my manager a piece of my mind’).

Hook 3: Old, Outgrown Ideas

When you use an old script for new circumstances.

Hook 4: Wrongheaded Righteousness

We hang on too long to the idea of justice or of having it proved beyond any doubt that we are right.

People who are hooked into a way of thinking or behaving are not paying attention to the world as it is. They are insensitive to what is really taking place, as opposed to what they think is taking place. They’re seeing the world as they expect to see it.

Emotional agility involves being sensitive to context and responding to the world as it is right now.

How Not to Unhook


Bottlers try to unhook by pushing emotions to the side and getting on with things. They shove away unwanted feelings because those feelings are uncomfortable or distracting. Ignoring troubling emotions doesn’t get at the root of what is causing them. The deeper issues remain.

Suppressed emotions surface in unintended ways => emotional leakage. Perhaps you’re angry with your brother. You try to suppress your anger. Then, after a glass of wine at a family reunion dinner, a cynical comment slips out of your mouth.


Brooders stew in their misery, endlessly stirring the pot around, and around, and around. They can’t let go, and they struggle to compartmentalize as they obsess over a hurt, perceived failure, shortcoming or anxiety.

Emotions become more powerful in the same way a hurricane does, circling and circling and picking up more energy with each pass.

These coping mechanisms stem from discomfort with ‘negative’ emotions and our unwillingness to endure them.

When we don’t go to the source of our painful emotions, we miss the ability to deal with what’s causing our distress.

Negative emotions are useful too. Our feelings = the messengers that teach us things about ourselves give insights into important life directions. Envy can motivate you to improve yourself. Sadness tells you that something is wrong. Anger and resentment can show you need to implement boundaries.

Emotional agility quote

Unhook By Showing Up

Show up to your inner demons (e.g. insecurities, fear of failure, self-doubt, major traumas or minor embarrassments, terrors or tics). Learn to tame and adapt to these demons, without letting them dictate your life. Find an honest and open way to live with them. Face the scary things, give them a name and you strip them of their power.

We can’t change ourselves / circumstances until we accept what exists right now. Acceptance is a prerequisite for change. We still don’t like the things we don’t like–but we cease to be at war with them.

Practice Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is not about lying to yourself. It doesn’t deny reality, but recognizes your challenges and failures as part of being human.

You can’t have real self-compassion without first facing the truth about who you are and what you feel.

Self-compassion does not make you weak / lazy. Self-compassionate people aim as high as self-critical people do. But they do not fall apart when they don’t meet their goals.

Self-acceptance takes a big hit when we make comparisons. There will always be somebody who has a faster car, or flatter abs, or a bigger house than you do. Keep your eyes on your own work and stop second guessing yourself.

Name Your Emotions

Life is pain and fragility. Make room for both the joy and the pain. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Welcome all feelings, breathe into them without racing for the exits.

Name your emotions. Sadness differs from boredom, or pity, or loneliness, or nervousness.

Emotions are useful. They point us toward the source of our hurt. They tell us which situations to engage with and which to avoid. Emotions are beacons, not barriers, helping us pinpoint what we most care about. Self-doubt, self-criticism and anger shine light into dark, scary places you want to ignore. These are places of vulnerability or weakness. Facing these feelings can help you develop ways of coping during serious moments.

Sit with all your emotions: pleasant and unpleasant

Practice Journaling

Writing helps you sit with all your emotions: pleasant and unpleasant. Writing helps you create the distance between you and the thought, you and the feeling => a new perspective => unhook and move forward. When you’ve stepped out, you can see things you haven’t seen before. When we’re hooked, we have only one perspective, one answer, one way of doing things. We’re entangled with our thoughts, emotions and stories. They dominate us, direct our actions and make us inflexible.

Mindfulness vs mindlessness

Mindlessness it’s the state of unawareness and autopilot. You’re not really present.

emotional agility depends on your ability to stay mindful

Mindfulness helps observe the thinker having the thoughts. It creates the space between thought and action that we need to ensure we’re acting with volition, rather than simply out of habit.

What a relief it is to see a thought as just a thought.

Make space between your thoughts and you. Think of the aspect of yourself that you most dislike. ‘I’m fat’, ‘Nobody loves me’, or ‘I’m going to screw up the presentation.’ Pick your phrase, then say it ten times. Now say it backward, forward, or mix up the order of the words. You’ll see that these sounds turn from something meaningful and evocative into something remote, devoid of power and ridiculous. No longer are you entangled and looking out from the perspective of the negative thought. Rather, you’re looking at it. You’ve created space between the thinker and the thought. 

This is not bottling because you are not ignoring / denying / trying to suppress the thought, emotion, or desire. Rather, you are noticing it and the information it brings but not letting it call the shots.

Ways of Becoming More Mindful

  1. Begin with the Breath

Start by breathing in and out. Your mind will try to wander. Notice that and then let it be. Each time a thought pops into your head, try to bring your focus back to your breath. That’s the game. It’s not about winning. It’s about engaging.

  1. Mindfully Observe

Pick an object–a flower, an insect, your big toe–and focus on it for one minute. Try to see it as if you’ve just arrived from Mars and are seeing this thing for the first time. Focus on the colour, the texture, any movement it makes, and so on.

  1. Rework a Routine

Pick something you do every day and take for granted, like making coffee or brushing your teeth. Focus on each step and action, each element of sight and sound and texture and smell. Be fully aware.

  1. Really Listen

Select a piece of music such as quiet jazz or classical and really tune in–use headphones if you can–as if you’d grown up in a cave and this was the first music you’d ever heard. Don’t judge it: just try to identify different aspects of rhythm, melody and structure.

Emotional agility means having troubling thoughts or emotions and still acting in a way that serves how you want to live.

Walking Your Why

‘Walking your why’ = living by your personal set of values–the beliefs and behaviours you hold dear and give you a sense of meaning and satisfaction. Identifying and acting on the values that are truly your own–not those imposed on you by others, not what you think you ‘should’ care about, but what you genuinely do care about–is the crucial next step of achieving emotional agility.

If we need guidance, we look around to see what other people are doing and choose things we’ve been told are universal keys to satisfaction: university education, home ownership or having children. These are not for everyone. It’s easier to follow what we see than it is to work it out for ourselves => you’ll live what feels like somebody else’s life–a life aligned with values you don’t subscribe to.

If you’ve never taken the time to sort out your values, then you’re always winging it, which is how we wind up frittering away our time–surfing the Internet, forwarding pointless email chain letters, cycling through hours of reality TV–and feeling unfulfilled.

If you know your own personal values and live by them, you are comfortable with who you are. You don’t compare yourself with other people because you’re a success–by your own definition. When you know what you do care about, you can be free from the things you don’t care about.

To Do:

Answer, in writing, each night before bed: ‘As I look back on today, what did I do that was actually worth my time?’ This isn’t about what you liked or didn’t like doing; it’s about what you found to be valuable.

In the morning ask yourself, If this were my last day on earth, how would I act to make it a great last day?

Walk Your Values With Small Tweaks

Small shifts over time matter.

When our approach to problems is too ambitious (‘I need a new career!’), we invite frustration. But when we aim for tiny tweaks (‘I’m going to have one discussion a week with someone outside my field’), the cost of failure is smaller.

You can tweak your beliefs = mindset.

The parent who praises a child’s accomplishment by saying, ‘You studied hard!’ promotes a growth mindset. The parent who says, ‘Look at your A, son! You’re a genius!’ promotes a fixed mindset.

We can describe people that avoid conflicts as having a fixed mindset. Those who see problems as interesting challenges have a growth mindset. Sometimes we like to switch from one to the other.

Change is a process, not an event. You can make mistakes, learn from them and still improve your performance in the long run. People who have a growth mindset and who see themselves as agents in their own lives are more open to new experiences, more willing to take risks, more persistent and more resilient in rebounding from failure. They are less likely to conform to others’ wishes and values, and more likely to be creative and entrepreneurial.

Get Into Growth Mindset

Tweaking your mindset starts with questioning notions about yourself and the world that may seem set in stone–and that might work against what matters to you–and then making the choice to turn yourself toward learning, experimentation, growth and change (get examples)

Align Your Goals to Your Values

This is the power of ‘want to’ vs ‘have to’.

When we are compelled by a wagging finger instead of a willing heart–we end up in an internal tug of war between good intentions and no execution.

Align your goals to your values

 Find a want to in the have to. For example, you may say “I have to exercise.”. Try instead to say “I want to”. You want to exercise because you know good you feel after. If you can’t find a ‘want to’ then you need to reconsider your values and make a change.

Align Your Habits to Your Goals and Values

  • Switch up your environment so that when you’re hungry, tired, stressed or rushed, the choice most align with your values is also the easiest. Read more on this subject from Atomic Habits by James Clear.
  • Add a new behaviour on to an existing habit
  • Anticipate obstacles and prepare for them with ‘if then’ strategies
  • Optimism + realism. Believe that you can achieve your goal, but pay attention to the obstacles most likely to get in the way => mental contrasting.

The See Saw Principle

THE SEE SAW PRINCIPLE = the balance between complacency / over competence and over challenge. When we live at the edge of our ability, a place in which we’re not over-competent or complacent, but not overwhelmed by the unknown. How you do that? By incrementally going beyond the level of our competence and comfort in 2 ways:

  1. Expand your breadth – your skills, your ideas, your experiences – quantity
  2. Expand your depth – how well you do what you do – quality

Unhook from the ‘flight to the familiar’ and find the power to shut down the autopilot, show up, step out and take agency of your life.

Leave the plateau

Effortful learning = continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond our grasp => expand the boundaries and increase the sophistication of one’s knowledge and experience. Choose what is workable. The workable choice = appropriate for short-term constraints, but brings you closer to the life you want to live.

To Grit or to Quit?

Grit = sustained persistence in trying to achieve a goal over the very long haul, with no concern for rewards / recognition. It’s healthy only when you are managing the passion, rather than letting it manage you. If something is not helpful anymore, then it is ok to quit. Hanging on to unrealistic or harmful goals is the worst kind of rigidity, leading to misery.

How do you know when to persevere and when to quit?

The sunk cost vs the opportunity cost. The sunk cost = the investment–money, time, energy–you’ve made that makes you reluctant to drop it. The opportunity cost = what you’re giving up by sticking with the choice you’ve made.


Emotional Agility is not just a book about emotions. This is a book about your life, your values, your goals. And emotions (pleasant or unpleasant) are the glue that sticks them together.

Hi! I'm Maria and I am a mental health advocate! I am determined to learn as much as I can about mental and emotional wellbeing.

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