Today I’m going to do something a little different and review a TED Talk which a friend was kind enough to send me last week.
Susan David is a psychologist, researcher, and professor at Harvard University. Through her research she has developed a set of “psychological skills critical to thriving in times of complexity and change” which she calls Emotional Agility. Her work is pertinent to us because it involves radical acceptance and gives direction on how to fully experience your emotions without letting them make life decisions for you. You’ll find the video of her TED Talk from 2017 below.
In case you don’t have time to listen to Susan’s TED Talk I’ll summarize it for you. Susan contrasts two different responses to emotion: emotional rigidity and emotional agility. Emotional rigidity involves responding to emotions we don’t want to feel by brooding on them, bottling them up, and/or false positivity. Emotional agility involves radical acceptance of your current feelings so you can then “mine” those emotions for the data they contain about your life.
Emotional rigidity is a problem because brooding, bottling, and false positivity cause emotions to get stronger, and eventually the emotion is strong enough to override our conscious decision making ability causing us to act in ways contrary to our desired values. When we act in opposition to, or outside of, our values we end up with unwanted consequences and an experience of not being in control of our own lives. We also habitually try to control the emotions of others and direct them to brood, bottle, or use false positivity which replicates the problem throughout society.
Emotional agility solves these problems through radically accepting feelings as “data, not directives”. The ability to flex with our emotions as they change and understand what each feeling signals about our relationships, wants, and needs allows feelings to do their job and prevents them from escalating. Therefore, we are able to make decisions in line with our values while feeling each emotion fully. That includes emotions like happiness, contentment, and love! We are also able to help others respond beneficially to their own emotions through modeling and direct instruction which improves our personal relationships and our community.
Susan doesn’t make direct application of her practices to our spiritual selves, so I’m going to draw out two main points from her talk and make spiritual application here. Just two, for now, because there is so much information in this video, and I’m well aware of my tendency to write long posts.
Number One – “Feelings are data, not directives.”
It sounds so simple when she states it, but the practice of assessing our emotions and choosing an action in line with our values is hard. It is backed by scripture though. The first that comes to mind is Ephesians 4:26, ” Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” When Paul wrote this he was referencing Psalm 4:4 which says, “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” So we see that feeling angry is not sin, and “showing up” to your anger, as Susan would put it, by feeling it and pondering it before choosing your response based on what you learn from it is key to preventing sin while you are angry. This is the practice of healthy internal boundaries, or boundaries with yourself.
Very closely tied to this process is the idea that our feelings are not our identity. Susan suggests instead of saying, “I’m angry” we say, “I’ve noticed that I’m feeling angry” in order to gain the necessary space between ourselves and our emotions to make value aligned choices. For Christians, value aligned choices are those which match the character of the Spirit of God –
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”Galatians 5:22-23 ESV
Number 2 – Susan points out for those of us who just wish the unpleasant feelings would go away (uh, me), “You have dead people’s goals.” The audience laughs, but the point is there’s no escaping discomfort in this life.
“Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
Jesus did not exempt himself from pain, stress, disappointment, loss, abuse, abandonment, or anything else we deal with that we wish wasn’t part of reality. He knows.
He knows all of it.
Yet, we expect to be spared on this side of heaven what he willingly entered into with us.
We have the freedom to face pain and fear courageously because he’s been there and he knows, and he won’t abandon us.
“Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”Hebrews 2:17-18 ESV [brackets mine]
The first weekend of November (next weekend!) I’ll start my next series titled “Boundaries: Home for the Holidays”. The holiday season can spark some very challenging emotions within the context of family gatherings, so I’ll be looking at what the Bible says about healthy interpersonal boundaries, examples of Jesus setting healthy boundaries, and practical steps for making healthy boundaries part of your holidays! You can subscribe below so you don’t miss anything, and feel free to share with anyone you know who might benefit!