Emotional Agility by Susan David

Emotional Agility by Susan David

Emotional Agility summary

The path to personal and professional fulfillment is winding. What separates those who realize fulfillment and those who don’t is emotional agility. Emotional agility shows us how to navigate our inner world—our thoughts, feelings, and self-talk—to achieve goals, create thriving relationships, and realize joy and lasting satisfaction.

Emotional Agility notes & quotes

Here are my notes and quotes on Emotional Agility by Susan David. My notes are casual and include what I believe are the essential concepts, ideas, and insights from the book, along with direct quotes from the author.

Rigidity to Agility

  • This book aims to help you develop an awareness of emotions, learn to allow and accept them, and flourish through emotional agility.
  • “Emotions…are the body’s immediate physical responses to important signals from the outside world.”
  • Befriend your natural, internal guidance system rather than fighting against it.
  • Emotions are not entirely reliable. Like an internal radar, sometimes they help us see what’s going on clearly; other times, they confuse what’s happening now with painful past experiences.
  • “Many people…operate on emotional autopilot.”
  • Some feel emotions—tough ones like anger, shame, and anxiety—are preventing them from having the life they want.
  • Emotional rigidity—getting hooked by thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that don’t serve us—is associated with psychological issues like depression and anxiety.
  • Emotional agility, on the other hand, is key to success and well-being.
  • Research shows positive thinking usually doesn’t work and can even be counterproductive.
  • “Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor Frankl
  • By opening the space between feelings and response to emotions, emotional agility “has been shown to help people with any number of troubles: negative self-image, heartbreak, pain, anxiety, depression, procrastination, tough transitions, etc.”
  • Emotionally agile people respond dynamically to life.
  • They tolerate high stress levels and endure setbacks while staying open, engaged, and receptive.
  • Despite life’s difficulties, they stay true to their values while pursuing long-term goals.
  • They face difficult emotions like anger and sadness with curiosity, self-compassion, and acceptance.
  • So many people are stressed out and overwhelmed, struggling to cope and live their best lives.
  • They feel trapped by external circumstances and internal self-defeating thoughts and behaviors.
  • We all get hooked by ways of being and doing that don’t serve us—obeying written, implied, or imagined rules.
  • Many turn to self-help books or courses, but many sources get self-help wrong.
  • “…negativity is normal. This is a fundamental fact. We are wired to feel negative at times.”
  • Emotional agility lets you be in the moment and change or maintain behaviors to live in alignment with your intentions and values while holding emotions and thoughts loosely, facing them courageously and compassionately, and moving past them to realize your lifetime goals.”
  • “Your core values provide the compass that keeps you moving in the right direction.”
  • “…small, deliberate tweaks infused with your values can make a huge difference in your life.”
  • One goal is finding the “balance between challenge and competence, so we’re neither complacent nor overwhelmed but are instead excited, enthusiastic, and invigorated by challenges.”
  • “The ultimate goal of emotional agility is to keep a sense of challenge and growth alive and well throughout your life.”


  • The human mind tries to make meaning, a cohesive narrative, out of the billions of bits of incoming sensory information daily.
  • We often accept internal narratives as factual, but most are a mixture of evaluations and opinions, intensified by our emotions.
  • “…our inner voice is rarely neutral or dispassionate.”
  • Sliding from fact to opinion to judgment and anxiety is effortless. To see your brain-bouncing mind in action, think about each of these prompts, one at a time:
  • Your mobile phone
  • Your house
  • Your job
  • Your in-laws
  • Your waistline
  • Automatically responding in an unhelpful way means you’re hooked.
  • Accepting thoughts as facts is the first step to getting hooked.
  • Mental habits are hardwired to blend with emotions to produce a powerful response evolutionarily adapted for responding to snakes, lions, and hostile neighboring tribes.
  • “Indeed, thoughts come fully accessorized with visual images, symbols, idiosyncratic interpretations, judgments, inferences, abstractions, and actions. This gives our mental life a vibrant intensity, but it can also take away our objectivity and leave us at the mercy of intrusive ideas—whether they’re true or not, and whether they are helpful or not.”
  • That’s why judges usually allow juries to see only photos of autopsies, not crime scenes.
  • Hooked = Internal chatterbox + Technicolor thought blending (memories, images, and symbols) + Emotional punch.
  • Who’s in charge—the thinker or the thought?
    “Humans love to create mental categories and then fit objects, experiences, and even people into them.”
  • Humans are accurate at instinctively sizing people up in a few seconds with little evidence. But our snap impressions can be wrong.
  • Thorsten Veblen’s “trained incapacity” of experts is why specialists are often the last to see commonsense solutions to simple problems.
  • Being hooked into thinking in a particular way means not seeing life as it is but as we’ve categorized it.
  • “Are we managing our own lives according to our own values and what is important to us, or are we simply being carried along by the tide?”
  • Most common hooks:
  • #1 Thought-blaming: “I thought I would sound stupid, so I didn’t say it.”
  • #2 Monkey-mindedness: “…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”).
  • #3 Old, outgrown ideas: As adults, we tend to behave like we still live out our childhood traumas daily.
  • #4 Wrongheaded righteousness: Our stubborn efforts to be correct, even when we’re wrong.

Trying to Unhook

  • There are seven generally accepted basic emotions: joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, contempt, and disgust.
  • Living with and accepting all our emotions is not something most of us do.
  • “When we try to ‘unhook’ simply by killing off our emotions, the real victim is our own well-being.”
  • Two ways we generally react to emotions: bottling and brooding. Men tend to be bottlers; women tend to be brooders. Bottling and brooding are learned early in life.
  • Bottling is trying to unhook by pushing emotions to the side and getting on with things.
  • Bottling doesn’t work because ignoring emotions doesn’t get to the root of whatever is causing them.
  • Bottlers often haven’t been in touch with real emotion in years, “which precludes any sort of real change or growth.”
  • Thinking positively is another aspect of bottling behavior.
    “..research shows that attempting to minimize or ignore thoughts and emotions only serves to amplify them.”
  • Bottling feels like gaining control but lessens control because valuable information is being ignored.
  • Bottled emotions gain strength by being pressurized in a bottle and eventually reappear elsewhere as ‘emotional leakage.’
  • Brooding strengthens emotions like a hurricane, “circling and circling and picking up more energy with each pass.”
  • “Ruminating on troubling feelings offers a comforting illusion of conscientious effort.”
  • “Bottling and brooding are short-term emotional aspirin….”
  • Research shows that people who smile genuinely had more satisfying marriages, greater feelings of well-being, and were more content.
  • Unpleasant emotions encourage slower, more systematic cognitive processing.
  • “The paradox of happiness is that deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself.”
  • In one study, “the higher participants ranked happiness on their list of objectives or goals, the more they described themselves as lonely on daily self-evaluation.”
  • Happiness is culture-dependent: “Chinese Americans prefer contentment, while
  • Americans with European background prefer excitement.”
  • Great writers across time and geography have found painful emotions to be instructive and valuable.
  • A third option for dealing with difficult emotions: “…being present and having an open heart to all your emotions in a curious and accepting manner.”

Showing Up

  • Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell believe humans share unconscious mental models for relationships and essential life experiences.
  • These mental models have been embedded in myths and share certain elements called archetypes, including families, fear, success, and failure.
  • One lesson that recurs in myths: trying to avoid the things we’re most afraid of is a terrible idea.
  • “Our hidden demons are simply the residue of perfectly ordinary and almost universal insecurity, self-doubt, and fear of failure.”
  • “As with every hero’s journey, our movement toward a better life begins with showing up.”
  • We don’t need to conquer fear and self-doubt, but we need to “face up to, make peace with, and find an honest and open way to live with them.”
  • Facing and naming scary things often strips them of their power.
  • “In learning to see and accept your full self, warts and all, it helps to remember one thing that all our favorite heroes and heroines have in common: They’re far from perfect. Perfection is one-dimensional, unrealistic, boring.”
  • Research on “happy habits” reveals that of all the keys to a more fulfilling life, self-acceptance was most strongly associated with overall satisfaction.
  • “Showing up takes guts. It’s scary to consider what we might learn about ourselves when we look inward.”
  • “…we can’t change ourselves or our circumstances until we accept what exists right now. Acceptance is a prerequisite for change.”
  • Guilt is the regret of knowing you’ve failed or done wrong.
  • “Shame casts one not as a human who did a bad thing, but as a human being who is bad.”
  • Self-compassion is the antidote to shame.
  • Authentic self-compassion comes from facing who you are and what you feel.
  • “Compassion gives us the freedom to redefine ourselves as well as the all-important freedom to fail, which contains within it the freedom to take the risks that allow us to be truly creative.”
  • Comparing ourselves with others diminishes self-acceptance.
  • “One of the greatest human triumphs is to choose to make room in our hearts for both the joy and the pain….”
  • Emotional agility means not wasting time indulging impulses but instead making choices connected to our values.
  • Embracing every stage of sorrow allows us to move through the experience, learn from it, and come out the other side, rather than being stuck, paralyzed by sadness.
  • Labeling emotions can be transformative, shrinking an ocean of painful, confusing emotions to a finite experience with boundaries and a name.
  • Alexithymia means “no words for mood.”
  • “…anger can be a sign that something that matters to you is being threatened.”
  • “If you can confront both your internal feelings and your external options—while maintaining the distinction between the two—you’ll have a much better chance at having a good day, not to mention a meaningful life.”

Stepping Out

  • Studies show that writing about emotionally charged experiences increases physical and mental well-being.
  • Applying words to emotions helps us deal with stress, anxiety, and loss.
  • How writing about emotions works: It creates distance between the thinker and the thought, the feeler, and the feeling, which helps us gain perspective, unhook, and move forward.
  • The gap between stimulus and response lets us choose behaviors based on our values rather than indulging thoughts, emotions, and stories that don’t serve us.
  • Learning to take a meta-view helps us live an intentional, meaningful, and thriving life.
  • “For ages, monks and mystics have used practices such as meditation to dissolve the fusion between thought and thinker, impose and action….”
  • “It’s that quality of being fully present and available that audiences relate to most.”
  • Mindfulness helps us be more emotionally agile by allowing us to observe the thinker having the thoughts.“Thoughts and emotions contain information, not directions.”

Walking Your Why

  • “‘Walking your why' is the art of living by your own personal set of values—the beliefs and behaviors that you hold dear and that give you meaning and satisfaction.”
  • “If you know your own personal values and generally live by them, you are also likely to be comfortable with who you are.”
  • A value is, above all, something you can use.
  • Questions for identifying your values:
  • Deep down, what matters to me?
  • What relationships do I want to build?
  • What do I want my life to be about?
  • How do I feel most of the time? What kinds of situations make me feel most vital?
  • If a miracle occurred and all the anxiety and stress in my life were suddenly gone, what would my life look like, and what new things would I pursue?
“When you know what you do care about, you can be free from the things you don’t care about.”
  • “As I look back on today, what did I do that was actually worth my time?”
  • Connecting your true self with your values closes the gap between how you feel and how you behave. You begin to have fewer regrets and less second-guessing.
  • Using our time wisely on things that are meaningful to us brings greater happiness.
  • “…without action, a value is just an aspiration.”
  • The more your behavior aligns with your values; the more vital, effective, and meaningful your life will likely be.

Moving On: The Tiny Tweaks Principle

  • In relationships, micro-moments of intimacy or neglect create a culture in which the relationship thrives or withers. “The tiny behaviors feed back on themselves and compound with time….”
  • “But change is a process, not an event. Focusing on this process gives individuals the sense that they can make mistakes, learn from them, and still improve their performance over the long run.”
  • “A malleable sense of self is a cornerstone of emotional agility.”
  • Autonomy is the motivating ability to do things out of your free will.
Autonomy—the power of wanting to rather than have to—is a prerequisite to change.
  • Plato understood that we are continually being pulled in two directions: what we want to do and what we know we should do.
  • External, have-to motivation increases temptation because we feel restricted and deprived.
  • Habit is “an externally triggered automatic response to a frequently encountered context.”
  • “Finding a want-to…it’s about making it easier to choose the things that lead to the life you want.”
  • Achieving the best results requires a combination of optimism and realism.

Moving On: The Teeter-Totter Principle

  • Humans are intrinsically curious to learn and grow, which is why competence leads to complacency.
  • A key aspect of emotional agility is making habits out of behaviors that are consciously connected with our values.
  • Teeter-totter principle: balancing over competence with over challenge.
  • The teeter-totter principle means finding that place where competence and comfort exist in creative tension with the excitement and stress of the unknown.
  • The biggest reason we become immobilized is fear. We’re wired to stay safe, and our brains confuse safety with comfort.
  • Animal behavior consists of two choices: approach or avoid.
Fear fills in the gaps in our knowledge, thus overshadowing the possibility of a payoff.
  • “The big-brained apes developed an awareness of the passage of time, and of the trajectory of their own lives, and began trying to account not just for their place in the social fabric but also for their place in the universe. They became self-aware, possessed of something Calle free will, empathy, and a moral sense, even religious awe.”
  • Our big brains evolved another critical task: “to provide a coherent picture of the otherwise confusing rush of information made available through the portals of our sense and the newly developed subtlety of our perceptions…coherence seems to be our top mental and emotional priority.”
  • Coherence can cause us to do things not in our best interest: “people who think poorly of themselves prefer interacting with people who also view them negatively.”
  • Comfort and coherence are why we continue seeing ourselves as we did when we were children.
  • Avoidance causes us not even to get to good, which is a precursor to great.
  • To be truly alive, we need to choose courage over comfort.
  • “No one ever got anywhere that mattered without stress and discomfort.”
  • Emotional agility entails pursuing clear, challenging, yet achievable goals not because you have to but because you want to, which are important to you.

Emotional Agility at Work

  • Fulfillment and flourishing in your personal life is not doing what others say is suitable for you, but aligning more of what you do daily with your deepest values.
  • On the surface, work is about metrics and spreadsheets, but it’s the stage on which all our emotional issues play out, whether conscious of them or not.
  • We believe we’re more objective than we are, so we often don’t know when we’re biased in the first place.
  • Correspondance bias is believing another’s behavior can be attributed to personality traits like risk aversion or phoniness. In contrast, we explain our bad behavior as a response to circumstances.
  • Stress is not the problem, but stressing about stress is.
  • Avoiding stress is impossible, but we can change our relationship to stress.
  • At work, the more you fake your emotions, the worse off you’re likely to be.
  • Living from your why at work—actions aligned with what matters to you—lets you be more engaged and able to perform at the peak of your abilities.

Raising Emotionally Agile Children

  • Contingent self-esteem is believing that one’s worth must be earned.
  • “Courage is fear walking….”
  • When we fix a child’s problem for them, we rob them of the opportunity to learn and subtly communicate, “I don’t trust your ability to problem-solve on your own.”
  • Secure attachment is “at the heart of any child’s ability to go forth bravely into the great wide world.
  • Key lessons a child learns when they are free to experience the full range of emotions without fear of punishment or the need for self-censor:
  • Emotions pass
  • Emotions are not scary
  • Emotions are teachers
  • Autonomy means self-governance, living by the choices we make.
  • Autonomy is a foundational element of lifelong thriving and is critical to a child’s moral development.
  • “Truly autonomous actions are those you fully own and endorse with your deepest self, without coercion from either the outside or your own unchecked impulses.”
  • Internally motivated people are happier, more successful, and have more satisfying relationships than those taught to act in response to extrinsic rewards.
  • It can make all the difference when we meet a child where they are instead of where we want them to be.
  • Learning emotions is a process—open to experimenting, experimenting, and discovering what might be learned—rather than a pass-fail exercise.

Conclusion: Becoming Real

“Emotional agility is the absence of pretense and performance.”
“Emotional agility allows us to be our authentic selves for everyone, every day.”

Related Resources

Here is a list of resources, including authors, books, websites, podcasts, and concepts mentioned in Emotional Agility, which might be helpful for further learning.


  • V. S. Ramachandran
  • Edward Hubbard
  • John Milton, poet
  • René Magritte
  • Alfred Korzybski
  • Bill O’Reilley
  • David Letterman
  • Dr. Gerd Gigerenzer
  • Heraclitus
  • Thorsten Veblen
  • Daniel Wegner
  • Brad Bushman
  • LeeAnne Harker
  • Dacher Keltner
  • John Milton
  • Carl Jung
  • James Pennebaker
  • C. W. Metcalf
  • Ellen Langer
  • Blaise Pascal
  • Andrew Marvell
  • Irena Sendler
  • Ruth Chang
  • Sergeant Darby
  • Jane Goodall
  • Alia Crum
  • Becca Levy
  • Plato
  • Stephen J. Dubner


  • Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Men are From Mars Women Are From Venus by John Gray
  • You Just Don’t Understand  by Deborah Tannen
  • The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
  • If This Is a Man by Primo Levi
  • Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Mindset by Carol Deck
  • Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
  • Good to Great by Jim Collins
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Grit by Angela Duckworth
  • How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims
  • The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams