The World Health Organization has reported that depression is now the single leading cause of disability globally, topping both cancer and heart disease.
This is surprising, but definitely not inexplicable: in this historical moment of great technological, political and economic change, the instinctive response of many people is to develop rigid responses to complexity, resulting in the blocking and denying of their emotions.
This defensive strategy, however, comes at a very high cost according to Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, who discusses this issue in a memorable TED Talk:
“How we deal with our inner world drives everything. The conventional view of emotions as good or bad, positive or negative, is rigid. And rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic. Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification”.
As David said in a recent interview, from a cognitive and behavioral point of view, there is a paradox: people bombarded with too much information tend to close themselves off and focus on what they think is the answer, reducing their ability to add anything to the information.
This phenomenon has a significant impact not only on our private lives, but also professionally. And it directly involves those responsible for guiding teams and organizations. The reasoning is simple: innovation comes from people, people that have to be in a position to be able to exercise their ability to see the bigger picture and to express their creativity. People that must be helped to nurture their emotional agility.
“When people are allowed to feel their emotional truth, engagement, creativity and innovation flourish in the organization. Diversity isn’t just people, it’s also what’s inside people. Including diversity of emotion”.
The first step is to accept all the emotions that we feel, even the negative ones. Without taking refuge in a false positivity:
“Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life”.
But emotional agility goes beyond the mere acceptance of our emotions:
“Emotions are data, they are not directives. We can show up to and mine our emotions for their values without needing to listen to them. We own our emotions, they don’t own us”.
Emotions let us know how things are going. But they should not direct us, otherwise we would be at the mercy of our reactivity. We must not be guided by our emotions, but by our values.