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On this episode of Dare to Lead

I’m talking to Dr. Susan David, author of the bestselling book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. This is a full-on emotion-researcher geek-out on how emotional granularity and agility benefit us as individuals and as leaders. It’s such a good conversation that we made it into two episodes, and this is Part 1.

About the guest

Dr. Susan David

Susan David, Ph.D., is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist. Her #1 Wall Street Journal best-selling book Emotional Agility—based on the concept that Harvard Business Review heralded as a Management Idea of the Year and the winner of the Thinkers50 Breakthrough Idea Award—describes the psychological skills critical to thriving in times of complexity and change. Susan challenges a culture that prizes positivity over emotional truth and explores how the way we deal with our emotions shapes everything that matters: our actions, careers, relationships, health, and happiness. Susan’s TED talk on the topic of emotional agility has been seen by more than 8 million people. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal and guest on national radio and television. Named on the Thinkers50 global list of the top management thinkers, Susan is a sought-after keynote speaker and adviser, with clients that include the World Economic Forum, EY, United Nations, Google, Microsoft, NASDAQ, and many other national and multinational organizations. Susan trained as a clinical psychologist and completed her Ph.D. and postdoctorate at Yale University on emotions research. She is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is a co-founder of the Institute of Coaching (a Harvard Medical School/McLean affiliate). Susan lives outside of Boston with her family.

Show notes

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David, Ph.D.


Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is the Dare to Lead podcast. In this episode I am talking with Dr. Susan David, who is the author of the best-selling book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. This is a full-on emotion researcher, gee out, learn so much, ask each other a million questions, laugh and call bullshit together on the whole notion of toxic positivity, that everything is great and that we can just take all of our hard emotions, stuff them away and put up a really pretty quote card on Instagram and it’s all going to be good. We’re collectively calling bullshit on that and we’re talking through what we’ve both learned about emotional granularity, the ability to really get specific on how we’re feeling and what we’re feeling, what is agile, what does agility mean, what’s fragile, what’s rigid, and it’s basically the direct opposite of what most of us were taught growing up. So, such a good episode that we made it into two. This is part one. I cannot wait for y’all to hear this.


BB: Before we jump into part one of this two-part podcast, let me tell you a little bit about Susan David. Dr. David is one of the world’s leading management thinkers and she is an award-winning Harvard Medical School Psychologist. Her book is entitled Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, and we’re going to talk about that a lot. She has a great TED talk on the topic. I think it is a great primer for her work and you can watch it. She is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and you can see her often actually on TV, talking about her work and weighing in on what we need to understand about the emotional landscape that we live in. She is also the CEO of Evidence Based Psychology. She’s on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and she is a co-founder of the Institute of Coaching, a Harvard Medical School McLean affiliate. She’s also on the scientific advisory boards of Thrive Global and Virgin Pulse. She lives outside Boston with her family. Let’s jump in with Dr. Susan David.


BB: So, I am really excited to talk to you. It feels like this has been a long time coming.

Dr. Susan David: I feel like it has.

BB: Yeah.

SD: For years, actually. For me. For me it has. [chuckle]

BB: I’m excited to be here with you now. Thank you for being on the podcast.

SD: I’m delighted.

BB: I want to start with this question. I have a million questions for you. I have more questions than I could probably ever ask you, but we’re going to start with this question. Tell us your story. Start us from the beginning.

SD: I want to start by saying that my life’s work has really been in the focus of emotions and what it is that helps us when we think about emotions as being this core part of us as human beings. And so, of course, I think, like so many stories, that gets borne of the way our childhood gets shaped. And for me that is true. I grew up as a white child in the white suburbs of apartheid South Africa. So, very much a country, a community, committed to not seeing, committed to denial at a really fundamental level. And so, at a very early age, I became very interested in a theme that really runs through my work, which is the theme of seeing versus not seeing. Who is seen, who is not seen, and how do we see ourselves? How do we see ourselves as fully formed whole human beings? So, this is where some of this thinking first starts.

SD: And then I had a really seminal experience when I was around 15 years old. My father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I recall — I mentioned this actually in my TED talk — my mother coming to me on a Friday and saying to me to go and say goodbye to him because we knew that that was likely going to be his day. And so, I have this very clear memory of putting my backpack down and walking through the passage to where the heart of my home, my father, lies dying of cancer. He’s 42. As I said, I’m 15. And his eyes are closed, but I know that he sees me because I had always experienced this feeling with him, of being seen. So, I kiss him goodbye. I tell him I love him and then I go off to school because my mother is trying to keep things as normal as she can, and I have this really remarkable experience of going through the day and running from math to history, science to biology, and I know that my father’s going. And then on the Monday, I go back to school and the months go from the May to July to September, and all this time I walk around with a smile on my face. And everyone’s saying to me, “How are you doing? You’re so strong, you’re so strong.”

SD: You know what this is like, Brené. You become the master of being okay because you’re praised for being strong. You’re trying to get on with it. You’re trying to move through things. You’ve been told that being positive is good, that gritting is good, but my heart is breaking. My heart is breaking and my family’s struggling. My mother hasn’t been able to keep her business going. My father hasn’t been able to keep his business going. They’re both small business owners. She’s grieving the love of her life, she’s raising three children, the creditors are knocking, and I start to spiral. And for me, that is expressed in binging and purging. Truly not being able to experience the full weight of my grief. And yet still, people are saying to me, “How are you doing?” and I’m like, “I’m okay. I’m okay.” So, this is really the answer to your question or part of the answer to your question.

SD: I am in English class one day and the teacher hands out these blank notebooks. And as she hands it to me, she says, “Write. Tell the truth and write like no one is reading.” And it was the most incredible experience, because I started with this teacher, this secret silent correspondence, where I would write in this journal and I would write…I would be showing up to myself, my grief, my pain, my loss, my regret. And I would write in this blank notebook for this teacher, and she, every day, would hand this notebook back to me. And she always made sure to write in pencil, not in pen. Mine was the pen, mine was the narrative. Hers was the pencil.

SD: And what I started to experience through that journaling was something that was so profound. It was a revolutionary act for me that really shaped my life and my career — this idea that we have so much around us that tells us to just get on with it and just be positive. But what I was experiencing with this woman, what I experienced with my father and what was the counterfoil to my experience in South Africa was this idea of how seeing is so healthy and is so powerful.

SD: And so, that actually shaped my life. It shaped my career, it led me to want to become an emotions researcher because I was really just interested in what are the narratives that we have in our society that are supposedly narratives of resilience and success and health and wellbeing, but that actually undermine us. They make us less resilient. They make us more fragile, and they insult our community and our society. And so, these are the questions of my work. Of course, I’m more than that one experience, but that for me shaped me.

BB: God, it’s such a beautiful, traumatic, and real story. Boy, if you’re listening right now, and I know a lot of teachers listen to the Dare to Lead podcast, because teachers are such important leaders in our culture and our community. Wow. One teacher, one blank notebook, one mandate to do nothing but tell the truth of your experience, right?

SD: Yeah, one teacher. And a teacher who, many years later, I reconnected with and sent her a bunch of flowers out of the blue and said to her like, “Little did you know. Little did you know that in many ways this… not you saved me, but this experience that you created from this context that you created actually saved me.”

BB: Tell me more about how living in apartheid South Africa shaped your thinking around invisibility and being seen. Because I have to tell you that, as someone who studies emotions, and I know the work and I know the literature, you have a very beautiful, powerful, and important lens. Not everyone comes to this work around the lens of being seen and invisibility. Tell me how the experience in South Africa shaped your understanding of seeing and not seeing.

SD: Well, maybe I’ll start by telling you a story that is not my story, but I think is an important one. And this is a story of a mother who — because of apartheid laws — has a baby and is not able to bring her baby into the place that she works because of segregation. And so, the mother leaves her baby with her own mother, with the child’s grandmother, and comes to her work, and the child is a child that she does not see for maybe six months or eight months. And she, every day, expresses her milk and flushes it down the toilet. And that family that that woman works in, they have their own baby. And every day she feeds that baby formula. And so, this is an example of an individual story, a trauma that is then playing out in multiple ways, in multiple lenses across communities, and it’s a heartbreaking story.

SD: And so, as I’m a child growing up with this, and you see this kind of thing going on and you become so… The dissonance. The dissonance, the sense of disconnect, the sense of horror that this is what is being perpetrated in the community and the place that you’re living is just so profound. And there’s this beautiful word in South Africa which you hear every day on the streets, Sawubona. It’s a Zulu phrase, it means “hello.” It’s a greeting. You hear it every day, hundreds of times a day, but Sawubona when you literally translate it has the most beautiful meaning, which is, “I see you and by seeing you I bring you into being.”

SD: And that’s what Sawubona means literally and so I think that I, from a very young age, was just… Through this thread of my father, through this thread of this teacher, through what I’d seen around me made me become so focused on these ideas, this narrative, this lens of seeing and what seeing actually means. And then again, this is the counterfoil to what we see even in the US today, even beyond this counterfoil, which is often a counterfoil of, “Let’s just be positive, if you say things that are negative, you’re just being a negative person.” There’s this whole narrative that basically constantly leads us away from seeing. And it’s not only seeing other people. It’s also seeing ourselves. It’s seeing the reality of the fragility of life.

SD: How do we recognize this reality that life’s beauty and its fragility are interwoven? They’re absolutely interwoven. We know that we are young and then one day we walk down the street, and no one thinks we’re sexy anymore. We’ve become unseen. We are well until heartbreak brings us to our knees. We think that life is in control, and then there’s a pandemic that comes that reminds us all, “You never were. Ha ha. The joke’s on you.” And so, we have this fragility that is interwoven in our lives, and yet the narrative that we have so often in our society is a narrative of, “Just be positive, just get on with it,” this narrative that basically locates all success in the individual, that denies the systemic impact that not being seen has on people. And this is what I feel passionate about.

BB: It’s so interesting that you use that one day we’re young and then one day we’re invisible. I don’t even remember when it was, Susan, I think it was maybe a year into my first interviewing, two decades ago, interviewing women about shame. And I remember so well this story. I think it’s in I Thought It Was Just Me, and I can’t remember whether I told it… Oh yeah, I think it is, but a woman told me a story about driving and pulling up next to a car full of young men, and they were all smiling and kind of flirting, and she looked over and she smiled. And then all of a sudden from the back seat her 15-year-old daughter who was there with her friends said, “Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding. You think they’re looking at you, Mom?”

SD: Yeah.

BB: And she used that as an example of what shame felt like for her. And she said… She just kept coming back to the word “invisibility.”

SD: Yeah, it’s the sense of invisibility. The trap door to your heart opens and you recognize that the assumption that you’ve had, the narrative that you had, is no longer.

BB: Yeah. So, I want to walk through your work. I’ve got a flagged, dog-eared, Post-it-ed, and I think these are advanced proofs. I think this is like… I think I’ve had this book before it actually came out. This is like my…

SD: You’ve got the original, original.

BB: I’ve got the original original. Yeah. For those of you who can’t see, because you’re listening, obviously, I’m looking at Susan David’s incredible book, Emotional Agility: Get unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. And tell me what emotional agility is. Can you define it and the four-step approach that it is for us?

SD: So, at its most basic level, emotional agility is about being healthy with ourselves. At its most basic level, it’s this idea that all of us, we all every single day have thoughts. The thought might be, “I’m not good enough,” or “I’m being undermined.” We have emotions, we have these emotions that so many of us experience, and experiencing so much more lately, of grief and loneliness and loss. Anger, sadness, joy, happiness — all of these emotions — and then we have these stories.

SD: And these are normal. The idea that we should just be positive or that we think thoughts and it manifests your reality. No, these difficult thoughts, emotions and stories are normal.  They’re part of the way that we as human beings are actually built, so that we can construct coherent narratives of the world and make sense of the world. It’s really important that I’m able to segment out that a noise that I’m hearing is the noise of my child crying as opposed to the dishwasher running and…

BB: Right.

SD: So, I’m needing to be able to take in all of the sensory information and to make sense of it, to develop a sense of coherence. So, emotional agility is this recognition that we have these thoughts, these emotions and these stories and that the way we deal with them drives everything. It drives how we come to our relationships, how we love, how we parent, what careers we put our hands up for and how we lead. So emotional agility, at its core, is really the skills of being healthy with the self. And there are a couple of components to this. The first is what I call “curiosity,” which will be very familiar to you in your work, which is specifically when we think about it in terms of emotion, it’s really the curiosity about not that these emotions are bad and they should be pushed aside, but actually what is this emotion signposting to me about what my need is, about what my values are.

BB: I’ve got to say, I just love this part of your work. I just want you to explain the hell out of this to us. I love this part of your work.

SD: Okay, okay. Do you want a short definition first and then we do curiosity or…?

BB: I want you to tell us what signposting is, because it’s a remarkable piece of research.

SD: Well, it’s this idea that… Okay, let me go a step back, which is when I was studying psychology and I tried to find an advisor who would advise me on a PhD in emotions, I could not for the life of me get anyone to agree to do this, because even though I was in a psychology department they would say to me, “Well, emotions are difficult to measure.” There was this backlash against psychodynamic theory, which is, “Oh, it felt too ephemeral and too difficult,” and then there was…

BB: Squishy.

SD: Behaviorism. Yeah. Behaviorism felt very tractable. You could count how many times the dog barked. But emotions were either not seen as things that you could study, or if you did, they were always seen as these byproducts or end products. And what I mean by that is, if you, for instance, manage your relationship effectively, or if you manage your depression effectively, you will have fewer difficult emotions. So, the idea was that it was always the emotions were the kind of end product of something that you might feel better about at the end of the day. What I was really struck by — and this was really borne of Charles Darwin’s work —Charles Darwin described how our emotions are actually fundamental to our adaptation, that when you see other people you are able, through emotions, to have their needs communicated to you and you can communicate your needs to them. But also, that your emotions are helping you to communicate with yourself.

SD: So, what we’re starting to see here is this idea that emotions are not now the end product. Actually, they are these beautiful, yes messy, yes difficult, but beautiful signposts that we have that allow us to understand ourselves better. So, let me give you some examples of what I mean by this, which is, in a world that says, “Be positive” all the time, if I invite you to think about the last couple of months, and I invite you on a blank piece of paper to write an emotion you’ve experienced or that’s been tough on you, what would you put?

BB: I’ll do it. Let’s do it. I’ll do it. Yeah, I’m going do it. Overwhelmed.

SD: I want to come back to that if we can?

BB: Okay. Yeah, of course.

SD: Let’s do more.

BB: Okay. Overwhelmed, scared, fearful, weary, confused.

SD: So, these emotions, if you write these emotions on a piece of paper in a world that tells you to just be positive, they would say, “Turn the piece of paper over now and write why you’re grateful. Okay, write why you’re happy. Write why you’ve got so much more than other people.” And what that is doing is false forced positivity and it undermines your resilience, and it undermines your emotional agility.

BB: Stop. Wait, you’ve got to stop. So many people listen when they’re running and walking, they tell me, to the podcast, this is where you’re going to have to stop and take a minute and hear what she just said again because this is part of that little miracle of your work, I think. I write down “scared, overwhelmed, confused, fearful, weary” and then some people will say, “Turn it over and say what you’re grateful for and what you’ve got better than other people.” And they tell me to do that because they tell me this will make me stronger and more resilient. You’re calling bullshit on that?

SD: I am calling complete bullshit. In fact, what I’m suggesting is that when you do this, it makes you more fragile. Because then what you’re doing is you are not living in the world as it is, which is overwhelmed, weary, confused. You’re living in the world as you wish it would be, which is where you’re feeling grateful. But you’re not feeling grateful. And so, I have a real issue with this. I truly — and you probably can hear how passionate I sound about this — I truly believe that a lot of this idea that difficult emotions need to be pushed aside is accounting for so much of our fragility in our communities and in our psychological health and well-being right now. When someone says to you, turn the piece of paper over and write what you are grateful for, what are they really saying? They’re really saying, “My comfort is more important than your reality.”

BB: Oh my god, can I get an amen from the people in the back? Yes, this is it. Can I ask you this question? Because I was going to ask you later, but I think this is the right place to ask it. I think this is a really important conversation for the two of us to have. Have we moved into the realm of the toxic positivity? Have you heard that frame a lot?

SD: Yes. Well, basically, what is toxic positivity? Toxic positivity is — and I talk about this in my TED Talk — this idea that it’s a tyranny of positivity. It is a tyranny of positivity. And let me give you a personal example of how this impacted my life, and then you’ll see again why I just feel so passionate about these ideas. When my father was diagnosed with cancer, it was terminal. And he had been paying a life insurance since I was a baby. And he was dying and desperate and scared. And he had a number of members of his church who would come and visit him when he was in bed. And one day, I went into the room after they left, and he was sobbing. And he said to me, “They told me that I’m going to die because I don’t have enough faith.”

BB: Oh my god.

SD: Okay? “Because if I had enough faith then I would be fine. Because I should have just left it to God that everything’s going to be fine. And it’s because I’ve got a lack of faith that I’m dying.” Now, he was confused, and he was desperate. About six months later, I heard my mom and my dad having an awful argument. And I was able to put together that my father, in his desperation with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, had canceled his life insurance.

BB: Oh god…

SD: Because, in his mind, he had bound up this idea that faith and positivity and cure come in together, and that having life insurance is a sign that I don’t have enough faith and that I’ve got to kind of prove something. Now, this might sound extreme, but how many times, how many times when people have cancer, do we say to them, “Just be positive. Don’t think bad thoughts. It’ll make it worse.” How many times, when people are marginalized and discriminated against, do we say to them, “It’s just about your attitude. It’s your attitude, it’s not about the fact that there’s no public transport in your area or that you’re being marginalized.” It’s like attitude equals success.

SD: And so, what we’ll end up doing is we’ll end up creating a context in which we, with ourselves individually, feel that if we feel difficult emotions, if we feel confusion, if we feel grief, if we feel these difficult emotions, there’s something wrong with us. Because everywhere we look on social media, we’re told to just be positive. This is toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is forced false positivity. That sounds innocuous somewhat on the surface, but it’s basically saying to people, “My comfort is more important than your reality.” Or if you do it to yourself, if you hustle with your own emotions, if you say to yourself, “I’m feeling lonely, but I shouldn’t be lonely because… ”

BB: People have it worse and…

SD: “People have it worse than me.” You are gaslighting yourself. You are gaslighting yourself.

SD: And it might sound on the surface like this is going to make you stronger and you’re going to be positive, but there is no research. There is no research supporting the idea that false positivity — in other words, a denial of our experience — is helpful to us as human beings. Again, what are you doing then? You are living in the world as you wish it would be, not in the world as it is. And how do we problem solve? How do we respond effectively to circumstances? It’s when we’re dealing with the world as it is. We need to deal with the world as it is. Doesn’t mean we need to get stuck in our difficult emotions, which is in-agility. We need to be healthy with our emotions, but this narrative is bullshit.


BB: Okay, so you’ve had me write down my emotions. You didn’t have me turn it over and talk about what I’m grateful for when I’m trying to be vulnerable and real with you and say, “God, man, Susan to be honest with you… ” And I gave you real words, “I’m overwhelmed, confused, weary, fearful. Yeah, I’m scared a little bit. I’m unsure.” So, tell me how signposting fits in with this.

SD: So, this is this idea that our emotions signpost the things that we care about, or that our emotions signpost our needs. So, if you feel rage when you watch the news, your rage is not a negative emotion. This idea that emotions are positive versus negative is again something that I push against. Emotions are normal. Emotions are beautiful. There’s no good or bad emotion.

SD: So, if you feel rage when you watch the news, that rage is signposting maybe that you value equity and fairness and that you need to make moves in your life towards that value. If you just push aside that rage, if you just bottle it — which is often what people do, they just push it aside and they say, “I’ve just got to get on with it, I’ve got a job here, I’ve got my to-do list, I’ve got all these things” — often what we do instead is we bottle the emotion, we push it aside. That is associated with high levels of depression, high levels anxiety, low levels of problem-solving, low levels of relationship effectiveness. Because, if you bottle emotions, you’re not actually able to be kind of vulnerable and effective with people.

SD: Often with difficult emotions, people, instead of bottling, they might brood on their difficult emotions. They get stuck in their mess, say, “Why am I feeling what I’m feeling? This is terrible. This is awful. I don’t know if I want to be in this or raise children in this. I feel terrible.” And it’s almost like the metaphor that I have in my mind is that bottling is almost like you’re carrying these emotions box. You’re carrying a heavy part of emotions box, and you’re carrying it so far away from you that your arms get tired, and your heart gets tired, and you drop the box.

SD: When you brood on difficult emotions, you’re holding the box so close to your chest that you can’t see your husband, you can’t hug your child, you can’t be in the world, you can’t give yourself the joy that you might need, because it feels so close. And so, emotional vulnerability is the space in between. And with your example, on a piece of paper, “lonely.” “Lonely” might be signposting that even though you live in a house with loved ones, that you can be lonely in a crowd, because we go to the kitchen and we feel ourselves shut down as our partner reaches out to you. And there’s that moment of defense and so loneliness might be signposting.

SD: To close off this signpost idea, loneliness might be signposting that you need more intimacy and connection. Grief. Grief is love looking for a home. Grief might be signposting that this person or this experience that’s gone from you still wants to be with you in memories, in song and photographs. I’ve never met someone who’s sad who isn’t looking for a better way of being in the world. Someone who is socially anxious, who’s saying, “How can I better connect?” Even anger. Even especially anger. There’s a body of research pointing to the idea that anger is foundational to moral courage. When you feel, not when you express, because there’s a difference.

BB: Oh yeah.

SD: Okay? There’s a difference. When you’re open to the feeling of anger, instead of saying, “Oh, I shouldn’t go there, I’m being negative,” when you’re open to the experience of anger, what does it do? It makes you more likely to stand up against bullies or to use your voice against injustice. So, this is this idea of emotions as signposts. But I want to talk about one of your particular ones.

BB: Okay, go. [laughter] I think.

SD: Because I know you love this. Well, I know this idea of what are different emotions.

BB: Yeah.

SD: Which is really what you’re pointing to, which is you don’t just have one emotion on the piece of paper, you’ve got a number. And yes, what we absolutely know is that often what happens is when people experience difficult emotions, what they do is they use very broad brushstrokes to describe what it is they’re feeling. So, they’ll say, “I’m stressed” is the most common one.

BB: For sure.

SD: Or “I’m overwhelmed” is the most common one. But of course, we know there’s a world of difference between stress and disappointment. Stress and that gnawing, gnawing feeling of, “Is this what it is?” Stress and depletion.

BB: Mm-hmm.

SD: If you use, or people who are listening, if we use big labels to describe our emotions, our body, our psychology, doesn’t actually know what to do with it. What do we do with stress? It’s this amorphous emotional experience. And so, instead, if we are able to get more granular, if we’re able to say, “What are one or two other options?” It is profoundly powerful. We know that children as young as two and three years old who are more able to accurately start labeling their emotions have, through their lifetimes, better ability to self-regulate, delay gratification, and have the strongest sense of moral compass.

SD: And people might say, “How does that really work out?” Well, if you think about it, a child who has a more granular sense of his or her emotions, when someone says to the child, “I’ve got this great idea. Let’s let the air out of the principal’s car tires.” The child who says, “The first emotion that I feel is excitement, but the second emotion that I feel is disquiet.” That child who is able to be more granular is then more able to unpack, “What is it that’s going on for me here? Oh, this doesn’t feel right.” So, this is really, really important, this idea that we often use these broad brushstrokes, but when we get more granular with labeling our emotions, it actually allows our body, our psychology, to say, “What is the cause of the emotion? What is it that I need to put in place that’s going to help me here?” And…

BB: It’s tough.

SD: This is just really important. It’s very tough.

BB: This is tough, and this is such into the new research that we’re doing right now, and we’re doing a lot of work on emotional granularity, which is what we call this, right? How granular, how accurately — I’m thinking of Marc Brackett’s work — how accurately can we label what we’re feeling? The more accurately we can label what we’re feeling, the more capable we are of regulating it. So, let me ask you these questions: What are the emotions, the big ones that are gummy and stick a bunch of things to it, that we need to un-clutter? What are the words that are often the big ones that we need to get more granular on? I think you said “stress” was one of them.

SD: Stress, definitely. Some people don’t even do stress. Some people say “busy.”

BB: Busy, yeah.

SD: You know, everything’s busy. Angry. I had a client that I was working with who described everything as “angry.” He was angry, his wife was angry, his team was angry. And we had this process where I would say to him, “What are two other options? They don’t need to be right or wrong, what are two other options?” And he started to say, “Well, maybe I’m scared.” Okay? “And maybe the team is mistrusting.” And you can see, if you go into a meeting and you are angry and the team’s angry, that meeting is very different than if…

BB: Combatative, yeah.

SD: If you go into the meeting and it’s like, “I’m scared because I’m new to this role and the team’s mistrusting,” the meeting is very different. And he wasn’t a psychology client of mine. He was a consulting client. And months later, I went out with him and his wife, a group of people over dinner, and he was talking about this experience that he’d gone through about accurately labeling emotions. And his wife at the dinner table said, “This changed our relationship. A simple skill changed our relationship” because he would come home from work and he would say, “You seem so angry and off today.” And she would say, “I’m not. I’m just tired. I just need help.” So, I think “busy, stress, angry.” I think “sad?” Sad is “disappointed, vulnerable.” There’s so many different dimensions of sadness. So, I think there were a couple of them.

BB: It’s interesting because maybe 15 years ago, when we were running an early curriculum, or a shame -resilience curriculum, we asked… I think we got up to maybe 1200 people, and since then we’ve asked many, to write down all of the emotions that they’ve ever experienced. And do you know what the mean number was?

SD: Tell me.

BB: Three.

SD: Really?

BB: Happy, sad and pissed.

SD: Now, if that’s all you’ve got…

BB: Yes!

SD: If that’s all you’ve got, how do you have a conversation about injustice? How do you get ready for the loss of a loved one? This is one of the aspects of emotional agility. There are others as well, of course. But this is why I’m saying that when we shrink down into a sense of only one experience of emotions as legitimate and it’s this positive experience — this is one. It becomes erosive of our well-being, because tough emotions are part of our contract with life.

SD: We don’t get to have a meaningful career. We don’t get to leave the world a better place. We don’t get to raise a family without stress and discomfort, and with it comes the understanding of what it is that I actually need in this moment so that I can address that. And so really, again, this idea of emotions as signposts is this idea that emotions are signposts of things that you care about or the things that you need. When instead of just flipping that piece of paper over, you pay attention to it and you become more granular with it. You generate a superpower that allows you not to be driven by the emotion. Our emotions are data. They’re not directives.

SD: So, I’ll say that again. They’re data, not directives. We can learn from our emotions. They’re data, but they’re not directives. We, as human beings, get to choose who we want to be. We get to step into our values. And it’s the wisdom of emotions that allows us to understand what’s going on for me, with my anger, with whatever it is, and that then allows me to step into my values. But there’s another thing that I think actually, if you don’t mind…

BB: Oh no.

SD: Okay, so another thing that often happens is… You’d asked me earlier on, “What is emotional agility?” and I said it’s about curiosity. It’s about compassion. It’s about courage around our difficult emotions. And it’s basically this capacity to hold our emotions lightly and not become locked down into right versus wrong, rigidity with our emotions, or letting our stories or our emotions own us. And a really important part of this is also linguistic skill. So really what I mean here is that we’ve all had the experience when you worked with someone who’s stuck, where you say to the person, “It sounds like you’re really stuck. What do you feel you need in the situation?” And the person says to you, “I don’t know. That’s what I’m paying you for.” [laughter]

BB: Yeah. “You tell me.”

SD: So, then you say to them, “Let’s just for a moment imagine that you bring to the room the person who is the wisest, most loving person, the person who knows you best, who wants what’s best for you and who you believe is wise. What would that person advise you in this situation?” And it’s extraordinary, because this individual who was stuck now says, “They would tell to do A, B, C, D, E… ” Now, it’s the same person. We haven’t actually got a physical otherwise individual into the room.

BB: Right, right.

SD: So, what’s happening here? What’s happening is that this person is engaging with perspective-taking. They are moving themselves out of their emotional space — what I call in Emotional Agility — I call this the ability to step out of emotions. So, you move from your emotional space into an alternative space where you’re able to see what it is that another person might want or advise of you. So, what you’re doing is you’re creating linguistic space, in a sense, between you and the emotion or perspective space. Now, we can do this even internally when we’re struggling, when we’re feeling undermined in a meeting, when we have the urge to leave the room because our husband’s starting in on the finances or whatever it is.

SD: Often what we do is we use labels. Like we’ll say things like, “I am sad. I am overwhelmed. I am confused. I am lonely.” Now, if we think about what we’re doing there, it comes so naturally to us, but what are we doing? We are linguistically defining ourselves by the emotion. “I am, all of me, 100% of me is sad. There’s no space for wisdom, for calm, for breathing, for connection, for values, for other parts of ourselves.” When we say, “I am sad,” it makes it sound as if you are the emotion. And it’s almost like the emotion is a cloud in the sky, and it’s like you have become the sad cloud. The cloud in the sky is sad and you and the sad cloud are one.

SD: When instead you start labeling your thoughts, your emotions, your stories for what they are, “This is anger. I’m noticing that I’m feeling angry. I’m noticing that this is my urge to leave the room. I’m noticing that this is my ‘I’m-not-good enough’ story.” So, what you’re doing here is you are… You’re not bottling, you’re not pushing it aside, you’re not getting stuck in it, but what you’re starting to do is you’re starting to create linguistic space between you and the emotion, so that you can move beyond the emotion. Because of course, when you say, “I am sad,” you are the cloud. When you say, “I’m noticing that I’m feeling sad.” It’s so subtle, but you’ve created space and you are now zooming out. Because you aren’t the cloud. You are the sky. Human beings are capacious and beautiful and messy and extraordinary enough to feel all of their emotions, and they have their values and have their wisdom, and so this linguistic distancing brings us into clarity with ourselves, brings us into alignment with ourselves. We’re no longer owned by the emotions, but the emotion’s a part of us.

BB: God, there’s so much power in that.

SD: It is. It is extraordinary. And it’s the kind of thing often with these skills, people say things like, “It takes so much practice. I’m in a meeting and I get caught off guard by my emotions,” But no, most of the times where we say we get caught off guard it’s because we aren’t recognizing the patterns of when different emotions come up for us. That I feel like I’m being caught off guard, but it’s actually when I constantly feel like I don’t have a voice in this meeting. Okay? So, there are these patterns that come up for us. And this example of “I’m noticing” is so small, but it’s so powerful.

BB: There’s a quote that you and I both love, probably because of the nature of the work we do and the way we try to live, and I’m not sure whether it’s really attributed to… There’s some question — Viktor Frankl, Stephen Covey, Rollo May, but there’s that quote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is our power to our response.” God, and you’re talking about linguistic space here, right?

SD: So, this quote is so beautiful, and I love it, and I’ve started to just say, “In the sentiment of Viktor Frankl… ” Because I believe it’s in his sentiment, but there’s question as to the provenance of the exact wording of the quote. So, at the very beginning of the conversation, you said to me, “What is rigidity and what is agility?” Rigidity is when there’s no space between stimulus and response. “I’m angry so I lash out.” “I’m frustrated so I leave the room.” “I feel undermined and so I either shut down or I speak up, but neither of which are actually serving the intention of who I want to be in the moment.” So, when there’s no space between stimulus and response, we are rigid. We get stuck on being right. We get so hooked on the idea of, “I’m right and they’re wrong, and I’m being undermined, and… ” We become so hooked on this.

SD: What we’re doing when we become curious with our difficult emotions. When we stop hustling with them and instead, we end the war with what we should feel by literally dropping the rope. When we open our hearts with willingness to the full range of our human experience and our beauty — even if those emotions are uncomfortable — that we stop hustling with whether we allow them or not, and then we step out of them. What you’re starting to do is you’re starting to… Between stimulus and response there is a space. How is the space created? The space is created by showing up to our difficult feeling, not blocking, not brooding, but rather creating space using these kinds of step-out strategies, labeling effectively. I’ve got others as well. The “I am” that I just spoke about, and many others. But then what are you inserting in that space?

SD: Again, our emotions are signpost. Our emotions are signposting our values. So, what we’re inserting in that space, what’s guiding us, stating our directives, is how we want to show up in that moment with our values. And I love that quote. It’s beautiful. It’s just this kind of profound empowerment of the human spirit in a way that doesn’t deny the real pain and the real suffering that is created by systems. But I’ve been thinking more that when we blame systems for everything, it can sound really empowering. It’s like, “It’s the system’s fault,” but actually, in some ways it’s the most disempowering thing you can do to a person, to say it’s entirely 100% a system that acts on you, whether the system is a system of the family or whether it’s a system of the workplace. There’s so many systems that need to be changed urgently that are an insult to this idea of seeing the other person. But what I love about Viktor Frankl’s work is that there’s something so profoundly recognizing of the person’s capacity to breathe into a response to that system.

BB: Agency. Yeah, there’s agency.

SD: Agency as opposed to victim.

BB: Victim, yeah. Okay, I have a favor to ask. Can we do a two-parter?

SD: Yes.

BB: One of the things that this conversation about Viktor Frankl, about this space, this amazing sacred space between our stimulus and our response — our choice — is also compassion and self-compassion is a choice. Tell me what you’ve learned about compassion. It’s a huge topic in my work, but it’s also something I can struggle with as well.

SD: You asked me at the beginning about parts of work that have been influential, and one piece of work that’s been really influential for me… There’s been many, there’s emotion regulation, but for me, the profound body of work in John Bowlby. So, John Bowlby describes in developmental theory, I think, something so remarkably beautiful. And I want to kind of play this out in terms of how I think about compassion. So, what John Bowlby describes is something that all of us have seen: You go to a restaurant, for instance, in the days that we could go to restaurants, which hasn’t been me for a year now… [chuckle]

BB: Yeah, same.

SD: And you see a little child. The child might be 18 months old or two years old and it’s a very sweet thing that we note, because the child’s at the table with his parents or caregivers and then the child runs away from the table. And what do they do? They turn around. They look. They giggle at the parent or the caregiver and then they run away even more. And so, you see this go on and on, and on, and on, which is the child is looking, running, looking, running. So, it bears the question then, “What is actually going on there?” And what we know from John Bowlby’s work is the child has a secure base. The child is basically saying, “If something goes wrong while I’m exploring, while I’m learning, while I’m being curious, if something goes wrong, someone, something has my back. They’re going to step in and they’re going to come, and they are going to help me.”

SD: So the way that I think about self-compassion is along these lines, which when we think about John Bowlby’s work — John Bowlby is most known for this idea of secure base — but we can also think in developmental theory that children who are allowed to feel the emotions that they feel — where you don’t have a parent saying, “Oh, don’t be sad, let’s go buy cupcakes” even when it’s done with good intention — the parent really Sawubonas shows up to the child’s difficult emotion and doesn’t convey to the child other what we call “display rules.” There are some emotions that are bad and some emotions that are good. Instead, just allows the child to feel what they feel. What happens is that child is then able to explore the emotional world. The child is able to develop a sense of recognition that, “These emotions feel difficult, but they’re not going to kill me. I become comfortable with discomfort and learn that emotions pass.” This is literally the bedrock of our capacity as children to start developing these emotional skills.

SD: So how does this relate of self-compassion? I think of it like this. Self-compassion is often thought of as being weak or lazy or letting yourself off the hook. But it is 100% not that at all. In fact, we know people who are self-compassionate are less likely to be dishonest with themselves, are more likely to be motivated. So, what is going on? What is going on is an analog, if you like, of that child in the restaurant. When you are kind to yourself, when you know that you have your own back, when you know that if things don’t go well or if you have a fight with your spouse, or you feel like you’re failing, you will still love yourself. You will still be kind to yourself.

SD: What it does is it actually gives you the capacity and the power, just like that child, to explore, to take risks, and to move forward in the world. And so, this is why compassion is such an important part of emotional agility. Emotional agility — again, the ability to be with ourselves in ways that are curious, compassionate and courageous, so we can take values-connected steps.

SD: And we do this in a number of ways. One of the most common ones that we hear is, “If you’re struggling, imagine a child running up to you and telling you what’s going on, and how would you treat that child?” And I think that’s a really powerful one. But I think there are other ways we can think about compassion. For every person listening right now, there’s a five-year-old inside of you. You know, I think of it almost like those Russian dolls, there’s a five-year-old inside of you. The child is saying, “See me. See me.” And it’s so powerful to just think, “What does your five-year-old need right now?” Do they need love, do they need joy, do they need the spontaneity of a picnic on the kitchen floor with your child? Do they need a hug? Do they need love? What does that child need? And it’s really important to notice when you’re withholding from that child.

SD: Another way that we can access compassion before we go into a difficult conversation is — and even in Zoom — is we’re very tactile and we are currently suffering from a lack of touch. And so just putting your hands… And for those of you who can’t see me, which is all of you, I’m literally right now putting my hands on my chest, because… And Brené’s doing the same, because we are tactile and it reminds us that we are here, that we are human, and that we are more than our doing. We are more than our doing. And so, these are some ways that we can start accessing our own compassion.

BB: It’s just beautiful. I’ve been thinking so much about the work around safe exploration. I had someone tell me — this is just an anecdote — but I’ve thought about it a lot.  When Ellen was born — our first who is now almost 22 — someone said, “You know those rickety wooden bridges, the rope bridges that go over the deep ravine?” And I said, “Yeah,” and she said, “Parenting is about sending your child across that bridge. Boundaries are the handrails.”

SD: Yes.

BB: And I thought, “God, that made so much sense” because I have raised kids that are fearless in many ways around exploration, but I think it’s because there’s always been safety and boundaries…

SD: Yes.

BB: At the harbor. And I think a lot about that bridge, and it makes me think about it when you’re talking, Susan, because I think about there are two scenarios for crossing that bridge without handrails. And one is you just recklessly and with abandon charge across it, and often to your own demise. Or you’re paralyzed and you never step foot on it or you kind of army crawl across it slowly. But really to explore, there has to be… Even to explore our own emotions, there has to be a sense of safety.

SD: Yes.

BB: And that’s compassion. That’s…

SD: Compassion, is… It’s such a beautiful way of putting it. Compassion is the guardrails. I think it’s so gorgeous. And compassion, it’s interesting, because we can sometimes notice that we are being withholding, in the compassion.

BB: Oh, for sure.

SD: And even noticing that is just such a profound insight.

BB: Yeah, and I’m having this total researcher ‘a-ha’ moment, because I have struggled so long for 15 years about this relationship that was so bewildering to me in the data. It took me two years to understand. I had this group of deeply compassionate people we had interviewed, and I couldn’t figure out what they shared in common, because I was going after the wrong thing. I was looking at spirituality. But it turned out that what the most deeply compassionate people held in common was a sense of boundaries around how they allowed themselves to be treated by others and how they allowed themselves to talk to themselves. Are you tracking at all?

SD: So, this is my tracking of what you’re saying, which is something that I’m very passionate about in my work, is that often when people talk about compassion they talk about “compassion fatigue.” And so, it’s this idea of, “We can’t be too compassionate, because if we’re too compassionate then we might move into compassion fatigue.” And the way that I’ve explored this in my own work is that empathy and compassion… And they’re different, we know that they’re different, but empathy and compassion is very much about this ability to perspective-take, to move into and out of different domains. If you think about empathy, empathy is about this capacity to say, “This is how I’m feeling and I’m moving into the emotional space of another person.”

BB: Right.

SD: That’s this kind of empathy. Now, people can be very high on empathy, but if they have low capacity to manage their own emotion…

BB: Oh god, yeah.

SD: That ends up being the recipe then for empathy fatigue. So, it’s not that you want to decrease the empathy. Actually, the empathy, the compassion, is what we need in the world. What we want to be doing is when people are experiencing compassion fatigue, we want to up their levels of emotion regulation capacity, and that looks like understanding what your boundaries are and what they’re not. It looks like naming and labeling your emotion. It looks like understanding your values, it looks like giving yourself moments for recovery. There’s so many things that allow you to not be compassion fatigued. And I just find it really interesting, because you can have someone, if you drew a kind of two by two, if you’ve got low empathy, you’re going to struggle to connect. You’re going to struggle…

BB: Totally.

SD: To create the impact that you want, so you can have low empathy and low emotion-regulation skills. And you can really struggle in your life, or you can have high empathy and low emotion-regulation skills and you feel so much, but you don’t know what to do with those feelings that are arisen for you and so you struggle. And so, they’re different skills, and I think it’s this high empathy and then these emotional skills that go hand-in-hand to create levels of health in our communities and in our psychologies.

BB: It’s really interesting that we’re talking about this, because I often do this thing in the front of rooms when I’m facilitating the work, where I’ll have people come up and we’ll be talking about empathy and compassion, and I’ll hold someone very tightly at the front of the room and I’ll say, “Is this what empathy and compassion looks like?” And people will say, “Absolutely.” And I’ll say, “But let’s look at this.” And I’ll separate the people, and I’ll just be barely touching fingertips with them, and I’ll say, “We can’t truly be empathic and compassionate if we’re not clear where we end and others begin.” Do you know what I’m saying? Because I think it becomes enmeshment.

SD: Yes, yes, I think of this a little bit like… And I know you’ve done… We’re doing a complete nerd thing, yeah, which is great. I love it.


BB: We are geeking out, folks. This is it.

SD: I love it, I love it, I love it. So, I think of it a little bit like this, which is, sympathy, to me lately, has become a kind of idea, actually, of this forced, false positivity. It’s like, “Thoughts and prayers, but get on with your life.” Okay?

BB: Oh, my god, yes.

SD: So, sympathy is like, “I’m sorry you’re in pain,” but it’s distant.

BB: Yes, for sure.

SD: Empathy says, “I can imagine, either cognitively or emotionally, what this pain feels like.” And there’s a level of kind of shared cognitive or emotional language. Distant is sympathy.  Empathy is the shared. Compassion says, “I can see you’re suffering, and I will do what I can to help.” And so, compassion is actually standing with the person, but you aren’t the person. It’s standing with them, it’s standing beside them, it’s a willingness to move things into action, but it’s not an enmeshment. It’s not enmeshed.

BB: So, I have a question for you. You know what? I’m going to leave y’all hanging, listeners. I’m going to leave y’all hanging to this question, until part two. Alright, we’re going to do part two of this. I’m just going to end it here and just say, Dr. Susan David, we’re talking about emotional agility. I think I’m going to name the podcast episodes “Brené and Susan Call Bullshit on Toxic Positivity, part one and two.” And then we’ll come back and we’re going to keep having this conversation and I think it’s incredible. So, thank you, Susan, will you come back for part two?

SD: Yes, I will be here.


BB: Oh, I hope you all liked this conversation as much as I did. This is just deep learning. We are in school. We were in class together. There’s going to be a part two. We’re going to play them back-to-back. You can find her book, Emotional Agility, wherever you like to buy books. We love our independent bookstores. You can link to it on our episode page. You can find Susan online @SusanDavid_PhD on Twitter and Instagram. She’s Susan David PhD on Facebook and LinkedIn. And her website is Again, you can check out the episode page for all of these links. It’s on And I will say, last week on our Unlocking Us podcast, if you haven’t listened yet — talking about a really great companion podcast to this — I talk with the amazing Dr. Edith Eger. She is an incredible therapist. She has dedicated her life to understanding trauma and healing and post-traumatic stress disorder.

BB: She was sent to Auschwitz when she was 16 with her family. Her parents were killed the day they arrived. She was liberated in 1945 and just has really spent her whole life helping us all feel and understand and make choices. And it’s an incredible podcast, one that I will never in my whole life forget the conversation. As always, you can listen to both Dare to Lead and Unlocking Us right here on Spotify. Really appreciate our community, appreciate you listening, and really love having partners in learning. That is what I feel like this community is. We are learning. We are taking two steps forward together. Sliding back one, sliding back three sometimes, but we just keep arm-in-arm trudging forward, staying awkward, brave, and kind. I’ll see y’all next time.

The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and by Weird Lucy Productions. The sound design is by Kristen Acevedo and the music is by The Suffers.


© 2021 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, March 1). Brené with Dr. Susan David on The Dangers of Toxic Positivity, Part 1 of 2. [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.

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