BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Training camp for the emotional side ...

As regular readers of this space no doubt know, I get a book to review from the “Early Reviewer” program pretty much every month. However, as opposed to what's implied in the program's name, it's a fairly rare occurrence that the books are actually early, as in pre-publication … I guess the LTER program is seen by most publishers as a way to get a bit of a bump in visibility well after the book is out there (even if they're sending out ARCs – advance review copies). This one, however, is not due out for another month yet.

Of course, one of the downsides of reviewing an ARC is that it's frequently “unfinished”, with assorted bits and pieces noted as “TK” (“to come”). Also, one of the standard notes to the reviewer is to not quote from these as the copy may change between the ARC and the final release version … which also goes for notes on the graphics (I almost bitched about an ARC of one of Gary Vaynerchuk's books for crappy looking images when reviewing it, but the publisher fortunately sent along a copy of the beautifully-illustrated publication version before I got that posted). I bring this up because there is a lot of what I'm hoping are “place holding” rough graphic pages here that are probably going to be much nicer looking in the actual hardcover when it appears next month.

Anyway, I seem to be on a roll of getting semi “self-help” books from the LTER “Almighty Algorithm” (nice to know it cares), and so I wasn't overly surprised to find that I was going to be receiving Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David, PhD. This is set up in something of a flowchart (with an arrow-line that runs through the book between chapters) for a “system” of moving from a starting point of being “Hooked” to an ending state of “Thriving”. While I can't exactly duplicate how this lays out in the book, here's the general idea:
Hooked ==>
      Showing Up ==>
      Stepping Out ==>
      Walking Your Why ==>
      Moving On ==>
… each step of which involves assorted other elements. The term “hooked” here relates to the idea of a “hook” in a movie … a narrative in our head that serves to explain, rightly or wrongly, our experiences … once we get into one of these “hooks”, we start bending all other aspects of reality to fit with that narrative. The author provides several very interesting examples of automatic responses, such as filling in the missing word in “Mary had a little _____” … pretty much every English speaker is going to stick “lamb” (and not, say, “velociraptor”) in that blank, but we have automatic responses to situations in our life which are as predictable as that – if unhelpful, and ultimately not “reality based” – but are things which got plugged in at some point and have become our default response. She also presents some fascinating research on some brain science, like the relation of words to shapes, with sounds and outlines being perceived across cultural and linguistic boundaries with as many as 98% of people studied associating the same sounds (words?) with the same (sharp or bulbous) images … and then relating this to the ability to process metaphors (“sharp” cheese, “loud” shirt, etc.), which appears to take place in the angular gyrus of the brain (damage to which will render people unable to make sense of metaphors, and which is 8x larger in humans than other primates).

There are four most common hooks: “Thought Blaming”, “Monkey Mindedness”, “Old, Outgrown Ideas”, and “Wrongheaded Righteousness” … which are pretty much what they suggest. There is the sense (although I don't think that the author outright says this) that these are nearly as hard-wired as the sound/shape patterns noted above. She moves from defining these to looking at how we attempt to “unhook”, and offers up a 3-question quiz (with 3 options each) which shows how one typically tries to unhook … one set of responses indicate that you're a “bottler”, which means you “try to unhook by pushing emotions to the side and getting on with things”, and another indicates a “brooder”, who is likely to “stew in their misery, endlessly stirring the pot around, and around, and around”. Not surprisingly, there is a definite gender disparity between these, with the “bottlers” typically being male, and the “brooders” typically being female.

One of the things she brings in at this point – which certainly got my curmudgeonly attention – is the benefit of negative moods … “The paradox of happiness is that deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself.” (which reminds me of a phase an associate of mine was going through where he was constantly trying to force happiness, which was really irritating to everybody else around him) … which is followed up with sections on “Good News About Bad Moods”, and “The Upside of Anger”.

There was a third option in that brief survey, and those who selected that other option were “being present”, which is the topic of the the first step of the process here … “Showing Up”. This step is broken into three elements: “Practice Self-Compassion”, “Choose Willingness”, and “Learn from Thoughts and Emotions”. In the first of these the author goes into quite a lot of detail contrasting guilt from shame“Guilt is the feeling of burden and regret that comes from knowing you've failed or done wrong.”, while “Shame casts one not as a human being who did a bad thing, but as a human being who is bad.”, with the difference being “self-compassion”. Interestingly, she notes that criminal recidivism rates are higher for those who exhibit shame over those whose equivalent emotion is a sense of guilt. The “willingness” is largely framed here in terms of cravings – that if you are willing to accept the fact of a craving, you are more likely to avoid it, rather than struggling with the whole concept (sort of like the A.A. idea of “not drinking today”). In the “learning” part, she introduces a question: “What the func?”, a shorthand for “What is the function of this emotion?”, the analysis of which can reveal a lot of deeper realities hidden beneath the external levels of things like anger.

The next step is, well, “Stepping Out”, which includes sub-elements of “Notice with Curiosity and Courage”, “Create the Space in Between”, and “Let Go”. One piece of this that I (predictably) found of interest was the research of James Pennebaker where:
In each study … the people who wrote about emotionally charged episodes experienced a marked increase in their physical and mental well-being. They were happier, less depressed, and less anxious. …”
… which reminded me of the “morning pages” discipline (see here or here). She relates this to a project with a group of 100 senior engineers who got down-sized late in their careers, a third did a writing discipline like this, a third did a more neutral writing assignment, and a third didn't write … “the degree of change between them was astonishing … the men who had delved into how they truly felt were three times more likely to have been reemployed than those in the control groups”! Referring to a wider study of similar situations she notes: “by dissolving the entanglement that had built up between their impulses and their action so they could see their experience in context, and from a broader perspective, they flourished despite it all.”. She also offers up some techniques for “becoming more mindful”, and shows an interesting “perception” quirk, where context determines meaning … how (written out differently than here) A B C and 12 13 14 can have exactly the same lines being seen as “B” in one and “13” in the other.

The next step, “Walking Your Why”, just has one part: “Choice Points: Make Towards Moves” … both of which are sort of “huh?” to my ear … the former is defined as “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.”, while the latter comes to bear in the face of a matrix of influences that enables the environment (culture) to make decision for us, ranging from “social proof” situations (buying stuff because those around us are buying) to “dangerous groupthink” … “The more you choose moves that are toward your values, the more vital, effective, and meaningful your life is likely to become.”

The last of these steps is “Moving On”, which has two chapters, each with one multi-element part to it, first: “The Tiny Tweaks Principle” which includes “Tweak Mindsets”, “Tweak Motivations”, and “Tweak Habits”. I was interested to see in the “mindsets” section some research I'd read in other contexts (I don't recall where, or I'd toss in a link here), which involved planting the idea among a group of hotel maids that their daily activities “were, in fact, exercise” which met the surgeon general's daily recommendations … with no other changes, just having that one piece in their “mindset”, the test group had lost weight, lowered blood pressure, and improved body-fat ratios compared to the control group who had not been told that what they were doing (although having the same activities) was meeting those exercise levels. Similar examples with children being exposed to information of how the brain can grow and improve with study, and elderly subjects who had varying views on the aging process, showed that just a few cognitive factors could result in significant positive changes. In the “motivations” topic, the thrust is largely regarding activities that one “had to do” versus “wanted to do” … with the complication that “our baser instincts have a head start … according to brain imaging, when we're faced with a typical choice, basic attributes like taste are processed on average about 195 milliseconds earlier than health attributes”, meaning that the brain is likely to have made the decision that it wants that cupcake “well before willpower even enters the picture”. There's also some interesting research outlined in the “habits” section, where different signs (encouraging the same behavior) had different levels of effectiveness depending on their location in relation to the activity (i.e., taking the stairs), the author uses elements of this to present a number of suggestions on how to best develop the behaviors that one wants in various situations.

The second “Moving On” chapter features “The Teeter-Totter Principle”, which has the elements “Live at the Edge of Your Ability”, “Choose Courage over Comfort”, and “Opt for What Is Workable”. These hew pretty close to what you'd expect reading those sub-headings, and are presented with a fire-hose of references to well known sources as Bruce Springsteen, Jim Collins, Pierre de Fermat, Malcolm Gladwell, and many others … way too much stuff to try to summarize here … however the “teeter-totter” image is meant “to illustrate the idea of balance, the sweet spot in which challenge and mastery are in a state of creative tension” … with the further note that “emotional agility … involves moving towards clear, challenging, yet achievable goals that you pursue … because you want to, because they're important to you.”

Oddly, when the line reaches “Thriving”, it starts with an extensive look at “Emotional Agility at Work”, as in at one's business. This seemed to be a somewhat odd progression, but I could hardly argue that there's some seriously twisted thinking involved in current contexts:
The prevailing wisdom of today's business culture is that uncomfortable thoughts and feelings have no place at the office, and that employees, particularly leaders, should be either stoic or eternally optimistic. They must project confidence and damp down any powerful emotions bubbling up inside them, especially the negative ones. But as we've seen, this goes against basic biology. …
Dr. David has evidently done a lot of work with clients in the corporate sphere, and goes into a number of “case studies” here, looking at “hooks” that effect both individuals and groups. In a sub-section called “The Why of Work” there was another assertion which is very close to my own concerns:
… work provides far more than a meal ticket. It can give us a sense of identity and purpose, as well as a framework around which we organize our other activities and interests. Work can also bring substantial mental health benefits.
This is followed by a chapter on “Raising Emotionally Agile Children” which includes a few stories of the author's own parenting efforts, and walks through suggestions for various aspects of childhood development (how to think, caring, ways to coach your kids, etc.). The book ends with a visit to the classic The Velveteen Rabbit, and the concept of “becoming real” … I have always found that a serious tear-jerker, which made the close a bit of a gut-punch to me.

Anyway, Emotional Agility will be hitting the store shelves on September 6, but the on-line big boys have it for pre-order at a generous 36% off of cover. This is one of those books that could be “for all and sundry”, but that depends on how you feel about the self-help/personal-development niche. I'm glad to have read it (and have picked up a number of things to talk about with my therapist – to whom I suspect I'll be lending my copy), and think it's one of those that may end up being a long-time go-to book in the popular psychology category.

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Tags: book review
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