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Psychologist, author and TED Talk superstar Susan David joins Janet to discuss how parents can nurture their children’s capacity to process difficult emotions, thoughts, and experiences. “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life,” she says, but we can help our children develop resilience and a capability to navigate uncomfortable emotions so they’re no longer scary. Susan offers advice how parents can instill confidence and a sense of well-being. The process begins with awareness, acceptance, and compassion for ourselves.
Transcript of “Raising Emotional Intelligence and Resilience for a Meaningful Life (with Susan David)”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today we have a great podcast for you. I’ll finally be speaking with someone that I’ve wanted to have on the show for a long, long time, but she’s incredibly busy, so it hasn’t been easy. Susan David is a Harvard Medical School psychologist, CEO of Evidenced Based Psychology. She’s a TED Talk superstar and author of the award winning book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. And that’s what we’re going to hear about today. What is emotional agility and why is it so powerfully important? How can we foster emotional intelligence and resilience in our children and ourselves to help us deal gracefully and successfully with all of our life’s ups and downs? I know you’re going to appreciate Susan’s insights and perspective.
Susan David: Hi Janet.
Janet Lansbury: I want to ask, first of all, how are you doing? Do you have children? Don’t you have young children?
Susan David: So I live in Boston. My husband’s a physician. And it’s very interesting as parents. You go through the mundane activities of day to day life, exchanging post-it notes about who’s going to make dinner. And now my husband and I… He’s a doctor and he’s very involved, of course, in the virus and the experience from a professional perspective, and now we’re exchanging not post-it notes about dinner, but emergency contact information. And making decisions about, if he’s exposed, where’s he going to stay? Is he going to be able to see the children? And then I’ve got a six-year-old at home and an 11-year-old who are now apparently being homeschooled. Apparently.
Janet Lansbury: Well, I love all the discussion that’s been going on about how that may be less crucial than we all imagine right now for this little bit of time. And taking the pressure off of that for parents, as much as possible. So yeah, we do our best, but we know that they’re learning so many other important things. Maybe more important things.
Susan David: Correct. I truly believe that, I think for a child, being able to experience what it’s like to be bored, is actually a profoundly important learning experience. What do you do when you are just by yourself? And how do you get comfortable with that? I think there’s a lot of learning that happens in that way.
Janet Lansbury: I agree. Can you talk a little about emotional agility, what it is and why it matters?
Susan David: Yeah, absolutely. So, most of my work, all of my work in fact, is focused on one key question. And that is, what does it take internally, in the way we deal with our thoughts, our emotions, and even the stories that we develop over time that help us to thrive in an increasingly complex world?
Because we know that no matter what grades children have, and no matter what their outward skills are, ultimately what’s going to be the litmus of whether they are well and happy and thriving human beings is determined much more by what goes on inside of them — their capacity to navigate difficult emotions, thoughts, experiences, so that they can bring the best of themselves forward. And so my work really focuses on that. What are these fundamental skills that are critical for children? And that also, as it turns out, are critical for us as parents.
Janet Lansbury: And to be able to offer this to our children, often it’s important for us to have it ourselves. And that’s one of the reasons I refer so many people to your TED Talk and your book, because I want to help parents be able to help their children by recognizing in themselves the importance of understanding and feeling okay with the discomfort of their feelings.
Susan David: Absolutely. A lot of what I do in my TED Talk as well as in my work in general is… I’ve very much come up against this idea that a lot of us have in society, which is that we want to be happy all the time. We want to chase happiness. Happiness needs to be a goal. And often, we have that same want or desire with great intentions for our children. We want our children to be happy. And sometimes what happens is, that idea of happiness becomes then almost muddied with this other idea, which is, if they show unhappiness, then it means they’re not happy and that’s a bad thing.
And so what has happened I think in society in general, when it comes to our more difficult emotions like sadness, fear, grief, boredom, anxiety, stress, is we have very much this narrative that these are bad emotions. That they’re negative emotions.
And paradoxically it sounds like a good thing that we have joy and happiness. And that the other emotions go away because they are supposedly negative or bad. But not allowing children to experience difficult emotions, actually undermines their resilience, their wellbeing, and their happiness over time. Because the truth is that our children are growing up in a world… To use the phrase that I use in my TED Talk, in which life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.
Our children will one day be rejected by someone that they fall in love with or they’ll lose their jobs, or they’ll flunk a school test. They’re going to have difficult emotional experiences and so as parents, one of our most important roles, is to help our children develop a sense of comfort and competence with these difficult emotions, so that they’re no longer scary, but that the child actually has the resilience and capability to actually navigate them effectively.
And these are these fundamental emotional agility skills that I’m talking about. This idea that it’s not about positivity and happiness; it’s actually about developing capacity with a full range of emotional experience. So the children are able to navigate the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.
Janet Lansbury: That reminds me of something my mentor, Magda Gerber used to always say, which is, “If we can learn to struggle, we can learn to live.” It’s one of my favorite quotes from her.
Susan David: Love that.
Janet Lansbury: And what you say, which is: “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” It’s easy for us to feel fine when things are going well, but it’s when we can be comfortable with that discomfort, then we are free. We don’t have to feel like we’re just walking this tightrope. If I fall off, I’m not going to be able to handle it. I can handle all of it.
Susan David: I think that’s it exactly… Because what happens so much, and this is what a lot of my work has looked at, is how people, if they’re experiencing difficulty, they actually then, instead of just experiencing the difficulty: I’ve lost my job. Or, I’m feeling unhappy here. Or, Things aren’t going well in this relationship. That’s what we call a Type One experience.
But then what we start to do is we start layering Type Two difficulties on the difficulties. Not only am I unhappy in my job, but I’m unhappy about the fact that I’m unhappy because I should be happy. Or we become judgy with ourselves about it. We get into this internal struggle with ourselves as to what emotions we should be allowed to feel and what emotions we shouldn’t be allowed to feel.
But our emotions, even the most difficult ones… guilt as a parent, for instance… our emotions contain signposts to the things that we care about. And so, if we move beyond this idea of trying to crush difficult emotions and we, instead, start being curious and compassionate with them: Gee, I feel guilty right now. Or, I feel bored. I feel frustrated. And instead of trying to push them aside, we’re starting to say: What is it that I value? What is it that I care about that this emotion is trying to signpost to me?
So, I might feel guilt as a parent — it doesn’t mean that that guilt is a fact. It doesn’t mean that I am a bad parent. But what it might be helpful to do is, for us to just slow down into ourselves and say: What is this guilt telling me about what I care about? It might be telling me that I value presence and connectedness with my children, and I don’t have enough of it right now.
So what that does is it’s liberating. It opens up our capacity to make small, meaningful changes to our lives.
And so yeah, when I talk about this idea that, discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life, it’s really this idea that we don’t get to have periods of growth without discomfort. Be a parent, raise a family, start a new job or a new business or leave the world a better place… we don’t get to do those things without stress and discomfort. And so, if we can lean in to and open ourselves up to that discomfort and learn from it, that is profoundly powerful in terms of being able to move forward effectively.
Janet Lansbury: Absolutely. And I was thinking when you were talking about the guilt that another thing we can learn from that as parents, and this happens a lot in the work that I do, is that maybe I am misinterpreting my role that my child needs to always be happy. Getting back to that full circle: If my child is not happy, now I’m doing something wrong. So it can be a way to learn that maybe what we’re perceiving is not the truth or not what’s most important.
Susan David: Yes. If we think about guilt as an example, often when the person is saying, “I feel guilty because my child’s not happy. I feel guilty because my child’s not happy.” Even with very good intentions, it’s really about the person’s experience for themselves. So it’s still about the parent.
So what can be really helpful is to recognize that our emotions are data. Our emotions contain flashing arrows to the things that we care about. But that doesn’t mean that our emotions are facts. It doesn’t mean that because I feel guilty, I am guilty, and this is all of my responsibility. I can stand back and I can say: What are my emotions telling me?
When we do that, we can also bring other parts of ourselves in. We can say: What are my emotions telling me? What are other parts of me that are important here? Oh, as a parent, not only do I maybe want my child to be happy (if that is your sense) but we can also think to ourselves: I want my child to be resilient. I want my child to experience what life is about so that they’re more ready to deal with it.
And now, no longer are we just trying to make my child happy in the here and now, we actually recognize that there’s very often wisdom in stepping back and in a thoughtful way, allowing your child to feel what they feel because there’s learning that comes from that, and that that child, in turn, is learning how to metabolize discomfort, and learning how to metabolize fear, and also learning really important aspects of emotional skills that are critical to all of us.
We need to learn that emotions are transient. And a child isn’t going to learn that emotions are transient if they aren’t able to sit with their emotions and recognize that, 10 minutes out, their emotion has passed.
So they’re critical, critical skills that pertain to our mental health, our wellbeing, low levels of depression, anxiety and so on.
And of course we can’t control all of this or manage all of this. But what we can do is we can start helping our children to develop the skills that are necessary to navigate the world.
Janet Lansbury: And what would you say are steps that parents can take right now to feel differently about their emotions, or to get more of the perspective that you’re talking about? Are there concrete steps that we can take?
Susan David: So for the parents themselves?
Janet Lansbury: Yes. I want to take this opportunity, because you are someone that works with adults. And so many parents are asking me, “When I’m mad, what am I supposed to do?” I think it’s going to help parents to take advantage of you being here to help us with ourselves in our reactivity and why certain things our children do make us angry, and what we can do about that.
Susan David: So the first thing that I would say is from a practical strategy perspective is, a lot of times, we live in an environment in which it’s being almost telegraphed to us that there are good and bad emotions. We are telegraphed this by the media that convey this idea that happiness is the be-all and end-all. But we also have experienced this in our own lives. The language that we use in psychology is “display rules.” Display rules are often the unspoken rules about what is an okay emotion to experience and what isn’t.
So for instance, if you grew up in an environment where every time you were angry, you were punished for being angry, “Go to your room and come out when you’ve got a smile on your face.” Or if every time you were sad there was no space for your sadness, you might have display rules about those emotions that, basically, suggest that sadness is bad or that anger is negative and that I shouldn’t be allowed to experience that.
And so what can often happen is we then grow up with judgments about these difficult experiences. And if we just step back and we think about, from an evolutionary perspective, there is a reason that every single one of these emotions evolved. There’s a reason that these emotions exist.
And the first person who actually wrote about this was Charles Darwin. And what he described is this idea that our emotions, every single emotion, even if it’s feels like a tough emotion, our emotions perform a function. The function is that our emotions are our way of, Number One, communicating with the world. But also, critically important is that our emotions have the function of helping us to communicate with ourselves, telling ourselves what’s important, what feels dissonant or incongruent with our values, emotions that are playing into a story that we might have about ourselves and our value and so on.
So the first thing that I’d say from a practical perspective is if you feel yourself or hear yourself as a parent going into this: I shouldn’t feel, that’s a bad feeling, that’s not a legitimate feeling, that’s not an allowed feeling, just see if you can end that struggle with yourself. See if you can just face into that emotion instead of with struggle, with compassion.
This is what I’m feeling. Raising a child is tough. I’m doing as a parent the best I can with who I am, with the resources and the history and the context that I have in life.
What you’re doing there is you’re moving away from that situation where you’ve got that Type One, which is the experience, and Type Two, where you lay on all these judgments. And, instead, you’re just moving into the space of openness to what you’re feeling and to a sense of compassion.
And what that starts to do is profound. It stops you from being hooked into the emotion.
We’ve all had that experience when the emotion grabs us and we react to the emotion. My husband’s starting in on the finances, I’m going to leave the room. Or, My child’s doing that. It’s upsetting me. I told them not to do it.
And so we blow a fuse, and that’s when the emotion has grabbed us. And what we’re trying to do as human beings is we try to develop a skill to develop greater space between stimulus and response.
I always loved the Victor Frankl phrase, this idea: between stimulus and response, there is a space, and in that space is our power to choose, and it’s in that choice that lies our growth and our freedom.
So as parents or as human beings, when we get hooked by an emotion, often there’s no space between stimulus and response.
So what we’re trying to do when we’re emotionally agile is we’re trying to create space for ourselves so that other parts of who we are, our values, our intentions, the best parts of ourselves can come forward.
The first step to this is actually letting go of the struggle that you have with whether your emotion is wrong or right, and seeing if you can open your heart up with compassion and acceptance to the reality of your experience right now. That is enormously liberating.
Janet Lansbury: That’s beautiful. I can feel that right now.
Susan David: When we get hooked by our emotion, we start treating the emotion as fact. If you imagine your emotion is a cloud… When we’re hooked by the emotion, we become the cloud. What we’re really trying to do is we’re trying to be the sky. We’re trying to be the sky, and that emotion is one cloud in our sky, but there are other clouds as well.
Janet Lansbury: Wow, I love that.
Susan David: There are some very important ways that we can deal with our emotions that we know from psychological science are really important. So I’ll give you some examples.
Often what people do is we use very big black and white labels to describe what it is that we’re feeling. So as parents we might say, “I’m stressed,” Or “I’m sad.” And you can feel when you use this language, when you say, “I am stressed.” You have become the cloud. You have become the emotion. 100% of me is defined by this emotion.
So we want to try to create space. And some of these things sound simple, but simple is powerful. Simple, when you have got a child screaming in CVS, simple is really important.
A simple strategy is just notice your thought or your emotion or your story. Your story about I’m not good enough or I’m not a good enough parent. Notice your thought, your emotion or your story for what it is. It’s a thought. It’s an emotion. It’s a story.
So instead of saying, “I am sad,” or “I am a bad parent,” “I’m noticing the feeling of being sad. I’m noticing that this is my bad parent story. I’m noticing that I’m having the thought now that no one ever supports me.” What you’re starting to do there is create a linguistic space.
So literally in the language we use, we’re starting to create space between ourselves and the emotion. That’s one really useful strategy, I think, for parents and for human beings.
Another one is this idea that when you use these very big labels to describe everything… “I am stressed” could mean “I haven’t had a chance to cook dinner” or it could mean, “I feel like I’m a complete failure as a person.” Or, I’m stressed could mean, “I’m in the wrong job.”
When we label everything as, “I am stressed,” what it does is it, psychologically, doesn’t actually again allow us space.
So the work that I’ve done and that others have done as well on a very interesting topic called “emotion granularity…” Emotion granularity is simply this idea that beneath these big umbrella words that we use are often highly differentiated emotions.
So if you say: what are two other things that I might be feeling beyond stress? And you say to yourself: disappointed or unsupported or exhausted, you can see what that does, being more differentiated. What it does is it starts helping your brain, quite literally, to understand the cause of your emotions. And you’re also starting to move into the space of saying: Ah, what I need to do is ask for more support. Or, pour myself a nice hot bath and take a rest.
What we’re doing when we label our emotions more accurately is it actually provides a psychological space that moves beyond, “I’ve got a problem and I don’t know what to do about it and I’m in panic mode.” Into something that is more solution oriented and connected with the reality of our experience, and it’s profoundly powerful.
Janet Lansbury: That is so helpful. And I love what you said, too, about using language as a way to give a little more space there by just the words that we use, because the words that we use are important to how we feel about things.
Susan David: What you’re doing there is you’re getting a little bit of distance between you and the experience.
When you’re working with a parent who says, “My child’s unhappy and I am responsible for my child’s happiness and this is terrible,” you’re so immersed in the experience that you can’t actually bring wisdom to it.
Every single one of us has wisdom. And if we can just open the space to that wisdom through perspective, through not allowing your emotions to call the shots, it’s about being compassionate with yourself. We open the space to wisdom. As we do that, there’s a little bit of a sense of distance that gets created.
It’s almost like your child’s still experiencing what your child’s experiencing, but no longer are you sitting in the boiling pot with the child. You are now at a distance. Not being distant, but there’s a kind of compassionate, boundaried experience that is very important. And it’s in that space that you can do your work as a parent, as opposed to being the victim in the space along with your child.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. I love what you said also in your TED Talk about seeing emotions as inherently valuable, for that reason, because they’re giving us so much information about ourselves and our lives.
Children seem to instinctively understand, they’re quite willing to be in their emotions and that’s actually one of the reasons I love working with them. It’s very clear they don’t have those abilities or needs to stifle themselves, so they put it all out there. “I’m excited, I’m scared. I’m sad.” And it’s in every cell of their body, that freedom that children have to just be in it.
Do you have a theory as to why we are, as human beings, so stifled generally in our emotions? As a society we do have this view of them as negative.
Susan David: Yeah. It’s really interesting. There are different theories as to why that is the case. Some theories pertain to these display rules that have developed over time and often in response to needs in a particular culture, what a culture may see as being important in terms of task and logic and so on. So display rules can be rules that exist within our families, but they can also exist in our culture.
Other theories have suggested that, actually, what has happened is if you look at the way education developed over time, that when mathematics and physics and these things became very much part of formal education, what it really did is it allowed those things to come to the surface as being primary and important. And the aspects of ourselves that were difficult to be measured and understood were seen as being secondary.
I mean, even when I was doing my PhD in emotional skills, I found it incredibly difficult to find someone who was willing to supervise my work or to advise me. And this was because, even at that time, and we’re not talking that long ago, we’re talking 15 years ago, emotions were seen as being these things that you could not measure. And if you can’t measure them, then they don’t exist. They can’t be scientifically understood. And so there’s been, even historically in psychology, this really interesting push away from emotions.
And yet we know that the way we deal with our emotions drives everything. Our motivation, our leadership, our relationships, how we love, how we parent, everything.
Janet Lansbury: Right, It is the fuel behind everything.
Susan David: It’s the fuel, the fuel for literally every aspect of ourselves: our ability to regulate, our ability to put our longterm goals in front of us and stay focused on them, even though you really want to go to the party tonight. So it’s all these things that our emotions and being able to navigate them effectively actually drive.
Janet Lansbury: And I would say they’re not just thought of as secondary, but even as getting in the way of productivity like, okay, put that aside. Or if for parents… When their child is upset: Well, okay, let’s get this over with quickly. Or, let me do what I can do to fix this so we can move on to other things.
But the child is actually in a place of release, and learning: it is okay to feel my emotions. I do survive this. It is all right. They’re learning such important things and we’re trying to rush them through and…
Susan David: Yes. Every parent out there is just doing the best they can. And it’s really important for us to have a healthy dose of compassion for ourselves.
I remember many years ago when my son Noah was born… You’ve got this little baby six weeks old and you’ve birthed them and you’ve looked after them and you’ve loved them, and every single thing that they need you’ve done for them, and then you, of course, take them to the doctor to get their first shots. So you’re essentially handing them over to a stranger to be hurt.
(And just to be clear, especially in the current context, I am not anti-vaccine.) And I had this really remarkable experience where Noah was six weeks old and he was happy and goo-goo-ga-ga. And I took him to the doctor for his first set of shots, and Noah’s face turned from happy into absolute outrage.
He started screaming and yelling and yelling and yelling and I, this hormonal new parent doing the best that I could, picked my son up and I patted him and I patted him and he was screaming and yelling and I said to him, “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
And I’ll never forget the doctor, with a nurse in the room, so kindly and compassionately, barely looking up from what he was doing. The doctor said to me, “It’s not okay, Susan. It’s not okay. Your child’s in pain.” And he said to me, “One day your child will come home from school and will be super upset about something and you cannot fathom why the child is upset about this little thing that has now turned big. You might not understand it, but that is what your child is feeling in the there and now, and it’s not okay.”
I remember going home and I was beating myself up about it. I was like brooding and trashing myself. I’ve got a flipping PhD in this stuff and I did the very thing that messes up your child for life. I invalidated my child. And I was going on and on and on.
And I remember my husband coming home from the hospital where he works. And as he walked in the front door and he said to me, “How’s your day been?”
I handed Noah over to him and I said, “I’ve had the worst day. You’ll never believe what I did.” And I told him the whole story and I said to him, “Noah was at the doctor and he was upset and he was crying. And you’ll never believe what I said. I said, it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Anthony just listened to me going on and on and on about this and then he’s very dry, funny, nerdy doctor, he looked at me and with this very naughty look on his face, he said to me, “It’s okay Susan.”
No matter what… Yes, yes, we know that when your child is upset, angry, whatever word we want to use for that very strong emotion, that child is feeling… We know that not trying to solve the problem, literally just showing up to the child the same way as we’ve been saying, showing up to ourselves, making space for the emotion, not being judgy about it, not trying to do away with it or push it under the carpet, just creating space for it is incredibly powerful. And we know that a child who feels seen and accepted, not judged for feeling a particular emotion, that that emotion immediately starts to actually dissipate.
We also know that we can, at a very young age, help children to label their emotions. “Is it that you’re sad or is it that you’re mad?” And we know that children can do this and we know that this is a critical skill that’s associated with wellbeing.
We know that we can also help our children to understand that, just like I said earlier, our emotions contain signposts to the things that we care about. So the child who comes home from school who says: “Jack didn’t invite me to the birthday party. Now I’m not going to invite him to mine.” That child is showing no space between stimulus and response. The child is just: I feel something and I’m going to react. And we’re trying to help our child to develop space between stimulus and response.
Why? Because we want our child when they’re tempted by drugs when they’re 16 years old to recognize: This is what I feel like doing. But actually that’s not who I am as a person.
We want our child to be able to have space between stimulus and response.
So if we can start saying to our child, “You’re upset because Jack didn’t invite you to his birthday party, and that sucks. That’s a horrible feeling.” Instead of trying to make it all better. “That’s tough.” If we felt rejected in that way it would be difficult. So showing up to that sadness, helping the child to label the sadness…
But then the third part of emotional agility is this idea that we can help our children to understand their “why,” the signpost of what it is that their emotions are signaling is important. So we can start saying: “It’s sounds like friendship is really important to you. You’ve been rejected and it sounds like friendship is really important to you. What does being a good friend look like to you? How do you want to be a friend? How do you want to be a friend in this situation?”
What you are starting to do is you’re now not starting to just solve the emotion, we’ve started to do something far greater…
We are helping children to develop their sense of values, their moral compass, their character. This doesn’t come from us telling children what to believe or what values to hold. It comes from children’s starting to say: This is what’s important to me. To actually internalize that.
So, instead of that thing of like: I’ve got to solve the child’s emotion and return to happiness, we recognize that there’s so much beautiful learning that happens in those pockets of unhappiness. And the learning is the child says: You see me and you love me anyway. That’s powerful.
The child says, I feel this and I recognize that what I feel is actually something else, and I’m labeling my emotions effectively.
The child says, I feel this and it’s telling me that friendship is important. I am someone who stands up for fairness.
We are developing the child’s moral character. And that is beyond. If we can create those little pockets of time, and it might not be when your child is lying on that floor in CVS, it might be that you’re having that conversation at night, cuddled up in bed when everything’s calmed down.
But back to my story about the doctor, we don’t always manage to do this. We don’t always manage to bring that part of ourselves — the equanimity — forward. We just always need to remember that it’s okay, we can be compassionate with ourselves as parents. We’re doing the best we can with who we are and with the resources that we have available to us at any given time.
Janet Lansbury: I’ve been practicing this with parents for more than 20 years in classes where they come with their children, talking parents through it, practicing with my own children and seeing again and again that it’s the best possible thing to allow that child to have the feeling, and see how they pass through it, and how they feel much better and they’re centered again, and they love you for letting them do that and all these positive reinforcements and still… Still, it’s the hardest thing for me.
Every time, all those feelings come up for me. I want to make it stop. I want to make them better. I want to call that parent of the child who didn’t invite my child to the party and tell them off. All those feelings still come up. So, absolutely, the compassion for ourselves, because it is something that I don’t believe that we can ever master and say: Okay, this is just no problem for me anymore. When my dear child’s heart is aching or is angry at me or anything, there’s no way that we can, I don’t think, ever feel: Oh yeah, okay, I’ve got this.
Anyway, I don’t.
Susan David: What are we really teaching our children in these spaces, what I call “the messy spaces,” the learning that comes from this with our children with emotions is that, Number One, emotions pass. They are transient. And knowing that emotions are transient is a critical piece of learning. It also telegraphs to our children that our emotions and that their emotions are not scary. That they are bigger than the emotion. And as we’re teaching our children this, exactly as you say, we’re also teaching ourselves, because it’s tough.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. And I would say that we need to do that first before we’re able to give it to our children but, actually, I think it can also work the other way, because that’s how it’s worked for me, that I’m learning through practicing this with my children. I’m learning through that to give it to myself. So it can be the other way around.
Susan David: Absolutely.
One of the things that also just comes to mind… even as we think about this as we were talking about the value of different emotions earlier, one of the emotions that parents will often describe as this thing of, “Well, I feel guilt and does that mean that if my children have done something wrong that I should just be like, ‘Oh, I’m just creating space for them to be whoever they want and feel whatever they want?’”
You can show up to your children’s emotions. You can be validating and connecting and create space for them, but that’s not the same as saying, “Oh, because you’re angry, you just get to act with impunity.”
The example that I used in my TED Talk is: I can show up to my son’s frustration with his baby sister. I can empathize with it and really connect with it. But it doesn’t mean that I’m endorsing his idea that he gets to give her away to the first stranger that he sees in a shopping mall.
We own our emotions, they don’t own us. And so with this is also, of course, that we have expectations of our children and that we’re trying to foster autonomy in them and we’re trying to give them choice wherever possible. But it’s not choice without expectation as to what is okay and what’s not okay.
Janet Lansbury: Right. And that’s where the line has to be in that: “It’s okay to feel like getting rid of your sister, but I’m here to stop you from doing that.”
But I don’t judge you as like, “How could you think of such a thing?”
Or I don’t say, “Well I’m not going to let you do this really fun thing that you want to do, but you can’t be disappointed about that. You have to feel okay that I said no to this.”
That’s something that I think we get caught up in as parents, because maybe this is the way that we have been raised, where not only do you not get what you want, but you’re not allowed to complain about that. You’re not allowed to have a feeling about that.
Susan David: Yeah, exactly.
I spoke a little bit earlier about the experience of an emotion as an emotion and we don’t want to conflate that emotion with all of us. And I think this is very important with children when we think about the difference between shame and guilt as well. Guilt is a very, very powerful and very important emotion. It’s one of what psychologists call the social emotions. If we didn’t have guilt in the world, we would all be running around just doing whatever we wanted, whether it hurt people.
Guilt is a very important emotion that enables society to thrive and function effectively.
But it’s really important to internalize the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is when you’re saying to your child, “This behavior is wrong. This thing that you did is unacceptable.” Guilt, it’s targeted at a very specific behavior and it’s something that the child can choose then not to do again.
Shame is when we send a message to the child that you are wrong, you are a bad person. You having done this thing says something about who you are as an individual.
There are some really interesting studies that have looked at the difference between guilt and shame. For instance, in prisons, if you have people who’ve committed a crime and you look at when those individuals are released from prison, what is going to predict whether the person re-offends versus doesn’t? And as it turns out, people who are filled with shame are more likely to re-offend because there’s almost a sense of: I’m a bad person no matter what I do and therefore my behavior’s not in my control.
People on the other hand who feel guilt: It’s a very specific thing that I did wrong and I choose then not to be able to do that specific thing again are less likely to re offend.
So in communicating expectation, it’s also really important for us as individuals, when we do something wrong as parents or as spouses or loved ones, to be careful not to conflate what we’ve done wrong with ourselves. I might have done the wrong thing and I feel guilty and therefore I can make it right. And be careful not to imprison ourselves where I’m now defined by this thing, which is shame. I am a bad person.
Janet Lansbury: That’s so fascinating. Unfortunately, I think we have to finish and I could geek out on this all day. I’m just…
Susan David: Me too. Love it.
Janet Lansbury: I’m so fascinated by you and so grateful for your work and I know that you’re changing the world and just so happy to be able to share that with my listeners here. Thank you so much, Susan.
Susan David: Thank you for inviting me on the show I really loved the conversation.
Susan offers a free Emotional Agility quiz HERE on her website. The personal report was insightful!
“The Emotional Agility Quiz gives you personalized feedback on how to be more effective with your thoughts and emotions, so you can come to your everyday choices and your life with more intention and insight. Emotional Agility helps you cultivate real thriving at work and at home.
The quiz takes just 5 minutes to complete. You”ll receive a free 10-page personalized report offering specific strategies to help you become more Emotionally Agile.”
And Susan’s wonderful book is a favorite of mine: Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life
Also, both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio at audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.