Why emotional agility is more beneficial than emotional intelligence and how to practice it.

by | Nov 22, 2021

Have you ever asked yourself…

  • if we all experience emotions in the same way? 
  • what emotions are and what their aim is? 
  • why we tend to avoid or fear negative emotions? 
  • how many emotions exist?
  • what’s the difference between emotions, feelings, and moods? 
  • what are emotional intelligence and emotional agility? 
  • how you can strengthen your ability to deal with emotions? 

In this blog post, I take you on an ‘emotional trip’ 😊 around all these questions and more. At the end, I also share a few tips to help you strengthen your emotional agility and explain why this is even more important for highly sensitive persons (HSPs)*.


*Neurosensitivity is the ability to register and process environmental stimuli [which can be external (the feelings of others) or internal (our own feelings)]. High sensitivity or increased neurosensitivity is thus the increased ability to register and process stimuli. Those stimuli can be environmental [which can be external (the feelings of others) or internal (our own feelings)]. From Dr. Patrice Wysch, Neurosenstivity, The power of Highly sensitive persons.


The difference between emotional intelligence (EQ) and emotional agility.


Let’s clarify the meaning of these two notions that are often mixed up.

Emotional intelligence is defined as being aware of and in control of your own emotions. 

Emotional agility is defined as approaching one’s inner experiences mindfully and productively. It’s about accepting your inner experience – reducing the energy you exert in attempting to censor or control individual statements and impulses. Rather than ignore difficult emotions and thoughts, the suggestion is to face them and then integrate them in a way that lets you move past them.

As stated by Susan David, Ph.D. Psychologist at Harvard Medical School, TED Speaker and Author of the bestseller ‘Emotional Agility’:   

“Emotional agility is a process that enables us to navigate life’s twists and turns with self-acceptance, clear-sightedness, and an open mind. The process isn’t about ignoring difficult emotions and thoughts.” 


Why it’s important to be able to identify one’s and other’s emotions? 


Emotional identification is the ability to identify and express your own emotions, healthily, as well as to recognise and empathise with the emotions of others. Because experiencing emotions is so innate to us as humans, we often mistakenly assume that our self-awareness around feelings comes naturally. However, the truth is, like any other interpersonal skills crucial to social-emotional growth, learning how to identify and cope with emotions is a skill that needs to be encouraged and taught.

People who are good at noticing how they feel and can adjust their behavior are more likely to do well in life, have healthy relationships, and manage difficulties and setbacks. Thus, as explained by Dr.Susan David, emotional identification is the first step to emotional agility.

“The skills of emotional agility allow you to recognise what you’re feeling, understand what it is, not be driven by it, be more intentional and, ultimately, close the gap between the things you’re trying to do and the outcomes.” 

“Accurate labeling of our emotions—what psychologists call emotional granularity—is absolutely critical to our wellbeing. Simply finding an accurate label for emotions can be transformative, reducing painful, murky, and oceanic feelings of distress to a finite experience with boundaries and a name. When you label your emotion precisely, you’re better able to discern its exact cause, identify healthy coping mechanisms, and find a productive course of action.”  


Why do we fear and avoid negative emotions?

A personal reflection.


Lately, a woman in her 60ies told me: 

“it’s the first time in my life that I face negative emotions, and I don’t know how to deal with them.”

It made me think.. how many people live without knowing a whole part of themselves? We are made of polarities, yin and yang, plus and minus. Avoiding pain, stress, shying away from the dark side, is living a half-life. Furthermore, those emotions are stored in our system and will come out differently at some point. Taking care of our emotions is taking care of our health. But, when I started to write this blog, I realised I might have been judging something a bit more complex than I thought…

As an HSP, I had no real choice: emotions are something I’ve experienced strongly in both directions since childhood. A curse? Yes, until I learned how to deal with them. A gift? Yes, because since I had to learn more than others, I gained knowledge and tools that I can now share (we often hear that HSPs represent 20%-30% of the population).

My experience made me discover that we are definitely not all wired the same way. As much as we talk a lot about HSPs, I find it interesting to mention alexithymia which is a subclinical phenomenon involving a lack of emotional awareness or, more specifically, difficulty in identifying and describing feelings and in distinguishing feelings from the bodily sensations of emotional arousal (Nemiah et al., 1976). People with high levels of alexithymia can have difficulty distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to unemphatic and ineffective emotional responses. High levels of alexithymia occur in approximately 10% of the population.

And then, there is the resting 60-70% of the people who are, let’s say “normal sensitive”. 

This to me was a big insight. I don’t assume that others feel the same way as I do anymore and I tend to communicate much more around my emotional state, which makes my relationships much easier. (Just imagine a high sensitive person talking to an alexithymic who don’t know about it).

But there is another aspect that got my attention. We have been trained by society to label certain emotions as “negative” which means that a frequent reaction is to shy away from them, and not want to have them (control them). Why do we do that? Why do we fear negative emotions? Was that lady I mentioned previously less sensitive or did she want to avoid pain? We need to normalize emotions so that we can healthily handle them without storing all that energy in our bodies, which can ultimately make us sick. We should learn to treat our emotions as precious signals, as a powerful source of information. 


What are emotions?

While we interpret different emotions as positive or negative, the most ancient parts of the human brain developed them on the principle that we must survive. We evolved emotions as a means of communicative function and to help us navigate social interactions and our environment safely: they are designed to protect us.

Emotions are unconscious.

Take the example of watching a horror movie at home – even though you are in a very safe environment and there is nothing to be scared of you might get nervous and frightened. There is the chance that you might even try to hide. Your body responds with stronger respiration, faster heartbeat, and increased pupil dilation. Before you can start to consciously become aware of fear or even respond with a scream, your autonomous nervous system has already pulled the levers and triggered all bodily changes. This shows that emotions do not automatically result in feelings but that they definitely steer our actions.

Emotions are not a simple experience.

Every time you feel something your body initiates a physiological change, a chemical release, and a behavioral response. This process involves multiple processes working together, including your major organs, neurotransmitters, and the limbic system. Your limbic system is the most primordial part of your brain, thought to have first evolved in early mammals. It’s filled with ancient neural pathways that activate our emotions in response to stimuli and control our fight-or-flight response through the autonomic nervous system. However, we don’t all do this the same way. Because our bodies cause different floods of chemicals in response to different environmental triggers, each person naturally reacts to situations differently. Our past experiences and genetic predispositions influence our brain chemistry and therefore our physiological responses, which in turn determine how we react to various situations.

Emotions are felt in the body.

As Eckhart Tolle writes:

“Emotion arises at the place where mind and body meet. It is the body’s reaction to your mind – or you might say, a reflection of your mind in the body. For example, an attack thought or a hostile thought will create a build-up of energy in the body that we call anger. The body is getting ready to fight. The thought that you are being threatened, physically or psychologically, causes the body to contract, and this is the physical side of what we call fear. Research has shown that strong emotions even cause changes in the biochemistry of the body. These biochemical changes represent the physical or material aspect of the emotion.”

The brain is responsible for coordinating the response to emotions. The feeling of that emotion is then felt in some or many parts of the body. For instance, when you are about to meet someone you adore, that feeling of butterflies in the stomach is a sensation that represents happiness and excitement. Even though not everyone experiences emotions in the same way, there is a general map of where emotions arise in the body. 

Do you know the difference between emotions, feelings, and moods? 


The simple answer is TIME. 


Cannot be changed but acknowledged through awareness (and for example, techniques like mindfulness). They are unconscious and designed to protect us. Emotions trigger thoughts and make us decide what we perceive as being important or not. They happen at a physiological level and it’s possible to have emotions without feelings.


Can be changed. They are subjective experiences of emotions, interpretation of emotions. They are driven by conscious thoughts and reflections. We could say that they are the bridge between raw emotion and physiological and cognitive experience. We need both positive and negative feelings. Why? For example: think of sorrow when you’re losing someone or are in difficult circumstances. It’s important to be able to use the right feeling for the situation we’re in.  It’s Impossible to have feelings without having emotions.


Are not so hard to change. They are a long-term feeling that is often carried on from a past event, that might no longer be useful.  If you are curious about this topic, there is an amazing video done by 6seconds.org the emotional intelligence network: Understanding differences between EMOTIONS FEELINGS and MOODS.


But, why do we even need emotions?


Kendra Cherry, Psychology Expert, summarised the five main purposes of emotions quite nicely:

“Emotions help us to take action, to survive, strike and avoid danger, to make decisions, to understand others. Moreover, they help other people to understand us.”

Emotions help us to become aware of our needs.

To take good care of ourselves we must know what our needs are. As Deepak Chopra said: 

“Emotions are designed to ensure that we are paying attention so we can respond to what is happening around us. All emotions can be reduced to two primary feelings—those of comfort and those of discomfort. Whether or not we are aware of it, every choice we make is based upon the expectation that the choice will lead to greater comfort. The anticipated feeling drives all our choices. All emotions derive from needs. When we feel that our needs are being met, we experience feelings of comfort. The better we are at getting our needs met, the more peaceful and comfortable our lives will be. Know what you feel to understand what you need.”

Emotions are key to setting healthy boundaries. 

To protect ourselves we have to set boundaries with other people. If you feel uncomfortable with a person, your emotion is important because it will alert you about your feelings. It is a form of internal communication that helps you to understand yourself. You can then set the necessary boundaries. To take care of yourself ask these questions: 

  • Are you giving up your happiness for someone else? 
  • Do you feel frustrated in your relationships?
  • Do you feel guilty when you say “no”? 
  • What makes you feel guilty when you say no or want to say no?

We make our decisions based on our emotions.

Emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations. But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past, and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation. For example, studies find that when we are angry we are acutely attuned to what is unfair, which helps animate actions that remedy injustice. A negative emotional state leads to negative behavior. Decisions based on fear, resentment, revenge, and negativity will lead you to circumstances that you might regret later.


So, how many emotions do exist? 


Scientists disagree on how we attribute emotions to people. 

Robert Plutchik’s theory: 8 primary emotions.

Robert Plutchik, whose theories about emotions were influential, considered there were eight primary emotions: 

  • anger 
  • fear
  • sadness
  • disgust
  • surprise
  • anticipation
  • trust and 
  • joy 

Plutchnik’s wheel of emotions explains what happens when two feelings combine. For example: what feeling is a combination of anticipation + joy? He arranged that in a wheel to emphasise the idea that emotions can blend, like colors, to create new emotions. Plutchnik’s wheel of emotions provides a great framework for understanding emotions and their purpose (you can find more information about it: here).

Paul Eckman’s scheme: 6 basic emotions.

Until recently many psychologists went along with the idea that there are six basic emotions:

  • happiness
  • sadness
  • fear
  • disgust
  • anger
  • surprise

This theory is largely down to psychologist Paul Eckman who came up with the scheme in the 1970s. It is based on research finding that across different and varied cultures these six emotions are universally recognised. Later on, though, Eckman added many more emotions to the list including 

  • amusement 
  • awe
  • contentment
  • desire
  • embarrassment
  • pain
  • relief
  • sympathy

The University of Glasgow: 4 irreducible emotions.

More recent research from the University of Glasgow has challenged the established view that there are six basic emotions. Instead, there may only be four. To reach their conclusions, Jack et al. (2014) looked at how the muscles in the face move when expressing a variety of emotions. They found that fear and surprise shared a common signal — the eyes are wide open — suggesting they only constitute one basic emotion, not two. Similarly, for anger and disgust, they found that the nose initially wrinkles. Anger and disgust may, therefore, constitute only one basic emotion. Based on their findings, the scientists pared down the number of irreducible emotions to just four:

  • happiness
  • sadness
  • anger
  • fear

A new study from Dacher Keltner: at least 27 emotions.

A new study from Greater Good Science Center faculty director Dacher Keltner suggests that there are at least 27 distinct emotions—and they are intimately connected. They are: admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, craving, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, excitement, fear, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, surprise

As you can see.. there are many views on how many emotions do exist. Can you differentiate all of them in yourself? 🙂


Why is it particularly important for HSP’s to increase their emotional agility? 


Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), or environmental sensitivity (ES), is a biologically-based trait characterized by increased awareness and sensitivity to the environment. A highly sensitive person — whether child or adult — processes sensory stimuli and information more strongly and deeply than do others. Individuals with SPS express these characteristics:

  • Deeper cognitive processing
  • More attention to subtleties
  • Greater emotional reactivity
  • Pausing before acting
  • Greater awareness of environmental and social stimuli, including the moods and emotions of others

According to Aron’s theory, HSPs are a subset of the population who are high in a personality trait known as sensory-processing sensitivity or SPS. Those with high levels of SPS display increased emotional sensitivity, stronger reactivity to both external and internal stimuli—pain, hunger, light, and noise—and a complex inner life.

HSPs are thought to be more disturbed than others by violence, tension, or feelings of being overwhelmed. On the more positive end of the trait, high sensitivity is thought to be linked to higher levels of creativity, richer personal relationships, and a greater appreciation for beauty.

Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are born with a nervous system that processes things much more deeply than the average person. Most HSPs are aware of their own feelings and the feelings of others, which can be a powerful gift if one learns how to deal with it.


Tips to increase emotional agility for HSP’s: coaching, communication, and self-care.


Taming your high sensitivity.

Understanding your high sensitivity is an important step towards understanding and validating your needs. Even though they are somehow different from the majority of the population (HSP count for approximately 20-30% of the population), your feelings, needs, and wants matter as much as anyone else’s. This may mean explaining more in a friendship, voicing your needs clearly to others, or drawing boundaries. 

A coaching setting offers a secure space to explore your emotions honestly and get better at understanding them and identifying the underlying needs.

Embodying your high sensitivity.

In his book “Am I a highly sensitive person? “Fabrice Midal explains what the false self is. 

“They [highly sensitive children] are an enigma to those around them, but also to themselves. They know they are different from other children and feel guilty about it; they sometimes hide this difference very early on under a ‘false self’, which ultimately adds to their difficulties.” 

It indeed often happens very early that highly sensitive children use this ability as a tool to adapt to the outside world, to fit in with the expectations of others; creating tons of false selves and silencing their inner voice, not trusting their intuition.

In a coaching session, we analyse your values, needs and explore who you are without all the imposed etiquettes from the outside. Together, we “peel the onion” and by reconnecting with your intuition, find the way back to the center. This is a sensitive work where bodily sensations are most useful. Indeed, with different techniques, we try to access this inner wisdom, that which knows. My intention as a coach is to help you find your way towards this wisdom. This can require some time as it implies a certain letting go of the pragmatic way we were taught to deal with challenges: letting go of the brain and stepping into trust. For example, I observe your reactions and share what I see; I also give tips to use the knowledge gained during the sessions, in a very pragmatic and embodied manner in daily life. Here we can talk about energetical movements that one can consciously do and work on day by day in his/her body. 

You can find a video about this topic that I did lately on instagram and Facebook called “Hypersensibilité et faux self.” (In French)

Or book a free 30’ discovery call to learn about the coaching process and discuss about our expectations. No strings attached, we decide afterward if we move forward. I look forward to hearing from you. 

Sharing your high sensitivity.

Express your needs and who you are clearly. Many HSP, tend to express their needs only when they’re completely overwhelmed (or they withdraw and never express them at all). But you can learn to express them in normal, daily interactions. Indeed, when you step out of the guilt feeling of being who you are and begin to treat yourself as if you matter, the people in your life begin to see you differently and respond to you differently. They start to see your personality, your emotions, and your needs. And they start to respond to what they can finally see. In the coaching process, you develop the confidence to embody your uniqueness and to be able to communicate it with ease.

Self-care, mindfulness, time for yourself (“me-time”).

As we live with a nervous system that processes things much more deeply than the average person, we also need more time to process. To do so, a daily routine can be very effective. Calm activities such as walking, meditating, yoga, etc. can have a great impact on our active nervous system. Try to slow down, you will be amazed 😊

A yoga retreat can be a great way to take some time for yourself. I plan a four-days retreat in a beautiful eco-house in Jura in January and March 2022. Find more infos here.


The RAIN method: a powerful way to strengthen emotional agility for everybody


Coming from the field of meditation, this simple technique can be very useful in understanding and regulating emotions. Every letter stands for a part of the process.

R — Recognize.

The first step is simply to notice what is coming up. Suppose you’ve had a conversation with a friend that leaves you feeling queasy or agitated. You don’t try to push away or ignore your discomfort. Instead, you look more closely. Oh, you might say to yourself, this feels like anger. Then this might be followed quickly by another thought: And I notice I am judging myself for being angry.

A — Acknowledge.

The second step is an extension of the first—you accept the feeling and allow it to be there. Put another way, you give yourself permission to feel it. You remind yourself that you don’t have the power to successfully declare, “I shouldn’t have such hateful feelings about a friend,” or “I’ve got to be less sensitive.” Rather than trying to dismiss anger and self-judgment as “bad” or “wrong,” simply rename them as “painful.” This is the entry into self-compassion—you can see your thoughts and emotions arise and create space for them even if they are uncomfortable. You don’t take hold of your anger and fixate on it, nor do you treat it as an enemy to be suppressed. It can simply be.

I — Investigate.

Now you begin to ask questions and explore your emotions with a sense of openness and curiosity. This feels quite different from when we are fuelled by obsessiveness or by a desire for answers or blame. When we’re caught up in a reaction, it’s easy to fixate on the trigger and say to ourselves, “I’m so mad at so-and-so that I’m going to tell everyone what he did and destroy him!” rather than examining the emotion itself. There is so much freedom in allowing ourselves to cultivate curiosity and move closer to a feeling, rather than away from it. We might explore how the feeling manifests itself in our bodies and also look at what the feeling contains. Anger, for example, commonly includes moments of sadness, helplessness, and fear. As we get closer to it, an uncomfortable emotion becomes less opaque and solid. We focus less on labeling the discomfort and more on gaining insight.

N — Non-identify.

In the final step of RAIN, we consciously avoid being defined by (identified with) a particular feeling, even as we may engage with it. Feeling angry with a particular person, in a particular conversation, about a particular situation is very different from telling yourself, “I am an angry person and always will be.” You permit yourself to see your anger, your fear, your resentment—whatever is there—and instead of spiraling down into judgment (“I’m such a terrible person”), you make a gentle observation, something like, “Oh. This is a state of suffering.” This opens the door to a compassionate relationship with yourself, which is the real foundation of a compassionate relationship with others.


A final challenge for you 😊


Using Plutchnik’s wheel… how do you feel today. But really?

(If you want more info on how to use the wheel: you’ll get a full explanation here)

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