Emotions are data

As a recovering perfection (raise your hand if you can relate?), it’s taken me a long, long time to accept the idea that it’s okay to fail. That it’s okay to fail a lot. It happens, it’s life, it’s normal, to be expected. Try as I might, mistakes aren’t preventable, and that’s fine. You can learn a whole lot from what doesn’t work. I learn a lot from what doesn’t work, every single day. From the big stuff (where we live) to the small (like I pay attention to what you all love and what you don’t in kindle deals every single day).

For the non-earth-shaking stuff, failure is just data: in any situation, what worked, and what didn’t, and why? This intentional anti-perfectionist stance—that screwing up can be valuable—has been really freeing, and really productive. (And also, as a recovering perfectionist, good for the soul.)

And so I was surprised to hear a variation on this theme echoed in a podcast I was listening to this week. It was Rob Bell’s show (not a regular listen for me, but I usually enjoy the ones I hear). He interviewed Susan David on “emotional agility,” a phrase that got my attention, and which basically means this: emotions are data.

Whether they’re positive or negative or ambivalent or even valid, they’re telling us something. They’re data points. She says, “emotions are just emotions. They can be useful, they are data, but they are not facts.”

Every emotion we have is telling us something. What is it telling us? (If you can answer that question honestly without beating yourself up, you’re on the path to emotional agility.)

My family moved this week. 2 adults + 4 kids = a lot of big feelings. (I’m not just talking about the kids. #infp) Mostly good ones, but moving is a change, and change is stressful—even when it’s a happy change.

And so we’ve been talking about emotional agility a lot around here this week (although don’t worry, that’s not the phrase I use with my 1st grader). You’re feeling sad? That’s normal. Why? (Because we have so many happy memories in the old place and that is a good thing.) You’re excited? I’m so glad. About what? You’re feeling everything all at once? That’s moving. Let’s talk about it.

Emotions are data, and, in the emotionally agile, those data points help you move forward. David quotes Victor Frankl to illuminate this: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that … In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

These emotional data points don’t determine your response, not at all. As the stimulus, they inform it. They help you figure out how you’re feeling, even if you’re feeling it deep down. And then you decide your response (although, failure being a normal part of life and all, this process won’t always go smoothly).

If this sounds interesting, I highly recommend checking out the whole episode here.

If you want to read more (and I hope you do), check out David’s book: Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. You can bank on reading more Victor Frankl being a solid life choice, and if you’re the spiritual sort, her explanation of how emotions relate to our actions is very Dallas Willard.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about emotional agility, Victor Frankl, and big feelings (moving- or otherwise-induced) in comments. And if you’ve listened to any great podcast episodes lately, share those in comments as well?)


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  1. Renee Tougas says:

    I listened to that podcast last month and have been highly recommending it to my friends. After listening on my own I “made” the kids (3 teens) listen on our weekly commute to homeschool co-op. I loved it. These are really useful intrapersonal skills to develop: how to interpret, process and act in response to our emotions. As an anxiety sufferer/recover-er (being optimistic here) I really need to learn this skill.

  2. Lisa Z says:

    I love the Robcast and particularly loved this episode. I’ve learned that to feel is to be alive, and to hide feelings and believe that only some are valid is to die a little bit inside. I appreciate how she talks about it as emotional agility. And I love how you talk to your kids about it!

  3. I love this and am often heard saying “feelings aren’t facts” around my home. Reading the Daily Stoic helps me create some distance. Being able to look at emotions and say, “Hmm, that’s interesting. I wonder what that feeling is all about”, and being able to just observe.

  4. NCJill says:

    A dear friend once told me she strives for excellence (as unto the Lord) not perfection. And this has made a world of difference in my life.

  5. Madelyn Ferris says:

    The earlier in life we can build our emotional agility, wow, what a difference. Loved this article. I’m a big fan of Viktor Frankl as well. If everyone could just get to the point where they asked “Is my response serving me” in this situation.

  6. Deanna says:

    Wow, Anne! This is so great! This…”This intentional anti-perfectionist stance—that screwing up can be valuable”…has been a part of my parenting philosophy. Screwing up can be valuable which is one reason why I guide my kids (teenagers, most especially) rather than make the choices for them. Anyway, this entire post has fed my soul today, because while I have the parenting philosophy, I often forget myself that emotions are data too. And lately, the emotions have been rough for various reasons and various degrees. I am going to check out the podcast even though I am cautious about Rob Bell stuff. I am also going to check out the other link you’ve provided to the written interview. Plus, I’m unfamiliar with Victor Frankl so I’m gonna look into what he has to say. And I am going to share this post and info with my kids AND husband. Thank you.
    And oh hey, I wish you and your family much peace and joy during this moving phase and everyday forward.

  7. Kendra says:

    Viktor Frankl’s book, Mans Search for Meaning, is one of the most profound and life changing books I’ve ever read. He chronicles his experience in a concentration camp where his experiences and observations helped create his psychological philosophy. One of his big assertions is that a lot of what we deem “mental illness” may actually be a lack of purpose and meaning in ones life, and without purpose, people fall into disrepair. It’s a short, easy to read book that fundamentally changed the way I look at the world. So highly recommend.

  8. Ruthanne says:

    This was so great to read this morning Anne. One of my best take aways from a therapist was that “feelings are information”. Since I first heard that I’ve found it to be very helpful, especially to learn to observe and think about the feelings. I so appreciate the way you speak to learning that and that place in the midst of the feeling to think about the response. Also Feelings are not Facts! Thank you so much!

  9. Tracey says:

    I so needed this today. God is mighty indeed. He put this in my path today because I so needed to read these words. I have always been a HSP and your post made me sit back in my seat and say, “That so makes sense”. I am a computer information system major and deal with data everyday. It is how I am wired and you helped me put in the missing pieces today. Thank you!

  10. Kirsten Filian says:

    I enjoyed seeing Gretchen Rubin interview Susan David on Facebook live. Still waiting on the book from the library, so will listen to this podcast while I wait! Thanks!

  11. hillary says:

    Yay for posts like these! I love your daily kindle deals, but your posts on personality type and making life work with four kids is really what keeps me coming back. And as a fellow infp and recovering perfectionist, I always need frequent reminders that failure is okay.

  12. H. says:

    I thought data meant facts? Maybe a better word would be input? In any case, this is good stuff. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It reminds me of an essay I read once that indicated when you feel jealous, it can just mean that you want that element in your own life, so instead of harboring bad feelings toward someone to instead turn it around and work on getting to that point for yourself. Jealousy is an emotion, so this seems to go hand in hand with what you’re saying.

  13. This sounds like such a spectacular way of thinking about our emotions and processing how to respond to them! As a data scientist, I personally find that approach to be AWESOME, as I pretty much live in the world of data.

    And Oh dear, I thought moving was stressful enough with just the two of us adults. I can’t imagine moving with FOUR kids! Kudos!

  14. Jamie M says:

    Thank you for writing this! I also enjoyed that episode of the Robcast very much. While listening, I resolved to check out Viktor Frankl and Susan David’s website…. And after, I completely forgot! Glad for this reminder! Congratulations on your new house~~

  15. Ginger says:

    This reminds me of one of my favorite Pixar movies of late – Inside Out! Such a fun movie, but really really smart in the ways it thinks of emotions. I read Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc., where he talks a lot about the production of the film (it was in production as he was writing), and the research that went into it was astounding.

  16. Kristy says:

    Big fan of the Robcast. Heard Susan David, brought the book and am 3/4 through. Really enjoying it and I particularly love the message that thoughts are not facts and that emotions are an opportunity for us to make a choice that aligns with our values!

  17. Marissa says:

    I read the interview – so interesting! Thanks for sharing. Also, as a mom of young kids, I keep feeling like I heard this first on Daniel Tiger. ?

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