Does your life often feel like a balancing act?
You like routine but hate being bored. You seek adventure but value safety. You want to chase your passions but fear moving too far outside your comfort zone. It can be tricky to find the sweet spot in between.
In her book, Emotional Agility – Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, Dr. Susan David compares this balancing act to being on a teeter-totter. It’s something that feels hard when you’re first learning how to do it but, as you learn how to achieve this balance, it becomes second nature. And by mastering a few techniques you can find balance by learning to be, as she describes, “whelmed” in your life.
So what does Dr. David mean by “whelmed?”
She explains this state as being the middle ground between being completely stressed out and utterly bored.
On one end of the teeter-totter, you are overwhelmed. This is where life feels stressed. You have too much on your plate. You can’t find your way forward.
And at the other end, you are underwhelmed. In this space, you’re bored and uninterested. You don’t know what to do next. In the long run, being underwhelmed is just as much of a problem as being overwhelmed.
But, Dr. David believes, if you can get to the middle state of being “whelmed,” this is where you truly thrive. You continue to grow and flourish without getting so stressed that you collapse under the weight of your dreams.
So how do you get there? According to Dr. David, tuning into your emotions is key.
Most of us were never taught a framework for using emotions to our advantage. We tend to either ignore them or get stuck in them. If you’re willing to explore your emotions – you might just find the key to moving forward and “getting unstuck” as Dr. David suggests.
It’s a bit like a rubber band. To be useful, a rubber band must be stretched enough to securely hold its contents together. But stretch that rubber band too far or for too long and it will break. It needs to stay in the “whelmed” zone to have purpose.
But how do you use your emotions to stay whelmed?
Here are 6 questions to help you discern when you are moving away from the middle – of your place of being whelmed (the questions in quotes are directly from Dr. David’s Emotional Agility).
1. Are you choosing comfort over courage?
Think about something you’re good at. It might be your work, a sport, or a hobby. Consider how it was when you first tried it. Your first attempts probably weren’t that great. You enjoyed it enough to keep trying. And as you practiced, you got better. Your comfort level grew and so did your confidence.
This was your learning curve. But the longer you did it, the more it became easy, routine, and comfortable.
And comfort is the precursor to being underwhelmed.
Staying in this place for too long without growing or expanding in new directions leads to the thing you’re good at not being fun anymore. And while it’s safe, you no longer find it interesting. It becomes boring.
The thing about comfort is that it can become a trap if you let it. Being skilled at something feels good, but sometimes you might avoid taking things to a higher level because you’re afraid you won’t be as competent at it. It would mean starting at the bottom of a new learning curve, which feels shaky and awkward at first. You’ll have to practice to become competent, grow, and flourish.
Being “whelmed” requires the courage to step out of your comfort zone. It takes a willingness to look for ways to expand and deepen your knowledge and skills. You are aware when you are mastering the next step and nearing a comfort zone that could pull you towards being underwhelmed again.
But what about the other end? What happens when you have too much on your plate and life is stressful? In these situations, it usually means it’s time to let go of something or at least put it aside for the time being. And just like moving past the comfort zone of having mastered a skill, allowing yourself to step away from being totally overwhelmed takes its own amount of courage.
The next question will help you understand when you’re moving toward becoming overwhelmed and help you decide what you need to let go of.
2. “Do I find joy or satisfaction in what I’m doing?”
This question posed by Dr. David asks you to connect to why you are pursuing a specific goal. It’s easy to try to live up to society’s expectations. But unless you get a true sense of joy from the path you’re on, it might be time to consider letting it go. Personal satisfaction is what keeps you engaged and wanting to be on the learning curve. If the task or skill serves no purpose in your life, you’ll end up feeling stressed and unfulfilled chasing the dreams of others.
3. “Does this reflect what is important to me – my values?”
Your values are unique to you. No one shares the exact combination of values that you hold. In this sense, the emotions that are guiding you are those rooted in your values. It feels good to honor what is important to you.
You can go against your values in specific circumstances. But denying your values for too long leads to stress. Doing tasks that don’t align with your values is like listening to nails on a chalkboard. It’s an indication you’re getting overwhelmed.
4. “Does this draw on my strengths?”
What are you naturally good at doing? What do you love doing? How often do you get to use these skills? If the answer is not very often and you don’t see that changing, you will be putting stress on yourself to be someone you’re not. Everyone has specific talents. The trick to staying “whelmed” is in expanding on your existing talents.
5. What opportunities will I give up if I stay on my current path?
This is perhaps one of the hardest questions to face. When you have invested a lot of time and energy in pursuing a path that seems to be going nowhere, quitting is the last thing you want to do. This is the point where Dr. David suggests you must determine what you need the most – Grit or Quit?
Grit is a willingness to persevere and keep going. If all the answers you gave to the above questions indicated you are on the right path, then choose Grit and keep going.
But, if you are finding that the reason you’re holding on isn’t that the path seems right to you, but rather you don’t want to lose your investment, it might be time to consider letting go.
You have a choice to continue to invest your time pursuing something that holds no meaning for you or you can find another opportunity – one that might be more aligned with your values and strengths. One that brings you joy.
Choosing to “Quit” is never easy. It feels like a failure and no one wants to intentionally fail. It might feel easier to just keep going until all the options have run out and there is nothing left to do but quit. But Dr. David suggests answering one final question, to sum up the choice:
6. “Am I being gritty, or am I being stupid?”
Logic will tell you it’s wrong to stop. But your emotions might be telling you something else.
Your emotions can guide you to a thriving life. The key is getting familiar enough with them to listen to what they’re telling you. If you want a simple road map for understanding and utilizing your emotions to get the most out of life, I highly recommend reading Emotional Agility.
AND check out Dr. David’s Ted X talk to go deeper into understanding and navigating your own emotional agility.