Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • Hello, everyone.

  • Sawubona.

  • In South Africa, where I come from,

  • "sawubona" is the Zulu word for "hello."

  • There's a beautiful and powerful intention behind the word

  • because "sawubona" literally translated means,

  • "I see you, and by seeing you, I bring you into being."

  • So beautiful, imagine being greeted like that.

  • But what does it take in the way we see ourselves?

  • Our thoughts, our emotions and our stories

  • that help us to thrive

  • in an increasingly complex and fraught world?

  • This crucial question has been at the center of my life's work.

  • Because how we deal with our inner world drives everything.

  • Every aspect of how we love, how we live,

  • how we parent and how we lead.

  • The conventional view of emotions as good or bad,

  • positive or negative,

  • is rigid.

  • And rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic.

  • We need greater levels of emotional agility

  • for true resilience and thriving.

  • My journey with this calling

  • began not in the hallowed halls of a university,

  • but in the messy, tender business of life.

  • I grew up in the white suburbs of apartheid South Africa,

  • a country and community committed to not seeing.

  • To denial.

  • It's denial that makes 50 years of racist legislation possible

  • while people convince themselves that they are doing nothing wrong.

  • And yet, I first learned of the destructive power of denial

  • at a personal level,

  • before I understood what it was doing to the country of my birth.

  • My father died on a Friday.

  • He was 42 years old and I was 15.

  • My mother whispered to me to go and say goodbye to my father

  • before I went to school.

  • So I put my backpack down and walked the passage that ran through

  • to where the heart of our home my father lay dying of cancer.

  • His eyes were closed, but he knew I was there.

  • In his presence, I had always felt seen.

  • I told him I loved him,

  • said goodbye and headed off for my day.

  • At school, I drifted from science to mathematics to history to biology,

  • as my father slipped from the world.

  • From May to July to September to November,

  • I went about with my usual smile.

  • I didn't drop a single grade.

  • When asked how I was doing, I would shrug and say, "OK."

  • I was praised for being strong.

  • I was the master of being OK.

  • But back home, we struggled --

  • my father hadn't been able to keep his small business going

  • during his illness.

  • And my mother, alone, was grieving the love of her life

  • trying to raise three children,

  • and the creditors were knocking.

  • We felt, as a family, financially and emotionally ravaged.

  • And I began to spiral down, isolated, fast.

  • I started to use food to numb my pain.

  • Binging and purging.

  • Refusing to accept the full weight of my grief.

  • No one knew, and in a culture that values relentless positivity,

  • I thought that no one wanted to know.

  • But one person did not buy into my story of triumph over grief.

  • My eighth-grade English teacher fixed me with burning blue eyes

  • as she handed out blank notebooks.

  • She said, "Write what you're feeling.

  • Tell the truth.

  • Write like nobody's reading."

  • And just like that,

  • I was invited to show up authentically to my grief and pain.

  • It was a simple act

  • but nothing short of a revolution for me.

  • It was this revolution that started in this blank notebook

  • 30 years ago

  • that shaped my life's work.

  • The secret, silent correspondence with myself.

  • Like a gymnast,

  • I started to move beyond the rigidity of denial

  • into what I've now come to call

  • emotional agility.

  • Life's beauty is inseparable from its fragility.

  • We are young until we are not.

  • We walk down the streets sexy

  • until one day we realize that we are unseen.

  • We nag our children and one day realize

  • that there is silence where that child once was,

  • now making his or her way in the world.

  • We are healthy until a diagnosis brings us to our knees.

  • The only certainty is uncertainty,

  • and yet we are not navigating this frailty successfully or sustainably.

  • The World Health Organization tells us that depression

  • is now the single leading cause of disability globally --

  • outstripping cancer,

  • outstripping heart disease.

  • And at a time of greater complexity,

  • unprecedented technological, political and economic change,

  • we are seeing how people's tendency

  • is more and more to lock down into rigid responses to their emotions.

  • On the one hand we might obsessively brood on our feelings.

  • Getting stuck inside our heads.

  • Hooked on being right.

  • Or victimized by our news feed.

  • On the other, we might bottle our emotions,

  • pushing them aside

  • and permitting only those emotions deemed legitimate.

  • In a survey I recently conducted with over 70,000 people,

  • I found that a third of us --

  • a third --

  • either judge ourselves for having so-called "bad emotions,"

  • like sadness,

  • anger or even grief.

  • Or actively try to push aside these feelings.

  • We do this not only to ourselves,

  • but also to people we love, like our children --

  • we may inadvertently shame them out of emotions seen as negative,

  • jump to a solution,

  • and fail to help them

  • to see these emotions as inherently valuable.

  • Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad.

  • And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness.

  • People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive.

  • Women, to stop being so angry.

  • And the list goes on.

  • It's a tyranny.

  • It's a tyranny of positivity.

  • And it's cruel.

  • Unkind.

  • And ineffective.

  • And we do it to ourselves,

  • and we do it to others.

  • If there's one common feature

  • of brooding, bottling or false positivity, it's this:

  • they are all rigid responses.

  • And if there's a single lesson we can learn

  • from the inevitable fall of apartheid

  • it is that rigid denial doesn't work.

  • It's unsustainable.

  • For individuals, for families,

  • for societies.

  • And as we watch the ice caps melt,

  • it is unsustainable for our planet.

  • Research on emotional suppression shows

  • that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored,

  • they get stronger.

  • Psychologists call this amplification.

  • Like that delicious chocolate cake in the refrigerator --

  • the more you try to ignore it ...

  • (Laughter)

  • the greater its hold on you.

  • You might think you're in control of unwanted emotions when you ignore them,

  • but in fact they control you.

  • Internal pain always comes out.

  • Always.

  • And who pays the price?

  • We do.

  • Our children,

  • our colleagues,

  • our communities.

  • Now, don't get me wrong.

  • I'm not anti-happiness.

  • I like being happy.

  • I'm a pretty happy person.

  • But when we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity,

  • we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is,

  • not as we wish it to be.

  • I've had hundreds of people tell me what they don't want to feel.

  • They say things like,

  • "I don't want to try because I don't want to feel disappointed."

  • Or, "I just want this feeling to go away."

  • "I understand," I say to them.

  • "But you have dead people's goals."

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • Only dead people

  • never get unwanted or inconvenienced by their feelings.

  • (Laughter)