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Seven Steps to Develop Emotional Agility for a Done Dissertation and Greater Resilience   | Issue 267

Summary: Tough times bring strong emotions, but don't get stuck in rumination or fake positivity. Develop your emotional agility to keep centered and move forward on your goals.


Sharing in the time of Covid: Please forward this advice to others who may be struggling with their emotions in these unprecedented times.

Estimated reading time: Six minutes that will bring you more inner peace and outer progress.


By Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor

Even in normal times, those on the dissertation journey benefit from strategies for managing the occasional undertow of difficult moods and emotions. Now, with uncertainty and unrest circling the globe from a continuing pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, emotional turbulence is in the air everywhere. 

Is there anyone who wouldn't enjoy enhanced emotional resilience now?

And there you sit, trying to write your dissertation. Waves of fear, anxiety, hopelessness, or fear may wreak havoc with your sleep and concentration. Unrelenting inner turmoil might tempt you to abandon your writing, thereby provoking further worry and uncertainty and sliding into an unending negative spiral. 

Yet it doesn't have to be this bleak. 

"But how can anyone conquer the onslaught of tough emotions in ways that honor the moment and my own needs and goals?" you ask. 

For thoughtful guidance, we turn to Susan David, Ph.D., Harvard psychologist and author of the highly acclaimed book, Emotional Agility. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, David offers evidence-based wisdom for dealing with heightened emotions in ways that promote resilience and growth. 

In attending her recent webinar for the Institute of Coaching (which she co-founded), I realized that her sage advice on leveraging emotions could be adapted for the ABD Survival Guide audience. 

First, ruminating and false positivity are out, says David. Instead, we need to develop our skills to deal with the world as it is—not as we wish it to be. "It's the time to cultivate the wisdom and courage to move forward with emotional agility," she asserts. 

By practicing these seven steps, we can attain greater emotional resilience and even a bit of wisdom. 



Acceptance is the prerequisite for positive change, she explains. When we acknowledge our lack of control over some situations, we are freer to move forward realistically. 

For noticing and accepting distressing thoughts and feelings, many of my dissertation clients find meditation an immensely helpful practice. I especially recommend the meditation practice called RAIN, as taught by Tara Brach, Ph.D., renowned meditation teacher and author of Radical Acceptance and Radical Compassion. The acronym RAIN stands for the four steps in the process: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, and Nurture. For a powerful demonstration, listen to one of my favorite Tara-guided RAIN mediations here



"You must be kind to yourself," says David. These are not normal times. For months, multitudes have been dying while countless more suffer economic and other hardships. More recently, the worldwide protests against systemic injustice against Black Americans have further intensified emotions. We need to normalize feeling grief and anger, to make space for them. 


She recommends letting go of perfectionism and judgment in favor of kindness and flexibility towards yourself and others. 


"Self-compassion is a better motivator than self-criticism," one of my clients realized as he got better at treating himself with the same care he offered others. If this is particularly difficult for you, check out the self-compassion webpage of Kristin Neff, Ph.D. A leading expert on the subject, Neff offers various resources, including videos, guided meditations and exercises, and suggested reading. 



When the winds of uncertainty blow, it helps to rely on our own personal anchors. These may be familiar things or routines, those which offer comfort and align with our values, David notes. For some, that might mean keeping up with morning walks or maintaining a family movie night tradition, even as you adapt it to your current circumstances. 

"Remember that it may not be possible to adhere to all aspects of your regular routine and approach this new reality with grace instead of rigidity," she observes. 

My own handy acronym, SANE, makes it easier to remember to maintain foundational habits for good Sleep, Attitude, Nutrition, and Exercise. Attention to self-care keeps not just our bodies but also our minds functioning well. 



As David recommends, when we can be together, let us do it mindfully, being fully present for one another (without sneak peeks at our phones). Where possible, share hugs, play games, have fun. Indeed, the pandemic has led many to learn to socialize at a safe distance via Zoom and other virtual platforms. 

Sadly, many ABDs suffered from a sense of isolation before the pandemic, and it has only intensified matters. Perhaps you don't have the luxury of going to your family home. Or you still cannot go to the library or a coffee shop to write. You probably never see your academic cohort peers at all, and meetings with your advisor may have become more infrequent or less satisfying. Frankly, that sucks. 

Courage does not mean toughing it out alone as you struggle to finish your dissertation. Consider how you might best tap your own resource supports. Do you need moral support? Feedback on your work? Accountability for working regularly? Who can provide what you most need? Is it time to call on your friends? Find a writing buddy or group? Make an appointment with a coach? 



Here's where the wisdom path really begins. We can go beyond acceptance and compassion for our emotions—and we can expect some tough ones, she notes. It is when we listen with courage, we can discover what really matters to us. 


Our emotions are data that tells us what we're missing in our lives. A 'guilty' parent might be missing real connection with her child. Grief is love, looking for its home — reminding us of our special times. 


After you identify and accept what you are feeling, ask yourself what message it might carry for you. Do you need to take better care of yourself? Ask a friend to spend some time with you? Change your direction or pace on your dissertation or career? What will you regret in a year if you don't do something about it now? 



"Emotions are data—not directives," David reminds us. To figure out how to move forward, she recommends taking time for reflection and journaling as we ask ourselves what priorities have changed? What would we like our new normal to look like? 

As a doctoral student, reflecting about your situation may reap immeasurable rewards. What have you learned about yourself? Your studies? Your relationships? How will these affect your plans? Then harness these insights to determine your own direction. 



In times of challenge, we often grow in unexpected ways, observes David. We realize our time on earth is short and that life is precious. We return to appreciating people we had unconsciously slipped into taking for granted. We seek more authentic joy and connection as we realize what matters most to us. "Life's beauty is inseparable from its fragility," she observes. 

As you traverse your dissertation path in these challenging times, may you discover more of what is most true and most wonderful about you, your work, and the world. May you take your newfound wisdom gently into the world. 


If you are considering whether to get your own coach to help you reach your academic goals, fill out this brief application for a free consultation with a dissertation coach.

An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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