#btconf Düsseldorf, Germany 17 - 18 Apr 2023

Emily Anhalt

Dr. Emily Anhalt is the Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Coa. As a psychoanalytic psychologist, she has spent the past decade working clinically with entrepreneurs, and conducted extensive research about how people can improve their mental and emotional fitness. Frustrated with the quick-fix attitude of mental healthcare in our culture, she wanted to create a mental health solution that honors the complexity of the human condition and the importance of clinical integrity. She has spoken around the world about proactive mental health and emotional fitness, and has collaborated with some of the fastest-growing technology companies and VC firms in the world, including Google, Asana, Github, Unilever, and Bloomberg.

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The 7 Traits of an Emotionally Fit Leader

The world is beginning to understand that stress, burnout, anxiety – and, let’s face it, the universal pains of adulting – can drastically affect a company’s bottom line. To be successful today, business leaders and employees need to be emotionally and physically healthy. There are plenty of apps and products that claim to help achieve this, but an effective focus on mental and emotional health must be built from the inside out. In this interactive talk, renowned psychologist Dr. Emily Anhalt explores the importance of supporting yourself and your team by developing emotional fitness and gives practical, concrete tips for building a true culture of wellness.


[playful music]

[audience applause]

Emily Anhalt: Hi, everyone. It’s so great to be here. I am going to wake you up. This is an experiential talk. Get ready to do some activities with the person sitting next to you. It’s going to be great.

We’re talking today about the seven traits of an emotionally fit leader. [Laughter] My partner, who is a product designer and introvert, told me I might get that exact reaction, so all right.

A little bit about me, first. So, I am a clinical psychologist and the co-founder and chief clinical officer of the mental health startup COA, which is a gym for mental health. I have matched more than 700 people into therapy, and I’ve had the honor of working with leaders from companies like Google, Salesforce, Spotify, NBC, Universal, Bloomberg - to work on their mental health in a more proactive way.

So, let’s start with this. I would like everyone to raise their hand if they have heard this statistic or something like it. “1 in 4 people will experience mental health problems in their lifetime.” Raise your hand if you’ve heard something like that.

Okay. Most of you.

This statistic was put out there a number of years ago with really good intentions. The goal was to try to destigmatize mental health struggles and to show that more people have them than we think.

But I’m going to be honest with you. I do not like this statistic. To me, it’s really othering. It makes it seem like one in four people have mental health struggles and somehow 75% of people are just prancing through their life without ever struggling with their mental health. It just doesn’t resonate with my experience as a therapist or, honestly, as a human. So, I decided to use my very advanced chart-making skills to improve this to be a little more accurate.

As you can see here, because we all have emotional and mental health, we all have emotional and mental health issues. We might not all be formally diagnosed with a psychological disorder, but we are all struggling with the universal pains of being human.

We all have existential angst. We all have mourning we have to do, whether we’re mourning the loss of a person or a job we didn’t get or a path we didn’t take.

And we’re all thrown headfirst into this crazy world of adulting. Let’s be real; it’s tough and there’s no manual for it.

Let’s stop doing that othering where we locate mental health struggles over there, and let’s all own that we each have our own work to do.

Now, these days the term “self-care” has become really trendy, and something becoming trendy can be good because awareness of it spreads. But the downside of it is that it can also be kind of bastardized and used to make a lot of money.

These days, rather than self-care being about making compassionate, healthy choices in our lives, it’s kind of been used as an excuse to do whatever the hell we want. Sure, having a glass of wine in the bathtub with Netflix sounds really lovely, but I don’t know if I would actually say that combining alcohol, electronics, and water is the best idea.

[audience laughter]

Emily: Instead of the term “self-care,” I like to use the term “emotional fitness,” and I define it this way. Emotional fitness is an ongoing, proactive practice of improving your mental health. Just like any regimen, it is ongoing. In a way, you have to work on it a little bit at a time.

But I do compare it to physical fitness in the sense that because everyone has a body, everyone has physical health. Not everyone has a chronic illness, but everyone gets sick sometimes. Everyone has strengths and limitations.

I think some people like to think that if they’re not sick that means they’re healthy. But if you talk to someone who is emotionally fit, someone who eats well, sleeps eight hours, exercises, they’ll tell you, “Just because you’re not ill does not mean that you’re fit.”

The same is true with our emotional health. You might not be struggling with daily panic attacks, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in tip-top shape when it comes to your mental and emotional health.

Like any fitness regimen, it has to be maintained. I wanted to figure out what does that mean, though. How do you do that? What is an emotional pushup? How do I do them every day?

A number of years ago, I did a big research study called “An interpretive phenomenological analysis,” which is a fancy way of saying that I interviewed 100 psychologists and 100 entrepreneurs. I asked them the question, “How would you know if you were sitting across the table from an emotionally healthy leader? What does that look like? What does that feel like? What do those leaders do? What do they not do?”

I coded all of these interviews for themes, and here’s what came out of this research. These are the seven traits of emotionally fit leadership, the seven things that emotionally healthy people are working on all the time: self-awareness, empathy, mindfulness, curiosity, playfulness, resilience, and communication.

What we’re going to be doing together today is I’m going to go through each of these seven traits. For each one, I’m going to give you a suggestion about how you can work on it a little bit (starting today), and then we’re going to do some kind of activity together to actually practice it.

Give me a thumbs up if that sounds good and if you’re ready to dive in with me.

Yes! I love it.

All right, let’s start with self-awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to understand your own triggers and biases, to be willing to look into your blind spots.

Self-aware leaders can identify and manage their own emotions. They understand that who they are is a really important part of how they see the world. And they realize that there’s so much they don’t know they don’t know.

We are so good at hiding things from ourselves. But the things we don’t know about ourselves are driving a lot of the decisions we make. So, the more we learn about ourselves, the more that we can live our life with intention.

How do we build self-awareness? There are a few different things that I recommend. The first one is to get into therapy. Therapy has a lot of stigma. A lot of people think that it’s something that you only do when there’s something really wrong with you or when you’re in crisis. But the truth is that therapy is for anyone who wants to better understand who they are in the world and who wants to improve the relationship they have with themselves and with other people.

This is a really great thing to do proactively. When you start therapy when things are mostly fine, you’re going to do a deeper kind of work, and you’re actually going to build muscles that will prevent you from getting to the crisis that generally sends people to therapy.

If therapy is not the right choice for you right now, though, I also recommend journaling consistently. There are a lot of thoughts that feel differently swirling around in our minds than they do when we’ve written them down and see them right in front of us.

Now, I’m a person that doesn’t like to write for hours on end, so I have a line-a-day journal where, every day, I just write one line about how I’m feeling or what happened that day. But I’ve done it over the course of many years, and so now I can see how I felt on this day for the past five years.

And it’s pretty amazing to see patterns emerge like, “Oh, how interesting that I always feel a little anxious before I go home for Thanksgiving and see my whole family. That’s strange. Maybe that’s something to think about.” So, journalling is a good practice.

Then finally, make asking for feedback a really regular part of your routine. There are a lot of things that people won’t say to you until you ask them to say them to you. Especially if you’re in a leadership position, you want to teach people that it is safe and welcome for them to tell you what you might not be seeing.

We’re going to do a little activity together right now. I want everyone to go ahead and turn to a partner next to them, so pairs. And what you’re going to do is, with your partner, whoever has the shorter hair is going to make a fist.

[audience laughter and chatter]

Emily: All right. So, person with the shorter hair, you’ve got a fist made. Person with the longer hair, I’m going to give you five seconds to get your partner’s fist open. All right?

[audience chatter]

Emily: On your mark... get set... go! Five... four... three... two... one.

Okay, stop!

[audience chatter]

Emily: All right.

[audience chatter and laughter]

Emily: [Laughter] All right, so let me check in with you. People who were making the fist, raise your hand real quick. All right, so all of you who were making the fist, how many of you resisted your partner opening your fist?

Okay. The vast majority of you.

My question for you is, “Why?”

[audience laughter]

Emily: [Laughter] I never provided that instruction. I never told you to make this as difficult for your partner as you possibly could.

Now, those of you who were opening the first, let me see who were those people. Okay. How many of you tried to pry your partner’s fist open like the jaws of life?

Okay, most of you.

My question for you is, why didn’t you just say, “Hey, we’re doing this activity together. I’m supposed to get your fist open.”

[audience laughter]

Emily: “Would you mind going ahead and just doing that for me?”

All right, so this is what happens every time I do the activity, and the whole point is to show that even in this group of really thoughtful, kind, empathetic people, we are often primed to be in a me-versus-you mindset rather than a collaborative mindset. And the places in our life that we do that are going to look different depending on our own experiences. Once we know that, we can change it.

If I asked you to do the same activity again, you’d probably do it a little bit differently because now you know you’re in that mindset. Similarly, if you know, “Oh, when I feel nervous or I feel like I’m being judged by a boss, I tend to get really defensive,” once you know that, you might act a little differently in those situations than you would if you weren’t aware of that.

That’s the power of self-awareness. Just by putting your focus on it, you change the chemistry of it. That’s why it’s worth learning as much about yourself as you can. Thank you all for participating in that.

With that, let’s go to the second trait of emotionally fit leadership, which is empathy. If self-awareness is understanding and tolerating your own emotions, empathy is understanding and tolerating the emotions of other people.

Empathetic people put themselves in other people’s shoes regularly. But something a lot of people don’t understand is that empathy has a feelings component. If you intellectually understand what someone is feeling but you’re not feeling it at all, that’s not empathy. That’s sympathy.

Empathy means actually allowing yourself to feel what someone else is feeling in order to understand them. A lot of us are resistant to this because we have our own problems. We don’t necessarily want to feel everyone else’s tough emotions all the time.

An important thing to remember is that empathy and boundaries are not mutually exclusive. Being empathetic to someone does not mean that you’re taking their problems on as your own. It just means you’re joining them long enough to understand them so you can decide how you want to support them.

I’m going to share a tool that we use at my company that I think is really powerful for empathy. We call it the emotional fitness survey, and this is based on the idea that we tend to empathize better with things that we understand.

Think about a time that you’ve been really annoyed with someone. They’ve been getting on your nerves. Then you get more context. You find out, “Oh, they just lost a pet this week,” or “They’re going through a really hard time.” Suddenly, you feel a little more empathy for them because you have more context. You understand why they’re acting the way that they are.

What the emotional fitness survey is that any time someone new comes to work at our company, we have them fill out this survey that asks them a bunch of questions about how they do their best work. Then everyone at the company has access to everyone’s answers. We make sure everyone knows that in advance.

Everyone here will see your answers. Keep that in mind. You can also edit your answers over time. We as the leaders are sure to fill out this survey as well.

That way we have all this information about people before we actually need the information. It tends to be easier to ask for what you need before you need it.

Here are some examples of questions that we have on our survey. We ask things like: Do you like to be praised in public or in private?

How do you like to receive feedback? Do you want it to be written so that you can take some time to think? Do you want it to be in person so that you can have a conversation about it?

How do you like to be cared for or cheered up during a tough time? This one came in handy recently. We had someone at our company lose a family member.

We looked at her emotional fitness survey answers, and she had said, “When I’m going through a tough time, I like space for a little while, and then I want you to check up on me.” Because we knew that, we gave her a few days. We left her alone. Then we sent her flowers and a note. That was a lot easier to know than it would have been if we had contacted her right away and said, “What do you need from us?”

We also ask the question, “How would I know if you were feeling overwhelmed?” This one is really helpful because some people when they’re overwhelmed get quiet. Some people stop eating lunch. Some people complain more. It looks different depending on who you are. And if you know what to look out for, then you’re more likely to be able to support people.

Then we ask things like how do you like your birthday to be celebrated? Some people say, “Please don’t forget my birthday. I feel really lonely,” and other people are like, “Pretend my birthday doesn’t exist. I don’t want anyone saying anything.” That’s helpful to know in advance.

Think about creating a survey like this. We have one at work, but I actually also made one for all of my friends, and it was really amazing to see what my friends need to feel supported by each other.

All right. Let’s go to the third trait of emotionally fit leadership, which is mindfulness. The way I think about mindfulness is not just sitting and meditating. It’s the general practice of becoming more comfortable being uncomfortable.

So much of what we do in life is in service of moving away from discomfort. But so often the things that we do to avoid discomfort end up being more uncomfortable and worse for us than the original thing that we were trying to avoid. Emotional fitness is about slowing things down and sitting with discomfort long enough to make the best decision instead of the decision that moves us away from discomfort quickly.

For example, I worked with a leader years ago whose biggest kind of discomfort was that she hated awkward silences. And any time she was in a group of people, if there was an awkward silence (even for a moment) she would say something, she would fill it. But then later, she would feel a lot of embarrassment and shame because she cut someone off who was about to talk, or she said something that really didn’t need to be said. And so, in our work together, what we practiced was her just tolerating the discomfort in that moment, just taking a few deep breaths, and reminding herself it wasn’t her job to fill every silence.

Now, did she ever become a person who loves awkward silences? No, but she did get better at tolerating that discomfort. And what she discovered was that, suddenly, quieter people were speaking up with ideas, and she was feeling better about the things that she was contributing.

The better we are at tolerating discomfort, the more options we have available to us. How do we do this, in general? It takes practice. It’s a muscle. You have to put yourself in uncomfortable positions and remind yourself that you can handle it, and we’re going to do that right now with an exercise that I have found to be universally uncomfortable across all languages and cultures and moments, and that is the eye gaze.

What you are going to do with your partner is you’re going to turn to them in just a moment, and you are going to stare directly into their eyes for 25 seconds.

[audience laughter]

Emily: All right. So, you can blink. Try not to talk. And when the 25 seconds is over, you’re going to hear me chime you out like this.

[bell chime]

Emily: That’s how you’ll know it’s over. Okay? So, get ready. Turn to your partner. On your mark... get set... go.

[audience chatter]

[bell chime]

Emily: Okay... [Laughter]

[audience laughter]

Emily: All right. That’s always fun to witness, I have to say. So, y’all did a great job. But I did observe what I always observe the first time I see this, which is people doing the things they tend to do to try to avoid the discomfort of this exercise.

You talked. You laughed. You looked away. And I get it. It’s a very vulnerable thing to stare directly into a stranger’s eyes, so I understand why you’d want to move away from this discomfort.

But the goal here is that I want to prove to you that you are better capable of handling discomfort than you give yourself credit for. So, we’re going to do this activity again. But this time, you have more information.

You know what this will feel like. You just did it. You know it won’t last forever. I chimed you out last time. I will chime you out this time. You know you can handle it. You survived. And you know you’re not in it alone. The other people is probably also uncomfortable. You can just know in your mind that both of you are in this together.

This time, when you do it and you have the urge to talk or to look away or to laugh or to move away from your discomfort, I want you instead to just take a breath and stay present with your partner and remind yourself that you can handle this hard thing for 25 seconds. Okay?

So, go ahead and get ready to do this again. On your mark... get set... go.

[audience silence]

[bell chime]

[audience chatter]

Emily: Wow!

[audience chatter]

Emily: What a huge difference. I don’t know how present you were with the rest of the room, but that felt completely different to me. And I know it was probably still a little uncomfortable, but it also probably felt different because you did it. You got through it.

The whole point of this is you just handled a thing that is universally really tough to do. The next time you’re in some other situation that’s uncomfortable, remind yourself you can handle it. You can breathe through discomfort. And when you do, you gain access to some really amazing things.

You all just had a really lovely moment with a stranger where you were really present with each other, and that wouldn’t have been possible if you were talking and laughing and looking away in the same way, so thank you all for challenging yourself.

With that, I promise we are going to keep moving to the fourth trait of emotionally fit leadership, which is curiosity. I think about curiosity as pursuing growth over defensiveness.

We are all defensive. None of us wants to hear that we’re not doing a good job or that we let someone down. It’s really common when someone comes to us with a piece of critical feedback that we get defensive by either being too apologetic or by denying what they’re saying or by trying to explain ourselves right away instead of getting curious and asking a lot of questions.

There are all kinds of ways to increase curiosity. Just learning some questions that you might have in your pocket so when someone comes to you for feedback, you can say things like:
• Tell me more about what that was like for you.
• What could I have done differently?
• What else should I know about this?

That can be helpful, but there’s another aspect of curiosity that I think is powerful, which is, we tend to be less defensive about critical feedback when we have a strong sense of ourselves.

I love this comic by designer Pablo Stanley, who shows how different it is to get tough feedback when you’re new at something versus when you have a lot of confidence about yourself in that thing because any one piece of feedback is less likely to shake the entire core of your identity around that thing.

We can learn how to be less defensive and more curious by building our self-confidence, by strengthening the core of who we are. So, we’re going to do a little activity to practice this right now.

What I want everyone to do is take out a notebook or your phone (but don’t be checking your email on that phone). Pull up your notes app on that phone. All right?

Go ahead. Grab a phone, grab a notebook, whatever it is. What I want you to do with that is I want you to type out or write down the best piece of positive feedback that you’ve ever received. Not the best piece of advice, the best piece of positive feedback, what’s something really amazing someone has said about you?

For example, the best piece of positive feedback I think I’ve ever received is someone once said, “Emily, you are so unabashedly yourself in every moment that it makes me feel safe to be myself.” I think that’s the best piece of feedback I’ve ever received.

Go ahead and write down the best piece of feedback you’ve ever received. And I’m going to ask, actually, for one brave, courageous person to share what that is. Can I have one person raise their hand? You’re going to share out what’s the best piece of feedback you’ve ever received.

I’m a therapist. I’m really good at waiting, so we will be here until someone shares. Who is willing to do it?


Audience member: [Indiscernible]

Emily: Oh...

Audience member: [Indiscernible]

Emily: That’s beautiful. His daughter said, “You’re the best dad in the world because you make time for me.” That is profound. I can tell you as a therapist, that is a good sign. [Laughter] Thank you so much for sharing that also.

What all of you have just done is you’ve just started your self-esteem file. The self-esteem file is a place where you are going to put every piece of positive feedback that you receive. Every time a customer says something great about your product, every time a partner says something great about how you showed up for them, every time a child says something that fills your heart, you’re going to write it down or screenshot it, and you’re going to put it in one folder.

Now, I know this might sound a little bit trite. But I have been keeping a self-esteem file for ten years. And I can tell you, when I feel crappy about myself, it is very compelling to look through ten years’ worth of data that I have made a difference in people’s lives.

What’s interesting is I’d say I probably go through it about once a year. Every time I do, I have completely forgotten everything that’s in there. That’s because we tend to ruminate and obsess over negative feedback, and we tend to let positive feedback kind of fly right past us.

This is a way of making sure that we have it, to go back to, to remind ourselves about. Think about starting that self-esteem file.

We also have one at my company called a team esteem file. We have a Slack channel where any time someone says something nice about anyone who works there or about our product, we put it in that file. Then people can look back on it when things aren’t feeling as good.

All right. Let’s go to the fifth trait of an emotionally fit leader, which is playfulness. Play is hugely undervalued and somewhat misunderstood, especially in the workplace.

When I ask people to share the last time they played, they usually tell me about a sports game or a boardgame or a video game. These are great types of play. But I really like the improv definition of play, which is that when someone comes to you with an idea, you don’t say, “Well, yes, but--” and you don’t even just say yes. You say, “Yes, and.” You meet them in their idea. You expand on that idea. And together, the two of you get somewhere that neither of you could have gotten alone.

In this way, brainstorming is a type of play or taking a joke way too far with a friend is a type of play.

Play is about removing constraints and thinking big. And there are all kinds of benefits to play in the workplace. It builds community and culture. It improves memory. It increases creativity and spontaneity.

I actually read one study years ago that showed that people who play regularly live longer by a significant number of years than people who don’t play regularly. That’s how important it is to our well-being.

The reason we don’t play is that play is really vulnerable. When we play, our guards tend to come down naturally, and that can be scary for people who work hard to keep their guards up. But the more that we work on it, the more that we introduce it into the culture of our company or our group of people in our lives, the easier it becomes.

I recommend to start your meetings and interactions with a game or an icebreaker question. It can be really powerful to just set the stage and get everyone on the same page by being a little bit playful before you dive into the important and serious stuff.

I’m going to have you all share the answer to my latest favorite icebreaker question. Pardon my language on this one, but what you are going to share with each other is, “Marry, Fuck, Kill... your own personality traits.”

I don’t know if you all heard of the game “Marry, Fuck, Kill.” It’ll be like, um... “Marry, fuck, kill potato preparations.” For me it’s like, “I would marry baked potatoes. I would fuck mashed potatoes because they’re so delicious and amazing. And I would kill potatoes gratin because I don’t like those. I don’t understand them.” Right?

This is the game, but you’re all going to play with your own personality traits. So, the way I would answer is, “I would marry my empathy and tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt. I would fuck my dark sense of humor. And I would kill my anxiety about things I can’t control.”

Does that make sense? Can I get thumbs-up if this game makes sense? Cool.

All right, so you’re going to go ahead and turn to your partner. You’re just going to answer this question. I’m going to give you, you know, a minute each, and then we’ll come back together. All right? Go ahead.

[audience chatter]

Emily: Go ahead and switch partners if you haven’t already.

[audience chatter]

Emily: All right. Start to wind it down.

[audience chatter]

[bell chime]
Emily: All right. Thanks for participating in that. So, I actually have a list of my 30 favorite icebreaker questions because I don’t really like the standard ones like, “What’s your favorite food?” I like to get a little more creative, so if you hold your phone up to this QR code, it will take you to a Google Doc of my 30 favorite non-traditional icebreaker questions, including the one that you’ve just done. Go ahead and add that to your list, and you can start your meetings this way.

On Fridays, we have a meeting called Feelings Friday where we just talk about how the week went, how we’re feeling about things, moments we felt supported by each other, moments we felt a little dropped by each other, and we start that with some kind of random icebreaker. It can make a big difference.

All right. With that, let’s go to the sixth trait of emotionally fit leadership, which is resilience. I define resilience as the ability to bounce forward from failures and setbacks.

There’s a reason I don’t say bound back, and that’s because I don’t think we ever get back to where we were after we go through a hard thing. Rather than trying to get back to where we were, I think it’s more powerful to learn and grow from what we’ve been through and move forward into what we’ve now become.

Resilience is especially important right now because we’ve just gone through a really hard thing. Everyone that I know was dramatically affected in one way or another by this global pandemic we’ve all experienced, and I think what it proved to the world is that none of us is going to be able to see every tough thing coming. Learning how to shore up our resources and build our emotional muscles is going to help us inevitably when some tough thing happens.

Let’s talk about a few things that I think is helpful with resilience. Specifically, I wanted to talk about anxiety because, in the work that I’ve been doing with people, there have been two issues that have been coming up the most strongly. One of them is anxiety, which is fear of things that may or may not happen in the future, the fear of uncertainty, and one of them is burnout because we’re all tired from being in survival mode for so many years.

Let's talk about some ways to manage anxiety because this is one that I think can be really useful. The first one is to schedule a worry hour. What I will sometimes hear people say is, “I’m just thinking about things so often and sometimes it’s things like what if I lose a family member or what if something terrible happens.” Other times, it’s just things like, “What if this project fails? What if I don’t do a good job at this thing (whatever it is)?”

If those worries are so pervasive that they’re distracting you from your everyday life and they’re keeping you from being able to focus on the things you need to focus, consider scheduling a worry hour, which means that you put a little time in your schedule that’s set aside just for worrying. It could be five minutes a day. It could be a half-hour a week. It could be an hour a month - whatever you need it to be.

The idea is that during that time, you can worry and obsess and ruminate and perseverate and do whatever you need to do about any of the things that you’re worrying about, but the rest of the time when you find yourself worrying, you’re going to say, “Uh, no. That’s 6 o’clock me problem. She will deal with it. I’ll write it down. Leave her a note. I’m going to get back to what I’m doing.”

It can be really powerful because just saying, “Oh, don’t worry about it,” doesn’t tend to help because anxiety does serve a purpose. It helps us feel like we’re getting prepared for something. And so, it is important to have some time to let our minds wander in that way. But if we can contain that time, it will often free up a lot of mind space and time the rest of the week. So, that’s a tool I find really powerful.

The next one is just to remind ourselves to focus on the things that we can control and to let go of the things that we can’t control. This might seem really obvious, but it’s amazing how often I’ll be worrying, worrying, and worrying, and then I’ll do this. I’ll be like, “Wait. How much of this do I have any control over whatsoever?” The answer will be none of it.

By remembering that, it kind of lets me off the hook. I can sort of talk to myself like, “Hey, you’re not actually doing yourself a service by worrying about this because you have no control over it anyway. So, go ahead and shift your focus to something you do have control over.”

For example, if I was worried about how I would do on stage today, I have some control over that. I could practice more times. I could ask for feedback. But if I worry that there’s going to be another global pandemic in another few years and it’s going to send everyone back inside, there isn’t really anything I can do about that right now, and so it’s better not to take up too many of my resources thinking about that.

Then the third piece of advice for anxiety that I wanted to share comes from a personal experience that I went through that I’ll tell you about, which is, a number of years ago, I had a family member who was in the hospital. She wasn’t doing well. It was looking like she probably was not going to make it. And I was really, really anxious because I was still very dependent on their person. I remember just obsessing about what I was going to do.

A family friend came over to keep us company, and he was an oncologist, so he had a lot of experience supporting people through the loss of family members. I asked him. I said, “What am I going to do if this person dies? How am I going to handle it? What am I going to do logistically? How am I going to handle it emotionally? I feel like I’m just going to cease to exist.”

He put his hand on my shoulder, and he said, “Emily, the version of you that will handle that tough thing (if and when it happens) will be born into existence in that moment. And that version of you will have more life experience and more context and more ability to handle that hard thing than you do now. You have to trust your future self to handle future problems and, instead, focus on what’s true right now.”

This absolutely blew my mind not only as it related to this really scary, horrible thing, but also, for everyday things, I now think about this advice all the time. If I’m going to miss my bus and I’m freaking out about it, I’m like, “You know what? If I miss my bus, future me will deal with it. She’s going to figure out how to get to the venue. For now, I’m just going to focus on trying to move as quickly as I can to get there.”

It's just a very powerful thing to shift away from this future thing that you don’t really have the ability to handle yet because you don’t have all the information, back to the present thing. Not to mention, by the way, that this person didn’t die. And so, if I had spent all of that time trying to prepare for this future that never ended up happening, I would have spent a lot of resources on something that wasn’t really necessary. So, trust your future self to handle future problems.

Burnout is the other thing that I think we need to build resilience for because a lot of us are feeling it, and I wanted to share that I have a three-step process for dealing with burnout, and it is a proactive practice. That is because burnout is so much easier to prevent than it is to fix.

Burnout is a little like running out of gas in your car. If you’re low on gas and you go and get more gas, that takes ten minutes out of your day. But if you let yourself actually run out of gas, you have way more problems to deal with now. You’re stranded on the side of the road. You have to call for help. You may have damaged your engine. It’s going to take way longer to deal with it.

Similarly, if we prevent burnout, it requires effort on our part, but it’s doable. Whereas if we wait until we’ve actually become burnt out, it is so much more work to deal with.

My three-step process for preventing burnout is that the first step is you’re going to figure out what your early burnout warning signs are. What happens to you before you get burnt out that signals to you that burnout is around the corner?

For some people it’s that they stop eating lunch. For some people it’s that they feel less excited about their work. For some people it’s that they aren’t wanting to do the things they normally enjoy or they complain more or they’re less patient with their kids or they get quiet. Whatever it is for you, how do you know that you’re starting to get burnt out?

Once you know what those things are, step two of this process is that you are going to recruit support in keeping an eye out for these things. For example, my co-founder knows that when I’m starting to get burnt out, I’m less excited about the work.

And so, when she notices me being less excited, she will say, “Hey, I just wanted to reflect to you that you seem a lot less excited about this than usual. You told me that that means that you might be getting burnt out. How can we support you in refueling your tank?” So, tell the people in your life what those early signs are and keep an eye out for them.

Then the third step is that when you notice one of those signs happening that you build in a shock absorber to redirect yourself back toward health. That also looks different for different people. For some people, refueling their tank means taking a walk in nature, spending time with their pet, taking a mental health day, taking a day off work. It might look like booking a trip to look forward to, or it might just be treating yourself to a meal that you really enjoy.

You now have this process where, as soon as you or someone in your life notices one of these signals, you’re going to do one of those things to take care of yourself to pull that back a little bit. And as you make this a regular practice, you’re much less likely to hit burnout all the way out.

Hopefully, that helps some of you not get to this tough place that I know a lot of us have gotten recently.

Okay, with that, let’s get to the seventh and final trait of emotionally fit leadership, which is communication, the ability to put words to your needs and your boundaries and your expectations.

In general, communication is about confronting something in the moment instead of letting it fester. There are a lot of things we don’t talk about and we think we’re protecting people by not talking about them, but we’re actually doing them a big disservice.

For example, when we feel disappointment with someone, we’ll often say, “Oh, yeah. I’m disappointed. But whatever. I’m not going to say anything.”

But disappointment that isn’t expressed calcifies into resentment, and resentment is a lot harder to clear away than disappointment. So, by communicating things as they happen, you can think about it almost like brushing your teeth to avoid emotional plaque. You are being proactive about keeping small problems from becoming big problems.

Now, lately, a lot of the communication we’ve been doing is through text. We are on Slack. We’re texting people. There’s just so much more of that happening. The problem with that is that it can be a little bit tone-deaf. A lot gets lost in texts that wouldn’t get lost if we were talking about things in person.

I have a tool that I think can be really useful for this that I wanted to tell you about, which is something that I call “Remojis.” Remojis is a word I invented just by squishing together remote and emojis, but the concept here is that you start to come up with symbols to represent emotional information that you could communicate quickly and easily via text.

The way that we do this at our company is whenever there is some kind of miscommunication, we decide right there and then what emoji we’re going to use to prevent that miscommunication the next time. Let me show you some of the ones that we use.

We will send a turtle to mean, “Hey, I need more time on this.”

We will send an upside-down face if we’re typing something sarcastically so that people understand that it’s sarcasm because sarcasm gets lost really easily by text. Just by throwing this emoji onto the end, now people know I’m being sarcastic here.

We use the brain. That means, “Hey, can we all slow down and think before we take action?” because we’ve had a lot of situations where a customer will be having a problem and everyone is racing to fix the problem and someone is like, “Hey, can we all just calm down for a second and think about this? Then we’ll take action.”

This heart with the Band-Aid on it means “I’m feeling a little sensitive today. Maybe it’s not the best day to give me negative feedback or to be really hard on me. Just you have a sense of where I’m at.” It’s a lot easier to send this than to say, “I’m feeling really sensitive today.”

Then this one my co-founder and I just recently added, which is, we noticed that sometimes we would share a problem with each other and we wouldn’t know, “Is this just a problem you need help solving or are you mad at me about this problem?” And so, we wouldn’t know, should I focus on the problem or should I focus on our relationship?

We came up with this chili pepper situation where if there’s a chili pepper there it means I’m upset. I’m feeling spicy about this and we need to actually discuss that you let me down or that I’m angry. Whereas if there’s not a chili pepper, we know it just means, “Hey, I need your help thinking about this problem.”

This might, again, sound a little silly, but I cannot tell you how many problems this has prevented just by having these in there. Like any language, at first it feels a little contrived, and then it just becomes part of it. Everyone just knows what you’re talking about right away.

I use these in my personal life too, so my partner and I have an emoji that means I’ve had a really bad day, I need a hug when I get home, but don’t ask me any questions. [Laughter]

[audience laughter]

Emily: And it’s nice to just have that known when you walk in the door. So, think about adding remojis as a tool that you use with the people in your life.

Those are the seven traits of emotional fitness. What I’ve found to be true about them is that they’re all really correlated with each other. The more empathetic you are, the easier it is to be playful because you can meet someone where they are. The more playful you are, the easier it is to be resilient because when we play through tough times, we’re more likely to get through them, the more resilient we are, the more likely we are to be curious because we’re less mired in our own problems.

They’re all really related, so you can kind of start anywhere. Whichever trait you want to start with today, it’s going to naturally evolve the other traits.

There’s also a huge ripple effect, this work. When you do this work for yourself, it’s going to positively affect everyone around you.

I know the standard idea in a lot of relationships is, “I’ll take care of you if you take care of me,” but I think instead we should be saying, “I’ll take care of me for you if you’ll take care of you for me.” By taking responsibility for ourselves in our relationships, we’re going to prove those relationships and we give people around us permission to focus on their own struggles and to take responsibility for their own selves.

I wanted to leave you with five things that you could do in the next week to kickstart your emotional fitness regimen. Think about designing your own emotional fitness routine. What does this look like for you?

What are you non-negotiables? If you need eight hours of sleep to do well, maybe block those hours off in your calendar so that people can’t put meetings on them. Or maybe it’s a good time to get into therapy and to be proactive about everything that’s happening in your mind and in your relationships.

Next, create an emotional fitness survey, whether it’s in your personal life or your work life. I just make get on Google Survey and send it out. It’s really helpful to have that information, and it’s helpful for people to have that information about me.

For example, I have ADHD, and one of the ways that manifests is that I interrupt people sometimes without meaning to. On my emotional fitness survey, I made sure that everyone who works under me knows that if I interrupt them that they have permission to say, “Hey, actually, I wasn’t done with my thought yet.” By doing that, I’ve noticed people are more likely to say, “Oh, wait, wait. Let me just finish that thought,” but they might not have felt that permission if I hadn’t been really explicit about that in my survey. So, it’s also good for people to know what you need in order to do your best work.

Play a game with a friend. This QR code is different than the other one. This is a list of work-appropriate games that we like to play. Go ahead and grab that if that would be helpful.

Share a piece of positive feedback. Give someone something to put in their self-esteem file.

We tend to be really detailed with negative feedback. We tend to say, “Here’s what happened and here’s the affect that it had, and here’s what you could do differently.” But then when we give positive feedback it’s like, “Good job.”

Try to be really detailed with your positive feedback. Make sure people know why what they did was great. What effect did it have on you or the company? And how could they keep doing what they’re doing?

Then finally, think about creating a few remojis in your life. This is one of those things that until you start doing it, it might be hard to understand how helpful it is. But this is one of the things that’s made the biggest difference in our remote communication at my company, for sure.

For those of you who like more reading, I wanted to give you three books that I think are really powerful.

No Hard Feelings is a really cool book that uses visualization to help understand the power of harnessing feelings at work. It’s a lot of really cool charts that have been drawn out. I highly recommend that one.

Radical Candor is a feedback rubric. It helps you figure out how can I give feedback in a direct way that’s still empathetic.

Nonviolent Communication is this amazing conflict resolution language. If you and everyone on your team or you and everyone in your family all read it, you’re now going to have this shared language for how to get through conflict together that I think can be really helpful.

Thank you all so much for thinking about your emotional fitness today. Find me on Twitter or Instagram at this handle. Come find me after this talk if you have any questions. I’m so grateful to be here. Thank you.

[audience applause]