Susan David, Ph.D. is an award-winning psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and the CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, a boutique business consultancy. Her new book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life teaches a counterintuitive approach to achieve your true potential, which was heralded by the Harvard Business Review as a groundbreaking idea of the year in 2016.
Part one of the interview is here.
Kyle: I love your book, especially the part about bottling and brooding. Can you speak about those two terms and how those might show up in a relationship? In particular, can you speak to how to use either self-compassion or other techniques to stop holding our emotions hostage in a way that it harms our relationships?
Susan: Yes. Effectively bottling or brooding are characteristic of ways that people deal with difficult emotions and difficult experiences. We often default to one of these positions.
Bottling is essentially pushing the emotion down. For example: You’re upset with a person. You’re feeling angry because you feel exploited, and what you do is you tell yourself, “I’m just not going to go there, and I’ve got to go to work. I’ve got all this other stuff to do.”
And what you are doing is pushing the emotions down. Often you do this with very good intentions. You feel at some level that emotions are locked up in a bottle, and you have all of this other stuff that you can’t do, so you continue to push the emotions into a bottle, per say.
Brooding is when you are so consumed with the emotions you’re feeling that it becomes difficult to do anything else. When you’re brooding, you’re dwelling on the emotions, you’re analyzing hurt. You’re thinking, Why am I feeling what I’m feeling? It’s like you can’t let go and you obsess over the hurt, a perceived failure, or a shortcoming.
Brooding has some very good intentions—one of which is to try to deal with emotions effectively. So both bottling and brooding are done with good intentions.
Kyle: Fascinating. I believe you had a really good example of bottling and brooding in your book about holding books. Could you explain that?
Susan: Of course. For instance: If someone said to you, “You have this big pile of books, and I want you to carry these books away from you.” That’s what bottling looks like. It’s where you have these emotions and thoughts and you try to hold them at an arm’s length in a very almost white-knuckled way. You’re trying to push them aside, and what happens over time is your arms get weak and they start shaking and you are likely to drop the load. The same happens when you are brooding.
When you are brooding, what you are doing is you are holding all those books—and we say each of the books is like an emotion or a thought. You are holding the books so close to you and gripping them so tightly that it impacts your ability to be in the world, your ability to see the other person and to respect them, to love and to see your children, to laugh, and, again, at some point you drop that heavy load.
Kyle: I love that visual. It makes a lot of sense. Can you take a moment to explain why we bottle or brood and how it impacts our partners?
Susan: Well… What’s really interesting is that while people use bottling and brooding with good intentions, we know from the research that it tends not to work.
When people characteristically bottle their emotions or brood, even though they look so different, those patterns of emotions are actually associated with lower levels of well-being and high levels of depression and anxiety. We also know that it impacts the quality of the relationship.
When people bottle, they are pushing aside their emotions, and their partner can often feel that they aren’t present—that they aren’t being authentic or vulnerable in the relationship.
When people are brooding, their partner can often feel that there is no space for anyone else in the conversation because they are so self-focused that it becomes difficult to enter into the space in a way that they feel seen.
And, also, people can switch from one to the other. Sometimes someone will bottle, bottle, bottle, and then they start brooding, and feel bad for brooding, so they push emotions aside and they bottle again.
It’s a really interesting way of being. One of the things that I talk about in Emotional Agility is creating a relationship with our emotions by making room in our hearts for our emotions and our thoughts.
Kyle: So it sounds like you’re trying to create space between the emotions rather than react to them. How do we stop the cycle of brooding and bottling?
Susan: The best way is to stop trying to engage in a struggle of whether you should or shouldn’t be feeling something, but rather just notice those thoughts and emotions, and do so with compassion and curiosity and courage because sometimes they are difficult emotions.
A very important piece of research has shown us that when people try to push emotion aside what happens is there’s emotional leakage. You don’t want to tell the person you are upset and keep it in you, so you keep it in you, and then you completely lose sense and flip out.
We know these things don’t work. What I talk about in Emotional Agility is ways to start being healthier with our thoughts and emotions. That way we do not struggle with them and rather recognize that your thoughts, your emotions, and your stories have evolved in us as human beings to help us to feel protected, to help us to survive, and to help us to communicate with ourselves.
It’s important to extend compassion to yourself, recognizing that you are trying to do the best that you can with the circumstances that you face. That doesn’t mean you are self-excusing. It doesn’t mean you are being lazy. It just means you are choosing to befriend yourself.