Bottling Up Emotions Doesn’t Work, but Neither Does Brooding. Here’s a Different Approach.

“How we deal with our inner world—our thoughts, our emotions, our stories—can drive everything.”

Gretchen Rubin is the New York Times #1 bestselling author of The Happiness Project, Better Than Before, and Happier at Home. Her books have sold more than one million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than thirty languages. Recently, she joined Susan David, psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of the acclaimed new book Emotional Agility, for a Heleo Conversation on how to listen to our emotions without letting them overwhelm us.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below. 

Gretchen: Before we get into the big picture of Emotional Agility, tell us what it means to be a bottler or a brooder.

Susan: A bottler is someone who tends to push emotion aside. They might say, “I’m really angry with my boss or I’m really upset with my wife, but I’m just not going to think about it. I’ve got this project to do.”

A brooder is someone who, on the other hand, gets stuck in emotion. “Why am I feeling what I’m feeling? Why did this happen? Why did my boss do this?” They can’t move on, and don’t get any insight from it.

Gretchen: People think it’s healthy to express emotions, but that’s only if it’s constructive. If you’re just ruminating over it, it’s a dead end.

Susan: Correct. Even though bottling and brooding look so different, there’s a body of research that shows that they have similar outcomes—and the outcomes are not great. There’s more of a likelihood that people will have low levels of happiness and well-being, high levels of depression and anxiety. And, of course, you’ve got an issue that you’re upset about and not solving.

By way of background, I’m a psychologist and emotions researcher. There’s so much in the world that tells us how to be disciplined, how to be protective, but what I found in my research is, fundamentally, that how we deal with our inner world—our thoughts, our emotions, our stories—can drive everything. I wrote this book to answer the question: what does it take internally to help us thrive in the world?

Gretchen: What are the highlights of the argument about emotional agility?

Susan: One is that we’re often told that happiness trumps everything, yet when people have the overarching goal of “I want to be happy,” the research shows that they are more likely to push aside difficult emotions. “I shouldn’t feel angry. I shouldn’t feel upset.” It’s important to show up to your emotions. Instead of arguing with yourself as to whether you should feel a particular thing, open your heart willingly to the experience of all emotions as containing potential data. Values are beneath those emotions.

Gretchen: I’m so glad to hear you say that, because one of the things people often assume that I’m arguing is that the goal is to be 100 percent happy 100 percent of the time, and that negative emotions are bad. In fact, negative emotions are helpful, because they often will shine on something like envy, regret, or guilt. These can be very helpful—but you have to recognize that you’re feeling them.

You talked about mislabeling, where somebody, instead of saying, “My feelings are hurt,” will say, “I’m mad at you.”

Susan: Often, we use very broad brush strokes for emotions. The most common one is, “I’m stressed.” Imagine if I was working with someone as an executive coach and the person said, “I’m stressed,” and I took that at face value. I might say, “Well, learn how to delegate work.” But what if really underpinning it is “I thought that my career would have been different and that my legacy would have been greater?” It’s a very different conversation.

Gretchen: I’m a brooder. What would you say to a brooder about how to manage emotion?

“Don’t say, ‘I’m thinking too much and this is terrible.’ Simply notice your emotions for what they are.”

Susan: Number one: don’t punish yourself for being a brooder. It’s important to be compassionate and to notice those emotions in yourself. This is a critical aspect of how we can be kind. Don’t say, “I’m thinking too much and this is terrible.” Simply notice your emotions for what they are. Who’s in charge here, the thinker or the thought?

A practical strategy is, when you start saying to yourself, “I am stressed. I am angry. I am upset,” what you are doing is identifying 100 percent of yourself as stress. Instead, simply say to yourself, “I’m noticing that I’m feeling stressed; I’m noticing that I’m feeling angry; I’m noticing the urge to leave the room every time my husband starts in on the finances…” You’ll start to create a healthy distance between you and your emotion.

Gretchen: Have you ever struggled to identify an emotion—like you’re feeling bad and you don’t even know why? Because what I say from The Happiness Project is, “Are you stressed because you’re exhausted because you stayed up late watching Game of Thrones? Are you stressed because your best friend doesn’t work with you anymore and you feel lonely? Are you stressed because your commute is terrible?” There’s a million reasons, but if you don’t know what it is, then it’s not specific enough to have valuable information.

“I hate that co-worker,” might really be, “I’m jealous of my co-worker because she goes on all these cool trips.” Somebody was telling me that she was at work and feeling really angry and then all of a sudden started crying. She seemed to have no awareness of what she was actually feeling. Then you feel out of control and that is not emotionally agile.

Susan: That’s one thing that bottlers often find. They push the emotion, and then it upsurges. In psychology we call this amplification. Imagine you are trying to diet and you say, “I refuse to think about chocolate.” What do you do? You start dreaming about it. Amplification is this idea that emotions, all those thoughts, come back even stronger.

Gretchen: They’re jamming it up and it’s creating this energy.

Susan: They think it’s being productive but actually, it’s the opposite.

Gretchen: If you are working with somebody where there seem to be these unpredictable eruptions, maybe that’s a sign of a bottler.

Susan: Absolutely.

Gretchen: How do you engage with that kind of person in a helpful way?

Susan: First, labeling is critical. What is it that’s actually going on here?

Another thing is that values are often seen as being cheesy or abstract. But when you create habits that are values-aligned, it’s freeing. Help people to think about “who is it that you want to be in this situation?”

“In a world of complexity and chaos and difficulty, we’ve got to have some sense of who we are and what we bring to the world. It helps us to be resilient and chart a course that is important to us.”

Gretchen: I had a situation like that with my sister—we were talking about a conflict she was having at work. I finally realized, “To you, loyalty is so important. You would never do anything that could be perceived as disloyal,” but for me, it’s equity. It didn’t seem fair, but it’s loyal. We were bringing different values to something where she had to decide how to behave. You assume everybody feels the way you do, but they don’t.

Susan: It can be so freeing. In a world of complexity and chaos and difficulty, we’ve got to have some sense of who we are and what we bring to the world. It helps us to be resilient and chart a course that is important to us.

Gretchen: That reminds me of my Four Tendencies, because in my Four Tendencies, I realized people really do have different values. As an upholder, spontaneity is not a high value, but for rebels, spontaneity is very high.

It really helps when you think, “People might be bringing a different perspective that’s just as legitimate as mine.” It’s not that one person is right and one person is wrong, but how do we talk about these things in a way where we can deal with each other without getting worked up?

Susan: And sometimes people say to me, “What if my own values are in conflict?” What if I value work but I also value family?

But if we take that apart, often it’s not the values that are in conflict. What’s most often in conflict are goals. I have a goal that I want to be at my child’s practice and I have a goal that I want to finish this project. We are mortals and we can’t be in two places at once. It’s the goals that are in conflict, not the values.

Gretchen: Sometimes this stuff can feel very big and abstract, but one of the things you like to talk about is tiny tweaks and how people can take steps in their everyday life. What are some of the little things people can do?

Susan: Often when we think about change we think, “I’ve got to completely change careers,” or, “I’ve got to move to a vineyard in Italy.” Actually, what we know is that so much of people’s well-being, and effectiveness, and happiness comes through tiny tweaks. The small changes that we make in our lives that are values-aligned.

An example is being a present parent—which is really important to me. During this book launch, I’ve been finding that I’ve been moving into worse habits, like being on my phone a lot. I’ve got a habit of already putting my keys in the drawer, so now I piggyback a new habit onto that existing habit. I put my keys in the drawer and add my cell phone automatically.

Gretchen: Can you explain what “hooked” is? Being hooked by emotions?

Susan: The idea is that your thoughts, your emotions, your stories are driving you rather than your values. I always think about that very beautiful Viktor Frankl quote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space lies our power to choose, and it’s in that choice that comes out growth and freedom.” So often, we don’t create any space between our stimulus and response.

“Being right is well and good, but as individuals, we still get to choose how we want to react, and sometimes what that means is to let go and hold lightly our opinions.”

Gretchen: How do you deal with somebody who only is talking about their own thoughts and feelings and can’t engage with your thoughts and feelings because they’re so overwhelmed by their own emotional state?

Susan: One of the issues is that it doesn’t create space for anyone else, for other people’s feelings, and it can be very difficult in relationships. Often, where the person feels like “I’m seeing all of your feelings, but where are my feelings?” what’s really helpful is to enter into a shared goal. What is mutually important to us that we can both agree on? When you do that, you’re moving away from me vs. you and more to us together.

Gretchen: Probably, people might be more aware of how other people are hooked than how they are hooked. When it’s you, it feels so justified.

Susan: There are key signs that our emotions are driving us. Number one: are you in busy mind? Busy mind is when you’re starting to plan conversations—I’m going to say such and such and then he’s going to say this and that.

Gretchen: Rehearsing, yes.

Susan: When you do that, you know that you are likely hooked.

Second: we often get hooked in patterned ways. Imagine you grew up in a family where it was very difficult to state your needs. You might have learned that how you get by is to make yourself invisible. When I show up too much, when I make my needs known, I’m belittled. Or maybe you’ve always held back in relationships because from a young age that was what you were taught. Now, you’re struggling to feel intimacy and connection.

Another way we get hooked is when we get so focused on being right that we forget to ask, “Is this helping me?” In so many aspects of our lives, leaders, managers, parents become so focused on being right that they forget to ask themselves, “Is this thing actually serving me?”

Sometimes we have arguments that we struggle to let go of. Being right is well and good, but as individuals, we still get to choose how we want to react, and sometimes what that means is to let go and hold lightly our opinions.

Gretchen: Right. No matter what you think is most important, you can always choose to do something out of love for someone else. Maybe you think it’s ridiculous that your family wants to get up at 8 a.m. and open Christmas presents when you could all sleep late, but you could still choose it out of love.

What would you say is the key definition of emotional agility?

Susan: The ability to have any number of difficult thoughts, feelings, and stories.

“Life is fragile, and often a struggle, and doesn’t go according to plan. The world is not perfect, and we need to develop a skill set that enables us to navigate the world as it is, not as we want it to be.”

Gretchen: It’s not that you’re happy all the time.

Susan: No, because life is fragile, and often a struggle, and doesn’t go according to plan.

The world is not perfect, and we need to develop a skill set that enables us to navigate the world as it is, not as we want it to be. Emotional agility is the ability to experience any number of difficult thoughts, feelings and experiences and still make choices and bring yourself forward in ways that are values-aligned, connected and intentional.

I talk about key skill sets. One: showing up, being open to emotions. Two: stepping out, how you create space in practical ways between yourself and your experiences as well as the ability to perspective take in others.

Third is walking your why. We are so often subject to social contagion. Someone gets upset so we get upset. Someone’s looking at their cell phone, we look at our cell phone. Yet if we have a stronger sense of what our values are…there’s this amazing body of research showing that values are not these arbitrary, bizarre things that are cheesy and abstract. Really, they are qualities of action that are critical in helping us to be effective and agile.

Then the fourth is tiny tweaks. How do you make tiny tweaks to your habits, your motivation and your mindset that help you to use your values and not be driven by your emotions and thoughts in very practical, everyday experiences?

Gretchen: Also, you have this great manifesto. If you’re struggling with this, coming up with your own manifesto is a great way to get clarity of thoughts. What are some of the highlights?

Susan: The first is this: accept your full self, good and bad emotions, the whole package with compassion, courage and curiosity. Acceptance is a prerequisite for change. This is critical. We live in a world where so often it feels like we are in a never-ending Ironman competition and that if you’re compassionate towards yourself, you must be kidding yourself, weak, or lazy. It is the opposite.

People who create a safe space for themselves are more honest with themselves, they are more able to change effectively because they aren’t self-punishing. It doesn’t mean you need to act on your emotions, but there is no emotion that is wrong or right.

Gretchen: It’s like saying if I’m jealous because my sister got this great promotion, that’s so wrong of me. I should feel happy. The “should.”

Susan: Let go of that.

Gretchen: That’s good.

Susan: Also, think of areas in your life where you have what I call “dead people’s goals.”

Dead people’s goals: I don’t want to be rejected, to fail, to get anxious, to be disappointed. Dead people are the only people who never get disappointed, who never get anxious, who never get rejected, who never fail. Do we really want dead people to be our role models? If we open our hearts to the fullness of human experience and our human emotions, we can incorporate that sometimes we will be disappointed, but that’s what life is.

“Courage is not an absence of fear. Courage is fear, walking.”

Another one: often when people are going into difficult situations they’ll say things like, conquer fear, get rid of your fear. As an emotions researcher, fear is such an important emotion. It helps us to understand where we’re experiencing threat. Abandon the idea of being fearless. Instead, walk directly into your fears with your values as your guide towards what matters to you. Courage is not an absence of fear. Courage is fear, walking.

Gretchen: Like I am terrified of the thought that I’m going to get up in front of 30 people and give the presentation tomorrow, but I’m acknowledging that I feel afraid, because the fear can be constructive.

Susan: Yes, and doing that presentation might be a core part of who you want to be in your career, so it’s towards what is critical to you.

Last one: learn how to hear the heartbeat of your own why. We so often live our lives in our heads, intellectualizing, and stop thinking about what is truly important. Often people have goals, but the goals are what I call have-to goals. They’re driven by a sense of shame or obligation.

Gretchen: “My parents are expecting me to go to medical school.”

Susan: Right. I feel shamed into doing it. Many of us even wrap ourselves up in have-to language. “I have to go to the meeting.” “I have to be on dad duty today.” As soon as we have to do something, our brains want us to do the opposite. We push and reject.

A want-to goal is a goal that is driven by an intrinsic sense of what’s important to you: “I’ll feel better” or “I’ll see my children grow up.” When we have want-to goals that are connected with what’s truly important to us, those goals are more likely to be sustained over time, and more likely to be effective when there’s stress.

Gretchen: How do I stop a runaway train of negative emotions when I don’t even want to be saying what I’m saying in that moment? When you’re feeling overtaken, hooked. Where you hear yourself saying these mean things and you’re like, “I’m regretting it and yet I can’t resist it.”

Susan: When people have runaway difficult emotions, it’s often because they have been trying to push those emotions aside. Our emotions don’t tend to come out of nowhere. Often we start having physiological reactions.

Gretchen: Like your heart starts pounding.

Susan: Yes. You feel a knot in your stomach. Those can be precursors to these runaway emotions. A lot of people find that mindfulness can help you to start to notice your emotions before they get there, and it’s a skill that can be cultivated.

One of the things that I think is so important is to appoint yourself the agent of your own life and take ownership of your own development, career, work, and connections. So many of us have this struggle, and I completely empathize with it. It’s unlikely that my eight-year-old son is going to come up to me and say, “Mommy, why don’t you take a day at the spa?” It’s unlikely that my in-laws are going to spontaneously offer to babysit so that I can go away for a weekend.

Part of our responsibility is about being able to recognize this in ourselves, recognize that while we can show up to other people, we also need to show up to ourselves. It’s not necessarily about changing everything. Sometimes it’s about these small pockets that you make for yourself.