Bottlers, Brooders & Battlers: How do you deal with negative emotions?
Feeling stuck in a negative emotional state happens to all of us. It is astounding what the mind can get up to: reliving the past, defeating and redundant tapes can play uninterrupted, if we let them. Sometimes we so fiercely need to be right, to believe in a world that is just, we unintentionally block ourselves from feeling any compassion or forgiveness for others.
Susan David, in her book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, identifies three general categories of how we ineffectively deal with negative emotional states.
Bottlers are those of us who stuff unwanted negative feelings. We are unaware of what we are feeling until it leaks out in an unexpected way. This can sometimes be masked as a sort of false acceptance that “life is hard” or “it is what it is,” when we are actually avoiding what we simply don’t want to experience.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, are Brooders, we drown in difficult feelings as we continually torment ourselves with reliving regrets or hurts of the past. We believe we can think our way out of negative emotions. We think that pouring over details and events will help us figure out the situation causing our negative feeling state.
David doesn’t have a name for the third category, but I would label them Battlers. As Battlers, we do everything we can to remain optimistic and fight off negative emotions. You might recognize us as the ones who say, “It could be worse.” While focusing on what we have to be grateful for can be helpful, when we compare our suffering to others in a way that minimizes what we are experiencing, it doesn’t serve us well.
Bottlers are unaware of the influence of negative feelings on their behavior and wellbeing, Brooders are completely submerged in their own perspective and pain, and Battlers are swatting away anything negative to remain optimistic. David suggests a better way to get unstuck: mindfulness and self-compassion.
First, we need to practice observing our thoughts. This does a few helpful things for us. It helps us become more aware of what we are feeling, and, as an observer, we can detach from our own thoughts. Looking at the situation causing our negative feelings from another perspective can be helpful, too. So often, we treat ourselves in a way we would never even treat a stranger, let alone a close friend. Having self-compassion is a process of treating yourself as you would treat a friend. David points out that our negative emotions can be road signs showing us where we have gotten off track in our life. She defines emotional agility as being “about choosing how you’ll respond to your emotional warning system…it’s about loosening up, calming down, and living with more intention.”