Bittersweet is Susan Cain’s second book. Her first book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking changed the way we see introversion. It suddenly became cool to say, “I’m an introvert” and to appreciate introvert characteristics as strengths. Like she did in Quiet, by detailing how we became a culture obsessed with extroverts, in Bittersweet she explains that American culture is organized around the sanguine and choleric which is associated with strength. 


This sanguine-choleric outlook is forward leaning and combat ready. It tells us that to win friends and influence people we need to be tough, optimistic, and assertive. That we should possess the confidence to speak our minds. She states that over 30 000 books have been written around the pursuit of happiness and that we often judge ourselves for having negative emotions like grief and sadness. She also explains, in a way that makes you want to memorize her words, the power of embracing the bitter in life and how that can lead us to finding our true meaning. 


 I believe with Bittersweet Susan Cain will do for ‘bittersweet’ people what she did for introverts. Such is the power of her writing, research, and storytelling. And such is the brilliance of this book which I personally enjoyed more than Quiet, even though I am more an introvert than bittersweet. 


Bittersweetness, Cain explains is at the very heart of life. It’s a state that recognizes that light and dark, birth and death. Bitter and sweet are forever paired. It shows us, she says, how to respond to pain. And how does one do that? By acknowledging it and attempting to turn it into art, the way musicians do, or healing, or innovation or anything else that nourishes the soul. 


In one of the chapters, Cain shares clinical psychologist Dr Steven Hayes’ 7 skills for coping with loss. Dr Hayes founded acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) which teaches people to embrace their thoughts and feelings, including the difficult ones. It teaches us to use our pain as a source of information about what matters most to us and then act on it. ACT, Cain says is our invitation to investigate the bitter and commit to the sweet. 


It’s impossible to go through life without loss. If we are too afraid to open ourselves to pain, we cannot open ourselves to joy, they are inextricably linked. That together with the fact that I’m a believer in the importance of feeling your feelings, made me pick this small section to share as a small taste of the wisdom found in Bittersweet. It’s a book I’d encourage you to read. 


7 skills for coping with loss

In over a thousand studies spanning more than 35 years, Dr Hayes and his colleagues found that acquiring these skills predicts whether someone who faces loss falls into depression, anxiety, trauma, substance abuse – or whether they thrive. The first 5 skills involve accepting the bitter, the last 2 are about turning that bitter into sweet

  1. Acknowledge the loss
  2. Embrace the emotions that come with the loss. Allow yourself to feel that pain instead of trying to bury it or distract yourself from it
  3. Accept all your feelings, including those that may seem surprising or even inappropriate 
  4. Expect that sometimes you will feel overwhelmed 
  5. Watch out for unhelpful thoughts like “this is all my fault” or “life is unfair”
  6. Connect to what matters by realizing that the pain of loss can point you towards the things and people that matter most to you. 
  7. Take committed action by acting on what is close to your life and carry what is most meaningful to living a meaningful life.

Bittersweet is published by Penguin Random House and is available here 

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