Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Is Your "Bucket" Leaking?

Leaking psychological buckets can make people say or do unkind things.

Each of us has a psychological “bucket.”

It’s our inner reservoir of positive energy that enables us to engage other people with good will, kindness, consideration, generosity, care and concern, acceptance, and respect.

And all of our buckets are leaky, to some extent or other.

At those times when our buckets are pretty well topped up, and not leaking very much, we feel good about ourselves and we’re likely to act in ways other people experience as “nourishing”—we help them feel good about themselves.

And when our internal buckets get leaky, we’re more inclined to treat others in ways they experience as “toxic”— we say and do things that cause them to feel offended, insulted, ignored, devalued, disrespected, unappreciated, or unloved.

Most of us manage to keep our buckets fairly well topped up, most of the time. Some days we’re more “up” than others, but over the long run most of us realize the value of expressing this positive energy to those around us.

And then there are some people whose buckets are chronically low and leaky.

You can easily detect leaking psychological buckets in operation when people (including you) say or do unkind things. The person who likes to “needle” others; the one who always has to be right; the one who’s the chronic debater; the one who’s always showing how smart he is and how dumb everybody else is; the one who boisterously calls attention to herself; the one who’s just rude and insensitive – all have leaky buckets.

When their self-esteem and self-confidence start to sag, their internal buckets start to leak, and they run low on the energy of kindness. They feel the need to “do a number” on somebody. The result: toxic behavior and alienation from others.

Check Your Bucket for Leaks

You can conclude that your internal bucket is leaking or getting low at a particular moment if:

  • You’re moody, short-tempered, and don’t feel friendly.
  • You “fly off the handle” at small provocations.
  • You start an argument with somebody over something they’ve said, and you refuse to call a truce until you’ve defeated them – to your satisfaction.
  • You feel the impulse to “fix” somebody – giving them unsought advice; preaching to them; showing them they’re wrong; or making fun of them.
  • You “kick the cat” – or a person – who happens to come along when you’re angry or irritated about something they had no part of.

Think about the toxic behaviors you’ve seen in others – and in yourself – and add your own symptoms to this short list.

How Do You Fix a Leaky Bucket?

The fix for a leaky bucket is to put yourself into a better mood. Find that generous, caring person in yourself again, and let him or her take over. Part of the emotional recharge is mental – changing your “attitude” in a few seconds, and part of it is actually physical.

For example, you can change your mood by changing your posture. Stand up, look up, stretch your arms overhead, take in a few deep breaths, and remind yourself how lucky you are to be alive. Move around, exercise your muscles, take a few more deep breaths, “become a better person.”

Then, bring up the “attitude of gratitude.” Find the memory of that special feeling state you’re in when you’re OK with the world. You’re grateful for all that you have in life, and you want the best of everything for others as well. Let that feeling fill up your body – or your bucket – and you’ll find it much easier to give positive energy to others.

And, as you and I well know, what you give is what you get back.

Karl Albrecht is a management consultant and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He studies cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. He is the author of many books including Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: the Art and Science of Common Sense, and Mindex Thinking Style Profile. The Mensa society honored him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence. Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.


More from Karl Albrecht Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today