Where is the line between being willing to feel sadness in the spirit of wholeheartedness and pursuing a broader course of misery?
Sometimes, sadness happens. It just grips us in the moment. And, depending on the context, we need to decide whether to lean into it or redirect our focus.
Leaning into it can manifest in healthier and unhealthier ways: It might be a mechanism for processing one's feelings. Or it can be debilitating and cause one to slip in to a more persistent depressive state. I don't think there's a blanket answer, but my own experience suggests that, other things equal, when an emotion pipes up, it's a good idea to listen to it and give it the space it needs. That doesn't mean to thoughtlessly emote all over everybody around you, but it does mean sitting with it, finding a safe/constructive way to express it (laughing, crying, yelling, retching, writing, talking). We do have to regulate our behavior in contextually appropriate ways, but that doesn't undermine the need and value and ability of feeling all the feels.
Similarly, redirecting focus can manifest in healthier and unhealthier ways: It might be a way of guiding our emotional recalibration or simply needing to defer emotional processing because of more immediate demands and values. Or if it's a pattern, it can be a dangerous form of repression that later spills out as anger.
So imagine there's a particular stressor, especially if chronic, such as challenges at work, the death of a family member, difficulties in a romantic relationship, or a falling out with a close friend.
A number of things might unintentionally trigger feelings:
- an acute "incident"
- a photo that comes up on a smart display's rotation
- a song that comes on in a playlist shuffle
- a scene in a TV show
- an offhand comment by a friend
But once one is starting to have the emotional reaction, one might engage in activities that intensify the emotion:
- listen to more triggering music
- looking through more photos
- ruminating / spinning out
- talking to a friend
- writing in a journal
The question is whether these behaviors of intensifying the emotions are useful and healthy or whether they are harmful:
- Do these behaviors aid in processing emotions, or do they amount to pursuing a course of more misery?
- What factors are relevant in figuring out the best course in any given context?
- What is the connection between short-term effects and long-term effects?
- Does the willingness to feel great despair (and fully leaning into it when it happens) have the seemingly paradoxical effect of lessening the frequency or intensity of despair? (Perhaps this is indirect, since it has to do with processing things before they escalate to the level of despair?)
- Is it a good idea to retain emotional triggers (eg, keep that photo from a funeral in a rotation, keep the association of a particular song with a former lover)?
- Is the willingness to lean into (even frequent) "depressive episodes" the same as "being depressed"? Depression and sadness are unpleasant, sure--we generally want less--but why do we have this pathologizing stigma associated with depression?
- What factors contribute to resilience to depressive states? Feelings of worthiness and lovability? Self-esteem?
- At what point does "wallowing" perpetuate the depressive state in the way that some kinds of inflammation are self-perpetuating? At what point and how might one use the psychological analog of ibuprofen to help establish a more even-keeled baseline?
My personal disposition is to "wallow", and not just about sad things, but whatever the equivalent would be for anxiety and anger and joy. It's just a consistent policy of embracing strong, deep feelings about all the things. What works for me is having my emotional volume turned up to 11. (And I have to be careful about vomiting that intensity all over other people, whether of the unpleasant or joyous variety.) I love having myself a good cry when I'm sad. Getting in the mood for that and intensifying that mood by listening to sad music allows me to process that sadness. Because I don't experience emotions and (logical/cognitive) analysis as separate phenomena, this also comes up for me as ruminating or "spinning out" about past, present, and future. I can't articulate how that processing works in either psychological or physiological terms. But I can tell you that I feel more "complete" when I've done that, rather than just distracting myself with something fun. It's a way of being present with what is instead of trying to reject it through what, for me, would amount to repression. (Sure, I can defer a cry for a later time if the feelings come up at an inconvenient time, say, during a work meeting, but I'm not engaging in a pattern of indefinite repression.) Even the "spinning out" about the past or the future, which may seem like it takes me away from being present, helps me to get a better grip on the present by understanding its place in the overall causality.
So I certainly embrace the term "wallowing", but I guess we need to be careful to not let it be used as an equivocation between proper leaning into discomfort and the pursuit of a self-destructive path.
A Conversation with Natalia 2020-06-19
I'm concerned that your brain is busy thinking about the same thing so much.
You're absolutely right. I am definitely a ruminator. This is my typical way of processing things. And I think your concern is completely valid. I also don't know where the line is between leaning into things and being willing to experience and feel everything versus redirecting my focus and attention to things that are more pleasant. I guess things are going to come up as they come up; I'll do my best to deal with them and navigate it. There are definitely times when I'm "distracted" by friends, and I'm just fully present with them, even though I occasionally feel a pang of pain. But I promised my therapist I'd make this recording [about a thing that I've been wrestling with recently], and I have to tell you that creating this standalone artifact felt very cathartic. In a way, even though it was a manifestation of my rumination, it might have been helpful in terms of bringing me some amount of closure. I don't have the answers here, but I think it's ~okay~.
do you remember times when you were not in this state of mind?
Do you mean about this situation  in particular or as a general way of dealing with stuff that happens in my life?
In general. Do you remember being more present, peaceful?
No, I used to be less present and peaceful, but since I started meditating and becoming more mindful and observant of my mind's behaviors, I've been able to be more present and peaceful both when I'm alone and also with other people.
Maybe without those skills, my rumination was unhelpful, but nowadays, it's just part of my process. It is unpleasant to get wound up about things and get intensely involved, and I can also know that it's just what I need to do for the moment and that it will pass. That itself brings me some level of meta-peace, even if I'm still ruminating and "in it".
Abstractly, I don't think that rumination and presence are inherently at odds. That kind of thinking "busy mind" has its proper place, and I think that if we can frame it as a tool or process in a particular context, it can be helpful. For me, it helps with my understanding a situation, and it helps me to figure out how to deal with it effectively, thereby leading to (relative) closure. The real skill--not that I'm perfect at it--is in not getting swept away, but to see it happening and to choose it, rather than passively being at the mercy of cognitive forces you don't understand and cannot direct.
Interesting. My perception is that you were more peaceful when we talked on the boat
I mean, "peacefulness" has ebbs and flows. Perhaps in that moment, I happen[ed] to be more peaceful, in some sense of the term.
are you planning to live with this rumination all your life?
I guess I'm not planning one way or another. I'm okay with it. I see its value. Maybe it will subside over time. Or intensify. I don't know. But as long as I'm aware of how it's working, I can manage some of the risks / negative effects. For now, I'm not pushing it away just because it's unpleasant.
If you have no intent, it will likely stay (or get worse when you get more responsibilities, e.g. kids). Only you can decide what mental state you really want.
But I don't see it as a problem. I see it as a characteristic way of processing, one that I've become more skilled at (in terms of its effects) over time. It's fine if it intensifies, so long as I'm not helplessly at its mercy.
Rumination is a problem-solving and learning mechanism for me. It helps me to feel complete. Yes, it can be unpleasant. But that's okay.