Wallowing

Where is the line between being willing to feel sadness in the spirit of wholeheartedness and pursuing a broader course of misery?

This page is a stub, created on 2020-04-22. Its contents are notes on the issues and angles I want to address about this topic.


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:

But once one is starting to have the emotional reaction, one might engage in activities that intensify the emotion:

The question is whether these behaviors of intensifying the emotions are useful and healthy or whether they are harmful:

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