How do we manage our relationship with our self when we are not feeling too good? This short blog seeks to help. I wrote it with no particular aim in mind but a couple of people read it and found it helpful so they suggested I share it for others to benefit. Feel free to share it further if you think it might help.
Feeling Down? Try Wallowing
For quite a long time, since the nineteen-eighties, I’ve had the notion that the best thing to do with a depressive turn is to go with it, live in it and even go for full scale wallowing.
My reasoning, more widely shared these days, is that fighting depressive tendencies just entrenches things further and for longer. Depressive thinking is a form of communication to yourself that all is not perfect. Trying to fight that, fly from that or ignore it are all ways of refusing to acknowledge that a) something is wrong and b) it’s probably not going to go away on its own. Much better to accept it and try to engage with it and understand it. The first task is just to be with it.
I am depressed. Ok I am depressed. Let’s just take some time to ‘be depressed’. It can be uncomfortable, even excruciating, but better to hang with it than try to shoo it away. That’s not going to work. Where do you think it’s going to go? It is in you. If you try to get rid of it inappropriately, it will just lodge, like a destructive tenant, in another part of you – one that might be even more susceptible to damage.
Why would you choose to ‘wallow’ in depression?
Rather than wasting your energy trying to fight off or actively ignore your depression what you need to do instead is accept that it is there. But we can go further to accommodate our depression. Rather than seeing it as some horrific enemy that we need to battle, we need to recognise that that will not do any good. That will just deplete our limited energy, make us feel even more frustrated and it won’t get rid of the depression anyway. Few people want to actively welcome a depression but there is some mileage in thinking about your depression as a message from yourself to yourself, to pay attention to how you are feeling and explore if you need to do anything to change things in your life so that you feel less depressed.
But even if you don’t want to actively welcome your depression, the best thing you can do is to wallow in it. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a martyr to the cause of depression. Martyrs need an audience. If you are playing your depression for an audience, you probably need to think about why and if the audience is the correct one and, crucially, that it is, in fact, paying attention.
The wallowing I have in mind is the quietly miserable and self-indulgent space you can allow yourself when you feel depressed. That will be a different experience for different people but the most obvious option for most people will be their bed or couch.
Get yourself into a safe, warm and comfortable place. Hunker down with whatever you need to feel physically safe and comfortable. You may be tempted to comfort eat. Try not to as that just causes other problems. But if you must, do so without feeling guilt. Hug yourself. Ask yourself why you are feeling depressed. Feel the feeling of depression in your body. Really try to feel it and live with it. Tell yourself you are feeling depressed and that is ok. Try to acknowledge the physical discomforts of feeling depressed. These are different for different people but you might feel any, all or none of the following: nausea, head spinning, lethargy, a feeling of weight in your shoulders or chest, a kind of bodily emptiness, feeling cold or shivery, a heavy heart, an upset stomach, watery eyes and tears, wracking sobs. You may feel many other things. Try to stay with the feelings and let them play themselves out.
How do you wallow in depression?
To really wallow in depression, you need to go a stage further than just being with the bodily feelings that you experience. To wallow, you need to induce your mind to engage with the scenarios and thoughts that make you feel depressed. Ask yourself what it is that is making you feel so down. For some people that will be an unanswerable question. Sometimes we get depressed precisely because we don’t know what is making us miserable. And sometimes we really don’t want to know as knowing would mean we would have to confront unpalatable truths – about ourselves, or others. But for many, just hanging with the question – what is making me sad, can allow enough space for us to try perspectives that can be enlightening and enabling. Don’t try to push this process too far and too fast. Recall that in wallowing you are not necessarily looking for results but rather giving yourself permission to be depressed when you need to be.
Sometimes we are all too aware already about what it is we are depressed about. If we have lost someone or something dear to us, we may be deeply saddened by that. Rather than telling ourselves to get over it or move forward, we need to take the time to stay with distress, pain or disappointment.
Wallowing can involve no more and no less than simply allowing ourselves to cry or just ‘be’. For many people, allowing themselves the space to just ‘be’ or indeed, to just ‘be sad’ will feel like an impossibility. Many people are programmed to be active, to try to take control of situations, to not give in to uncomfortable feelings. For you, the task of letting go and allowing yourself to just stay with feelings of upset, pain or discomfort, may be very difficult but I urge you to try.
We are used to the idea of wallowing as being something that pigs or hippopotamuses do in mud. The idea of sliding into a mud bath may or may not appeal to us when we are feeling down. But that sense of letting go, maybe reverting to an earlier and simpler time in our lives and just allowing ourselves to sink a bit, might, surprisingly, allow us to find the necessary strength to climb out of the mire and begin to find a better way forward for ourselves.
What people who are able to wallow report is that by allowing themselves to slide into a wallowing state for a while, their depression lifts much sooner than if they tried to do battle with it and that the wallowing itself sometimes gives them the mental and emotional space to figure some things out about their low feelings.
For most people, wallowing will be something they would want to do on their own, however, if you have supportive friends or a partner who will allow you to wallow without trying to cheer you out of your depression or alternatively get worried that you will sink too far, then enlist their empathic help.
I am not suggesting that wallowing is a cure. I am not suggesting that wallowing is appropriate for people with excessive levels of clinical depression. And I am not suggesting wallowing as an alternative to getting professional help. But for those of us who hit low times periodically and need a strategy to get us through, wallowing is a useful option to hold in our arsenal.