Recently, I was talking with a coaching client who brought up a great issue to examine: what’s the difference between sitting with my stuff, and wallowing?
At this point, you’ve probably gotten hip to the fact that wallowing isn’t cool. The very word itself conjures up images of sitting in wet, swampy muck. Stuckness. Hopelessness. Feeling sad or defeated, or perhaps even a little pissed, yet being a total victim and doing very little about making any changes whatsoever.
Yet at this point, you’ve probably also heard the true yet seemingly contradictory message that it’s important not to avoid your “stuff,” since whatever you repress just gets stronger. This is where things can feel a bit confusing when you’re trying to figure out how to be present with what you feel. You’re not serving yourself by pretending you aren’t sad when you’re really sad, pretending you’re not angry when you want to tell so-and-so exactly what you think of them.
So what’s the difference between sitting with your stuff as a presence practice, and wallowing?
The difference is in the Story.
Stories are those repeated, habitual assumptions that we make about life, to the point where those Stories might go unquestioned. Some serve us well, aka, the Story that people are generally full of good intentions and do their best serves you, while the Story that people are selfish and mean probably doesn’t.
When someone is wallowing in negative emotions, the Story is likely to have elements of the following: Why does this happen to me? This always happens…it never works out…I’m always right back here, again…life just doesn’t work for me…someone else is so much better…I don’t know what to do…I’m just so confused…I’m so sick of things being this way. My life feels like it’ll never change.
When someone is simply sitting with their stuff, the Story is more likely to be something like this: I don’t like how this feels, and I notice that I really want to [ act out XYZ pattern. ] I’m so sad right now; I keep thinking that life feels pointless. So what do I really need right now, that wouldn’t involve staying here? Man, though. I notice that this sadness feels difficult. This sucks. I don’t like it. But okay. I’m here. This isn’t going to last forever.
Notice that with either Story, the sadness/the feeling is acknowledged. But with the second Story, the sadness is not tied into a history (there’s no “it’s always been this way”) or a future (there’s no “it’s never going to change”). There’s also a lot of presence around simply what is: the person is feeling sad.
Perhaps you need to have your blood drawn, or go to the dentist. Usually, people don’t like either of these experiences. When having blood drawn, it’s possible that you’re thinking, “Yuck, ew, I hate this, this hurts, I don’t want to be here.”
Yet you sit there, you let the blood be drawn. Perhaps you even cry. You’re totally present to the fact that this hurts and you don’t like it, but you don’t pull that into a Story that it has always been this way and always will be.
With this pain, you’re willing to acknowledge that the discomfort is temporary, nor does it define who you are or what’s possible.
Having said this, be gentle with yourself. Because good gravy, I’m not suggesting that in the immediate aftermath of a painful situation, you need to leap to a dissection of whether or not you’re wallowing.
Sometimes, we all wallow. We all experience shocks and traumas and pain that feel permanent and soul-defining.
For instance, when we first hear that someone has died, it’s normal to have a period of time where it does feel like the pain won’t end, or to question the point/pointlessness of life.
Standing in Power
This isn’t about perfectionism and striving to even handle your pain “correctly.”
This is about making space for all of the parts of ourselves that are human–including the places where we might be inclined to wallow–and at the same time, have a framework for stepping out of the pain and not letting it define you any more than you’d view having bloodwork or dental work done as a terminal pain sentence.
We have the ability to examine, get curious about, and sit with rather than running a Story that is based in the past or made up from anxieties in the future. It’s the Story telling that really makes us suffer. As Cheri Huber says, “Suffering is optional.”