Feeling foul? Why wallowing works

Feeling foul? Why wallowing works

The other day I woke up annoyed. I was irritated by the sock in the middle of the hallway; I was overwhelmed by what winter had hidden on my lawn. I was vexed by my teenage daughter’s eye rolling and deep sighing. An old hip injury was painful. I had a pile of writing and speaking work to be done, my fridge needed cleaning out, and I kind of wanted to run away.
There wasn’t anywhere to run.
So I did the next best thing: I sat in it.
I know all kinds of people that say wallowing isn’t such a good idea. But I find it rather useful.
In a world where “buck up” is almost a mantra, this thinking requires some further explanation. I used to believe that wallowing was a bad thing, too. I grew up in this culture that says things like, “Think positive!” and, beyond the grammatical problems with that statement, I always suspected that the people who were trying to think positively were struggling against so much that it was like trying to hold a dam in place with wild, rushing waters threatening any minute.
When I used to get annoyed, I would compound the problem by becoming irritated at my annoyance. I’d start to say things to myself like, “Hey, life is good, knock it off, and get over it.” Or, I’d repeat some of the classic lines that not-so-helpful people have recommended, “If you would just relax, everything would be fine.” Oh, yes, women, just relax. Can we get a new record, please?  The pressure behind that dam would build.
If I still couldn’t suppress my little fit of feelings, I would remind myself that there are other people in the world that have it a lot harder than me. I should feel grateful. The dam would start sprouting leaks.
And if none of that worked, the damn dam burst free. I’d lash out at the people around me, generally, the people I love the most.  Then I would add a layer of guilt and shame and anxiety for being horrible to people.
Whew. How completely exhausting.
photo courtesy of Becky Wetherington
I just want to say right here that I am not a particularly neurotic person. I am pretty sunny most of the time, pretty steady, and pretty clear, even if I do say myself. Most people who know me might be surprised to see these internal workings. I point this out for all of you who are taking this opportunity to distance yourself from the ramblings of a crazy woman.
Likely thing? I’m no crazier than you.
Most people have their own version of the dam. What would happen if we disassembled the dam? Because we can spend a whole lot of valuable energy holding that thing up. If we have the feelings, they need to be dealt with in some practical way.  
Over time, I realized that the dam wasn’t my friend. If I’m going to have decent relationships, if I’m going to be productive in the world, if I’m going to be real, the water has got to flow. That means that all those feelings have to be set free.
This brings us back to the wallowing.
When I pay attention to, and accept, and clearly identify my annoyance or my anger or my depression or my whining or my complaining, a funny thing happens. The hard feeling dissipates a lot faster. It feels a lot better. It is a lot more real.
Of course these kinds of big feelings generally aren’t welcome in polite society, and sadly, not in many of our families. It can be hard to be around difficult feelings that we’ve been programmed to avoid and even shun. But you know what? Human beings are going to get pissy. It’s just part of the deal. So how are we going to deal with it when it happens to us?
Most people can handle me saying, “Hey, I’m having a tough morning. Nothing to do with you.” In fact, that’s often a relief to hear, since often it’s obvious anyway. Note, too, that that statement takes full responsibility for the foul mood. Our foul moods are our own creation. No one does it to us, we do it to ourselves.
So wallow a bit. Recognize and name all the stuff that’s going on: annoyed about this, raging mad about that, sad about the other thing. Maybe write a list of all the things swirling around. It’s there anyway. None of it will go calmly away if you ignore it. Calling it what it is often has the power of softening it. Recognition and acknowledgement is often all that we need from each other. We need the same thing from ourselves.
When we deal with the reality of our foul moods, they start to lose their power. With experience, we can delve in and find the reasons behind our anger, our sadness, and our annoyance. Can we do something differently? And then, yes, we can relax into the discomfort. We can think good thoughts.
Last week, I knew right away why I got into a foul place: not enough sleep, too much work, not enough meditation. If I don’t take care of myself, my mind and my body are great at pointing that out in clear and recognizable terms. Our bodies and minds are an excellent self-correcting system. We just have to listen to it and not shove it all away when it’s letting us know something isn’t right. When I am well rested and cared for, I see and interact with the world really differently. It’s like wearing an entirely different set of eyeglasses. Another day, a sock in the hallway wouldn’t have fazed me. I’d have seen the buds on the trees instead of the toys on the ground. I would marvel at the great vocabulary in my teenager’s tirade. Same world, different perspective. This is, of course, what people want you to do when they tell you to “think positive.” But you can’t see the beauty of the world if your internal landscape isn’t well-tended.  
The world persists as a jewel waiting to be admired. When we’re well cared for, we don’t have to work to see that.


  1. I like that you bring this up. I’m a big believer in honoring the process. I don’t believe that one emotion has more value than another just by being more positive. I think each emotion has its place and needs us to reckon with it. What you suggest seems not so much wallowing truly as it is honoring. Even the negative feelings. Being present with one’s emotions allows us to dig down to the roots when we’re ready. If we didn’t acknowledge the “weed” in the first place, and just saw the flowers, we wouldn’t be able to identify it’s source and potential uses!

    I remember, however, recognizing a distinct difference between wallowing and allowing myself full expression of emotions. Grieving is a good example. Loss of a loved one or of a relationship can create such deep emotion, it may feel like it will never end. And in some ways, it never does. When we lose someone or something we love, that loss is always felt, although becomes less acute over time. True wallowing seems to me an experience that drags on in an unhealthy manner. It manifests as a dwelling (to an extreme degree) on the negative and only the loss rather than the process.

    Thank you again for your insight. I love the phrase, “You can’t see the beauty of the world if your internal landscape isn’t well-tended…” Here’s to tending!

  2. Moonflowers, you are so right about the possibility of unhealthy wallowing. In this article, I’m using the definition of wallowing that is “to devote oneself entirely.” When we devote ourselves to acknowledging and, as you say, honoring, these feelings, they don’t gum up the works. Even something as profound as grief can shift and become lighter.
    And yes! to the tending!


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