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In Defense of Wallowing

by Ruth Gordon, LCSW

Most of the time I’m all about finding creative solutions, persisting at what you love to do, and trying to remember that life does not only dole out bad news. This month, however, I succumbed to self-pity and a feeling of doom. Two members of my family received some very bad and very serious medical news, and that, on top of everything else, led me to feel “What’s the use?”

Unlike some I’ve known who wish they could just check into a psychiatric hospital for a few days to regroup, that was most definitely not my wish. Having worked in a psychiatric hospital, I know that all instruments of possible harm, including shoelaces, tweezers, and pens are confiscated, as the staff focuses on keeping patients from harming themselves or others. Patients are kept behind locked doors and are usually surrounded by others who are in more distress than one could possibly imagine. No, a psychiatric hospital would not do it for me.

My plan was to run away to Tennessee (I’ve never been there, by the way). My husband, quite sensibly asked, “Why Tennessee?” “Maybe things will be simpler there,” said I. He looked at me like I was crazy and I had to admit that I was a tad insane. “OK, then I’m just giving up.” “What does that mean?”

Good question. Did I plan to take to my bed and bemoan my fate? Hardly! That would not be my style. What I did need to do, however, was give my stiff upper lip a rest as I wailed and carried on about how hard life had become.


To me, this feels counter intuitive. So, what happened? Well, I always tell my clients to accept all of their feelings, even the so-called negative ones. I know that when we fall into denial, we can, sometimes, squander our vitality just fighting off our true feelings. That is what I had been doing. I was so busy going, going, going that I wasn’t giving myself the opportunity to receive the comforting I needed from myself and others. Yes, I was frightened. Yes, I was exhausted. Yes, I felt too small to be able to do anything about the mountain of problems that had popped up on my plate.

As I was pushing myself to avoid what appeared to me to be the likelihood of multiple catastrophes, I managed to forget something very important. Sometimes, we lack the capability for doing anything at all about life’s circumstances. This is a time when it is very helpful if we happen to believe in a higher power.

Look, either you believe in a driving universal force or you don’t. Do you remember the old saying “There are no atheists in foxholes”? There are many ways in which one can interpret that maxim. One version could be that when we feel too slight to deal with our own setbacks it is a great comfort to believe in a power outside ourselves that offers some protection. It can be quite comforting to trust that there is order and meaning in the world.

It is so important to be able to recognize that we will probably encounter times when we find ourselves to be defenseless. At such times, we can allow ourselves to wallow in self-pity; for a short time. The guiding principle here is that this kind of self indulgence must never become a way of life. Overdone, we begin to feel like victims, which tends to leave us bitter and disappointed in ourselves and others. A time-limited emotional “vacation” during which we can allow ourselves to acknowledge our feelings of outrage and fear can be a very good thing .

We often ask, “Why is this happening to me”? I have stopped asking that question. First of all, I’m not sure why things should not happen to me. Secondly, I have a feeling that each of us is a small piece of a mosaic and that we’re not intended to see the whole picture. Finally, even if we could answer that question, we would still be required to deal with the circumstances at hand.

When confused as to what to do, try to remember that usually there is not just one way to solve a problem. Listen to yourself, and then take the kind of action that will allow you to look at yourself in the mirror and feel ok. You can never ask more of yourself than that.

None of us navigate this thing called life without running into some pretty confusing and uncomfortable passageways. At such times, treat yourself with kindness and do the best you can. That’s all you can do.

Ruth Gordon is licensed clinical social worker in both Massachusetts and Florida. For more information, please visit her listing on the Therapist Directory. This article may not be reprinted, reproduced, or retransmitted in whole or in part without the express written consent of the author.

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