When A Little Wallowing Is OK

Katie Young
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Wednesday - January 10, 2007
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Psychologist Lynn Goya
Psychologist Lynn Goya

We all know that life can throw some curve balls. There are plenty of problems, heartbreaks and disappointments to go around. I imagine we all try to deal the best way we can, but when trying to figure out how to cope with my own life issues, I can’t ever recall a time when someone advised me to, “Go ahead, feel sorry for yourself. It’s OK.”

Most times, when something has you feeling down, friends and family will offer encouraging words to try to move you into a better mood.

“Look to the future!” they might say. “You’re better off anyway.” Or “Think about the positive, don’t focus on the negative.” Or “Everything happens for a reason. There’s a silver lining behind this dark cloud.”

But I wondered, is there ever a time when it’s OK to wallow in your pain?

According to Lynn Goya, Psy.D., a member of the Hawaii Psychological Association in group private practice, wallowing is not only normal, it’s important.

“First, let’s reframe the word ‘wallowing,’ ” says Goya. “That word suggests self-pity. Instead, let’s say it’s learning to accept and experience the pain. Often, people are afraid to feel sad or they feel ashamed about feeling sad, but that sadness is really a normal and healthy human emotion.”

For example, let’s say your loved one passes away or you break up with your significant other, or maybe you lose your job. Goya says expressing the heartbreak and disappointment you feel will help you move through the stages of dealing with the situation.

“Cutting the experience short, or saying ‘just get over it,‘is often what we call denial, and it simply pushes the issue underground,” explains Goya. “If you just tell someone not to think about it or deal with it, it will resurface again later at an inopportune time.”

It’s important to go through the process of grieving in these situations that involve loss, no matter what that loss is.

And while it’s important for us as individuals to work through the pain, oftentimes we turn to loved ones and friends to help us through the tough moments, finding comfort in venting or talking to others about our feelings.

It’s a knee-jerk reaction, says Goya, for those close to us to offer up a positive spin on a turbulent situation. After all, no one wants to see someone they care about in pain.

However, Goya adds, maybe it’s all right to validate someone’s hurt feelings by saying, “It’s OK to be sad. I understand you’re hurting right now.”

But beware of those who wallow too long. “It gets to be of concern if the person stays stuck in feeling sorry for themselves and grieving, and doesn’t move on with their life,” Goya says. “People start to think thoughts like the world is unfair and against them. Thoughts like this can keep a person from constructively dealing with the situation because it comes from a place of feeling like they have no control over the situation or they’re a victim of everything.”

Think back and you might recall a friend or family member who wallowed too long. It’s a fine balance and one can easily get carried away. But Goya says if you’re wallowing for longer than a couple of months - if you can’t sleep, you’ve lost your appetite and have no interest in doing the things you used to like to do - then you might need professional help.

And if you’re a friend who is trying to figure out how to best help another friend through a difficult time in their life, remember being sad is a normal and natural part of the healing process.

Goya suggests helping get the person out of the house to do things, even if they don’t really feel like it. “That social support is really critical to feeling better,” she says.

Most importantly, know that after the sadness, after you work through the pain, acceptance will come. That’s when you can dig yourself out of the muck and be positive, see the silver lining and look to the future!

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