Disappointment is inevitable. That’s never nice to hear, but it is important that we start with that acknowledgement. None of us are guaranteed a one-way track to fulfilment; the road ahead will always feature bumps and diversions. It’s understandable, then, that disappointments and hardships can leave us just wanting to wallow in our unhappy emotions. To throw on some sad songs, forgo looking after ourselves, and just sit in the emotional swamp.
But, there’s a crucial distinction between engaging our negative emotions (which is good) and surrendering to them completely. Let’s take a look at that distinction and explore some helpful tips on how to handle disappointment in a healthy way.
What Do I Mean by “Wallowing”?
In this context, “wallowing” boils down to an unhealthy way of managing disappointment. Another term for this is “rumination”, in which we become stuck in a cycle of negativity – rather than traversing a journey of emotions toward progress and meaningful action. It may feel right to stay in one place at the time, but the long term view says otherwise.
Though some people may be more prone to wallowing or rumination than others, it is very important to note that anyone can slip into this behaviour. Because anyone can be affected, it’s also vital to not immediately leap to criticizing ourselves when we wallow.
What’s at Stake?
If we don’t move from unproductive wallowing to a more healthy alternative, we face the following potential effects:
- Psychological: Emotional wallowing can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and depression. It reinforces negative thought patterns and hinders emotional healing and resilience.
- Health: From a health standpoint, prolonged emotional wallowing can have physical consequences. Chronic stress, often associated with rumination, can weaken the immune system and contribute to various health problems.
- Interpersonal: In relationships, emotional wallowing can strain connections. Constantly dwelling on negative emotions can make it difficult to engage positively with others, leading to misunderstandings and conflict.
- Self-Development: When it comes to personal growth, emotional wallowing gets in the way of progress. As I mentioned earlier, this keeps us stuck in a cycle of negativity, preventing us from learning and moving forward from challenging experiences.
- Cognition: Cognitive psychologists emphasize that emotional wallowing reinforces cognitive biases like catastrophizing and black-and-white thinking, distorting one’s perception of reality.
How to Process Emotion in a Healthy Way
Rather than wallowing in response to adversity, here are some practical alternatives that can keep our minds and bodies healthy:
- Have a compassionate self-talk, and set events in perspective
- Practice mindfulness, to reconnect with the present moment and identify precisely how you’re feeling. One of our writers, Mariana, has written this practical article which can help you to start.
- If disappointment is causing you anxiety, try out some of these techniques to help reduce those feelings.
- Consider the empty chair exercise, in which you walk through how a friend/loved one/family member would describe your situation and its handling. This often leads us to realise that we’re accomplishing much more than at first appears.
- Create an action plan so you can address the forces causing you to wallow. Make sure large changes are broken down into smaller, achievable steps that will aid in your sense of progress and momentum. Achieving your goals can also improve your own sense of resilience (see Ellie Bull’s article), which is foundational when facing future challenges.
- If you find it extremely difficult to break the cycle then please see a mental health professional, who can best guide you.
A word of warning: the answer to wallowing is not to speed in the opposite direction and repress all our negative feelings. It is absolutely important to confront those negative emotions and ensure we understand them. We just need to make sure that we don’t lose our footing right before we step into meaningful change.