Updated: Oct 5, 2021
I just finished reading Constructive Wallowing by Tina Gilbertson and wanted to share some of my musings on the topic. Although I have some issues with the writing, overall her message is very helpful. Basically she shares that wallowing, although often thought to be negative, is actually a positive way to acknowledge and release emotions. We do more damage to ourselves in the long run by trying to ignore our emotions rather than deal with them. Essentially, what we resist, persists. Big emotions can persist for years, causing other layers of emotional energy to pile up, which can be extremely damaging in the long run.
I see this in my energy work all the time. So much of our energy that gets stuck begins with an emotional experience in our past that never completely cleared. Over the years, more and more energy gets caught in the mess and our bodies start to cry out for help. If left unheeded, this cry for help turns into pain, disease, dysfunction, etc. Energy work is able to sort out the layers of old stuff and dig back to the original emotion to finally clear it.
But in order to make sure that new emotional energy doesn’t get stuck and start the cycle all over again, we have to learn how to release it in the present. If we deal with it now, it can’t build up and cause trouble in the future. That’s where techniques such as those I wrote about two weeks ago in Release Control of Your Emotions and the techniques outlined in this book come in.
Essentially, Tina Gilbertson’s primary technique is to notice an emotion, name it, release all resistance to ignoring it, and then actually take time to FEEL it. Feel it in your body. Wallow in it. Explore all the nuances. When you naturally feel ready, you let it go and move on. If the emotion comes back again later, you go through the process again. We continue this until it is completely gone. By not resisting it, we give it permission to move out of our bodies and we move on with our lives.
Obviously some feelings like grief will require more wallowing over larger cycles then anger that may spring up when your kids track mud all over the floor. Either way, though, the key to moving past the emotion without it building up is to take time to feel it.
Now, feeling an emotion is different than acting on it. You can feel angry at your kids about the mud on the floor without screaming at them. In fact, the more often you feel those kinds of emotions in those kinds of situations and let them go, the less likely you are to let them build up to the point where you need to scream. You are more likely to deal with the situation in a calm, adult fashion that holds your kids accountable while also gets the house cleaned up.
Seems pretty simple, right? Well, sometimes it isn't. People are pretty good at coming up with excuses to avoid their feelings (If I start feeling one then I have to feel them all!), or criticizing themselves for their emotions (I’m such a baby for being sad about that.), or feeling like they don’t deserve their emotions (What should I expect when I can’t control myself?). Probably the biggest stumbling block we have in our current (American) culture is this need to be POSITIVE all the time. The phrase I got from author Ora North's book I Don’t Want to be an Empath Anymore is “lightwashing.” We have this persistent need in popular culture to put a positive spin on everything, including our own feelings. Upset about something at work? Think of a good reason why that happened and only talk about that! Feeling down today? Fake it 'til you make it!
Particularly in the “New Age” and “mindfulness” movements, the thought of wallowing in bad emotions is similar to suggesting that you dive into a septic tank. All those bad vibes are terrible for you! You are going to curl up and die under the weight of your negative energy!
On the other hand, I find that religious communities tend to emphasize negative emotions (particularly fear, shame, anger, and disgust) and only allow a few positive emotions (while at the same time undermining your right to feel those emotions).
So it seems like we have an all-around unhealthy relationship with emotions that we need to deal with. A concept that appears in both Gilbertson’s and North’s books, is that we desperately need to expunge this idea that emotions are either positive or negative. They are, in fact, neither. Emotions just are. They are your natural reaction to the world you experience. You don’t criticize yourself when you feel hot or cold, do you? They are just physiological responses to your environment. Emotions are similar. They are your response to what goes on around you. Now, you do need to have some maturity and control of your emotions. If you come home one day to find your partner has spilled stuff all over the kitchen counters and then left, you could be understandably miffed. Having enough control to find out why that happened before screaming about it is probably a good idea. Maybe she/he ran out the door suddenly to help the neighbor who fell down in the driveway. Who knows?
So allowing yourself to feel your emotions doesn’t mean you have to enact those emotions physically or degenerate into a toddler without any control. What is does mean is that you:
Acknowledge that emotions are a fact of life. They happen. They are neither good nor bad.
Let most emotions go away on their own. The ones that persist need attention. They need to be felt and processed.
Take the time to actually feel your emotions and process them out in a way that doesn’t hurt yourself or anyone around you.
Get help if you can’t deal with your emotions or you can’t let them go for some reason. Don’t let them build up over the course of years and build into bigger problems down the road.
So how does this look in real life? Well, let me give you an example from my own life. Some close friends bought their first home last summer. Now, I’ve wanted to buy my own place for years. I’m talking like 15 years of dreaming and wishing. I’ve looked at many houses. I’ve had contracts on two that fell through. I’ve laid in bed at night dreaming of gardens and patios. So I hope you see that my friend’s beautiful new home with a yard and gardens made me feel envious. Envy is considered one of the seven deadly sins. Based on myths, legends, and about a million mystery novels, it is the base of all kinds of evil. However, since I saw envy from the perspective of a neutral emotion and something I simply felt as a reaction to the situation I found myself in, it was so much easier for me to non-judgmentally take some time to feel it. I felt how much I wanted the same thing. I felt my frustration at having to wait so long to get it. I even felt some grief over my past lost opportunities (although not much- looking back I realized none of those houses I almost purchased were good decisions). You know what happened? It all just melted away. I was able to visit my friends, work in their garden, discuss their decorating plans, and enjoy every moment of their excitement without any ill feelings on my part. It was pretty awesome.
Now, lest you think I have this emotional thing all worked out, I can assure you that I don’t always do so well in every situation.
You might say, “But Katie, that’s such a terrible example. My friends are all getting married before me and I’m so envious. That SO much harder to deal with!”
Ok, let’s talk about that. First, emotions are neither good nor bad. Second, neither are their levels of “hardness” or “difficulty.” One person’s envy isn’t harder to deal with or stronger than someone else’s envy. The envy is the same. It's just that your experience of it might be different than mine. As mentioned before, some emotions may cycle back into your consciousness and then you will have to feel them and let them go multiple times. I might be able to move through faster than you. You might have it cycle through more often than me. It doesn't make one "harder" or "easier." It's just how we each choose to feel it (or not).
Second, I don’t think you have any idea of how badly I want to own a house and garden. I’d much rather do that then get married. So our circumstances might be different but we have the same emotion. The fact that I released my emotion surprisingly quickly has more to do with my emotional work than the strength or difficulty of it. If you are finding that it is impossible to let go of an emotion, no matter how hard it is, it is likely that the problem is not how hard the emotion is, but is how much of that emotion is already stuck inside you. You are fighting today's emotion plus the combined total of the old stuff, which makes it much harder to deal with. The only way to deal with this problem is to go into the past and start excavating your old stuff.
Another way of saying this is if emotions are reactions (neither good nor bad) to your experience in the world, then you can’t compare your emotions to anyone else’s. In fact, it is hard to even compare your own emotions from various points in time as the person and circumstances that gave rise to those emotions can be wildly different. So, essentially, we need to drop all judgement surrounding emotions, what they are, how we feel them, and how hard they are to release. The time to deal with them is today.
So that wraps up my rambling thoughts on my latest read. Essentially, I think it is very healthy for us to get a point where we can feel our emotions and release them. Doing both keeps us in the present and avoids future complications from the build up of negative energy (both the New Age people and mindfulness people should be happy with that). It also makes us saner, more mature, and more healthy humans. Seems like a good deal all around.
So this week, start small by noticing and naming your emotions as they come up. See if you can feel them and then let them go. If not, you know this is a place you need to do more work.
If you want some other strategies to help you do this, check out my other blog post (mentioned above) Release Control of Your Emotions.
You can also read Erin Leyba's article 5 Ways to Honor Sadness Instead of Distracting From It.
If you think you have a big backlog of old emotions you need to release then contact me and we’ll talk about ways you can safely rid yourself of old stuff holding you back.