Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 28, 2014


What is the difference between wallowing and self-reflection? Jon, my frequent commenter (is that a word?), brings up this discussion. To stay with pain, with affect, requires a patience and tolerance for discomfort. To run quickly away from this discomfort brings about defensiveness and limited understanding of deep processes. On the other hand, to stay in a place of pain, can mean a paralysis, which to caring others, can be frustrating and difficult. Where is this line between paralysis and sitting? This is the challenge of my work, both as a psychotherapist and as a blogger who hopes to bring psychological issues, and their struggles to the forefront. As a teacher of psychoanalysis, sitting with pain is a consistent theme in my class. Helping people just sit with their experience, without a mandate for change, is often the first step towards deepening one’s understanding of one’s experience. The effort to sit with challenging feelings creates a variety of reactions in others. Anger, withdrawal, somatic symptoms, can all be manifestations of this resistance to self-reflection. Ina, forty-two, comes to mind. “My husband keeps telling me that I should get over the death of my father, which has already been six months, but I still feel a lot of pain around that,” she says, as if wanting me to get mad at her husband. “And how do you handle that?” I inquire. “I tell him he is an asshole and I leave the room,” she says, as if I already knew that. “Maybe you could explain to him that this is where you are in your journey, and you hope he can understand that and be patient with you.” I say, giving her words to help her husband help her deal with her loss. “I guess I feel guilty for not being over it,” Ina says, helping to clarify her mental space. “That guilt is something we can explore,” I say, feeling hopeful that our work is going to lower levels of her mind. I begin to see how she is helping me understand that although she yells at her husband for not being more understanding, she is also mad at herself for feeling grief. Projection presents as anger. Having feelings can be seen as wallowing. Understanding and patience is my plea.

6 Responses to “Wallow”

  1. Ellen said

    In my experience, mostly people who refer to ‘wallowing’ are deeply uncomfortable with other people’s and their own suffering. So they say ‘get over it already’, basically so they can be more comfortable. There’s not a lot of support out there for allowing people to be sad for as long as they need. Outside of some kinds of therapy anyway.

    • Hi Ellen,
      Thank you for chiming in. Yes, the word “wallow” suggests a known time-frame in which a person should move on from their negative feeling state. As you suggest, the permission to maintain negative feelings is a rare gift. Thanks.

  2. Jon said

    First, and hopefully uncontroversial, the noun “commenter” is indeed a word. According to The Free Dictionary: Com´ment`er n.
    1.One who makes or writes comments; a commentator; an annotator.

    Next, let us look at what this same dictionary says for the intransitive verb “wallow”: wal•low intr.v. wal•lowed, wal•low•ing, wal•lows
    1. To roll the body about indolently or clumsily in or as if in water, snow, or mud.
    2. To luxuriate; revel: wallow in self-righteousness.
    3. To be plentifully supplied: wallowing in money.
    4. To move with difficulty in a clumsy or rolling manner; flounder: “The car wallowed back through the slush, with ribbons of bright water trickling down the windshield from the roof” (Anne Tyler).
    5. To swell or surge forth; billow.

    This word has come into focus when I was commenting on the sad situation of Esther who was dealing with the sad family dynamics of a father and his children. She sees parallels between herself, and the daughter Cordelia of the great tragedy King Lear. While there indeed may be parallels, my statement was, ”While Esther may feel trapped by bad family dynamics, it may be more helpful to recognize the dysfunction and move on then wallow too much in the goat song (the literal meaning of tragedy).” When called on my choice of intransitive verb, I have further commented, “Good point. “Wallow” is the wrong word. Impatience was not meant to be implied – more stuck and floundering. Perhaps “be ensnared” would have been a better choice of words.”

    So, what does all this have to do with this post? Staying with pain and tolerating discomfort is one thing – self-reflection. Creating an artificial and probably false scenario to match classic literature is another – becoming ensnared in a not truly applicable story (especially where so many are die in one fashion or another). Yes, one must deal with the realities of psychic pain; however, one should do just that – deal with the realities. Not being a professional in these matters, I can only guess that the goal is for psychotherapist to help in this quest.

    • Jon,
      For what it is worth, wordpress, my blog host, wanted me to arbitrate your comment, and that has never happened before. Interesting?
      To begin on the easy slope, thanks for making sure my hunch that I might have created a new word, be relaxed.
      Literature means something to us because we can connect to the themes. Shakespeare’s greatness, by my way of thinking, is how he nailed family dynamics, and internal struggles. Esther’s connection to King Lear gave me a good sense of her experience, in a way that would have been vague, without hooking into that story. Our shared understanding of King Lear enabled me to feel close to Esther, as I could begin to imagine her internal world, along with the associated frustrations and disappointments.
      Finally, you inspired me to tackle the issue of “moving on” as many people see psychotherapy as a tool to do just that, whereas, in fact, many times psychotherapy helps people pause, and not move, in order to look deeply at the facets of the emotional experience. This tension between “moving forward” and “staying still” is one of the many binds of psychotherapy. Both are important, but those who sit in judgment, either the patient, or her loved ones, are often critical of the rate of movement, thereby not appreciating the need to sit with certain experiences. In an extreme example, the death of a child is a case where the parent never “moves on” but rather lives to “sit with it” and continue. The grief does not go away, but new experiences can layer over it. The death of a parent, although the natural course of life, is similar in less intense ways. One adjusts to the loss, but the meaning of moving on, is debatable. Functional status does not imply movement, as movement usually implies moving away from grief, but as with all attachments, the person does not want to move away and so clings to a memory, which may be helpful, hurtful or both, to that person.
      Again, thank you for taking the time to engage in this hearty discussion. It is particularly relevant in the age of metrics, where there is tremendous pressure to demonstrate “movement” without agreement as to what “movement” looks like.

  3. Shelly said

    I am most grateful to Ellen’s comment as I never understood someone’s deep misunderstanding of other’s pain. Now I “get” why this other person seems so uncomfortable when others seem down or depressed and it makes sense. They feel uncomfortable with the feelings that come up both in themselves and the sufferer due to the discomfort. But Shirah, don’t you ever get impatient with people when they seem “stuck?” Don’t you feel like saying, “Get on with it?” I realize it is your job to understand people, but as a human being, how can you help not feeling this way?

    • It is interesting Shelly that you bring up the issue of impatience as this was a large discussion last night in my class. Timing is a very interesting issue. On whose time frame should the patient get better? The freedom to stay with feelings is a gift and so I, as a therapist, appreciate the space in which feelings are not forced into a pre-determined experience. This is the freedom of human existence, and as such, I am appreciative of my work which allows others to have this freedom, even if in the moment, the patient is not feeling very free. Feelings allow a depth of existence which thereby deepens relationships with others, so allowing feelings to stay, ultimately creates a deeper existence. This understanding gives me the patience to hear people where they are at, for the time they need to stay there. Thanks.

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