Sunday 25 September 2016

Well-being: Permission to wallow

Acknowledging our disappointments is key to our emotional wellbeing

Published 23/08/2016 | 02:30

Richard Branson
Richard Branson

The announcement of Leaving Certificate results last week elicited the usual outpouring of conciliatory sentiment. Radio presenters reminded students that not getting enough points wasn't the end of the world, while columnists penned pieces about university being far from the only option for school leavers.

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Even Education Minister Richard Bruton weighed in: "Many of the best and brightest entrepreneurs have been people who dropped out of colleges and courses," he said. "So it is an exciting time and there is really a wide range of options."

I mostly agree, both with this school of thinking, and the spirit in which it was proclaimed. I also applaud the quintessentially Irish notion that there's always a back door, or a loophole or someone who knows someone.

Still, you have to wonder if this relentlessly bright-sided, sugar-coated attitude is beneficial to those who might be - whisper it - disappointed.

We don't commiserate with those who don't get enough points. Instead we remind them that there is more to life than points. We home in on the subjects they did well in before namechecking Richard Branson, who didn't even go to university, don't you know?

We do this partly because we believe uncomfortable feelings are best avoided and partly because we have been indoctrinated into the cult of positivity. Perish the thought that someone might feel anything other than #grateful and #blessed.

By and large, we don't allow ourselves to acknowledge disappointment, let alone dwell on it. That's called wallowing, which is replete with negative connotations.

Yet a number of mental health experts suggest that we need to wallow in order to be emotionally well. Psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson, the author of Constructive Wallowing, is one of them.

"Think about the difference it could make in your life if you only had to deal with each feeling once instead of over and over again," she writes.

Gilberstson isn't suggesting a 'woe is me' approach to dealing with disappointment, rather she is suggesting that we allow the feeling of disappointment in rather than denying or suppressing it.

Or even worse, deflecting it: I've always thought it strange that people are more likely to openly mourn the loss of a pair of designer sunglasses than they are the loss of, say, a lucrative job promotion.

Luxury items aside, when was the last time you allowed yourself to be openly, unequivocally disappointed? Didn't get the job: Didn't want it anyway. Didn't get the girl: Didn't really fancy her anyway.

More to the point, when was the last you were given permission to be disappointed? Dumped: Plenty more fish in the sea. Defeated: If it's for you, it won't pass you. Rejected: His loss.

People mean well, of course, but by making light of someone's disappointment, we in turn make it more difficult for them to heal from it. And as the saying goes: feeling is healing.

The late sociologist and psychotherapist Ian Craib, writing in his book The Importance of Disappointment, said we must "recognise and incorporate the dark side, the side of disappointment and death".

"Paradoxically, the more we deny this, the more difficult our lives become, the more we become involved in breaking the links between people."

Craib also noted that disappointment doesn't go away when we negate it. Contrarily, it metamorphoses into a dull feeling of foreboding that overcomes the senses every time we think back to the incident.

That's why we quickly think of something else. Like Richard Branson, or the motivational mantra we saw on Instagram or all the other pretty fish in the sea... anything but the unresolved trauma that threatens to dampen our spirits.

Unfortunately that's only a temporary solution to a long-term problem. We only learn, grow and benefit from disappointment when we acknowledge it. Feelings are meant to be felt - even when they don't feel so good.

Tina Gilbertson's TRUST exercise for constructive wallowing:

Tell yourself the situation: For example, if a friend has let you down or you're upset about what someone has said to you.

Realise what you're feeling: Try to put words to what you're experiencing, for example: 'I feel humiliated,' or: 'I'm dreading my sister's wedding.'

Uncover self-criticism: Often negative feelings like envy, dislike or disappointment make you feel like you're an envious, hateful, weak person - but you're not. Good people feel angry, jealous and impatient, too. So root out impatience with yourself and don't think you're too sensitive. You're allowed to feel how you feel.

Try to understand yourself: Look for reasons why a good person would feel this way. It's okay to want that promotion over someone else, even if they did deserve it.

Have the feeling: Just sit with it, cry about it, talk to yourself about it, hug or punch a pillow - whatever you need to do.

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