How to stop wallowing (magic advice from the latest O mag)

The cover line on the latest edition of O magazine teases: Do you enjoy a fine whine? How to stop wallowing—for good. And since I sometimes enjoy a fine WHINE as much as I do a fine WINE, I was hooked. Inside was an article by world-renowned life coach, Martha Beck – and it slapped me in the face with a life lesson I’ll never forget. It goes like this:

As humans, we’re hardwired to focus on injury to protect ourselves against future threats. But in the modern world, where we’re not running from hunters, our biological instinct to ruminate on hurt and loss don’t serve us. In fact, Martha says that while sharing painful experiences is healthy, repeatedly telling a negative story lights up the brain’s pathways of suffering, “so you’re essentially experiencing the tragedy over and over again”. We end up mired deeper in despair, not free to move on. We're wallowing.

So how can you tell whether you’re wallowing in your emotional muck? Martha asks these questions:

Do your loved ones’ eyes glaze over when you start rehashing your same old story?

Do you find your thoughts frequently drifting back to your story of loss or injustice and feeling unhappier every time you go back there?

Does the story of hurt that you keep retelling feel as comfortable as your favourite pair of tracksuit pants?

Martha says emotional wallowers are obsessed with unpaid debts: someone hurt them and they want pay-back. But it never comes, so the wallowing gets worse.

So what’s the solution?

Martha points to a lesson from psychologist Dan Baker’s book, What happy people know, which says joyful people finish their stories on a very different note from wallowers. And that ‘very different note’ is appreciation. So, instead of going over and over what they lost from an experience, the non-wallower focuses on what they gained. It’s a little mental flip that can make all the difference.

Martha and Dan call it “walking out of your wallow and seeing yourself as a hero” or changing your story from one of self-pity to one of "beauty, courage or wisdom". They give two examples: yes, you went broke, but your loved ones stepped up to help. Or, yes you crashed your car but in that moment you experienced such an intense feeling of peace that your life is forever changed for the better. I guess other examples might be: yes your relationship ended, but you have two beautiful children from your union. Or, yes you got sick on your once-in-a-lifetime cruise holiday, but you had 12 days of wonderful holiday experiences and memories before the moment you fell ill.

It's all in your perspective of the story – and you have the power to change your perspective.

To me, it's a bit like Tony Robbins' line in his new film, I am not your guru. He says, if you're going to blame someone for the bad things, you've got to also blame them for the good things. It helps you to balance the scale and recognise the good that has come from a situation.

Martha says: “When you can pull yourself out of your own muck by giving your same old stories happier endings, you’ll find that rage turns to peace, pain to power, fear to courage.”

So, should we never tell our negative stories? No. Martha and Dan say we should tell a kind and empathetic listener our sad stories and enjoy the emotional release that brings, but then stop after 2-3 retellings and shelve the story for good by finishing it with an appreciative or grateful ending. To find the grateful ending, ask yourself: What did I gain from this? What good has come from this experience?

And with that, they say, your wallowing will ease for good.

You can see more of Martha Beck’s work here.

Read more about Dan Baker’s What happy people know

Natalie Bartley