Wallowing: how much is too much?
“Self-pity is the worst possible emotion anyone can have. And the most destructive. It is, to slightly paraphrase what Wilde said about hatred, and I think actually hatred’s a subset of self-pity and not the other way around – ‘ It destroys everything around it, except itself.”
My name is Tia, and I have depression. This weekly column will discuss the little bumps in the road, the lows, the highs, and the mundane existence of living with depression. ‘Insane in the Membrane’ will not pretend to have all, if any, answers to mental health. But it will use real situations that I have experienced in the attempt to chip away at the stigma of mental illness. Or, at least, the stigma that I see.
Wallowing is defined as indulging in an unrestrained way (i.e. something that one finds pleasurable), a metaphorical rolling in one’s emotions, as hippos do. I recognise that too much self-indulgence is bad for me, but, every now and again a little wallow does a lot of good. Self-nourishment is very important. But there needs to be a line because wallowing in self-pity is where this indulgence becomes dangerous. You don’t have to wallow to have depression and you don’t have to have depression to wallow. Everyone is capable of feeling down and sometimes, self-pity is a simpler way out.
What confuses me is how much self-indulgence is necessary before it becomes negative. A little bit of self-pity does go a long way. During times of real misery, it becomes a way of coping. Of not having to deal with the real issues, using small mistakes to blame instead of a wider issue, such as depression, or laziness (two very different things). Wallowing is important after moments of profound sadness (grief, failure, breakups etc.), it allows the wallower time to accept what has happened, and time to move on. Occasionally, it is viewed as a form of selfishness but, as true as that might be in some cases, in others it is not. It presents itself as the only alternative, a mask to be worn against fear, anxiety and sadness.
Undermining oneself is one of the most common forms of self-pity. If you undermine yourself privately and in public, then the risk of failure is lessened. At school I used to act; on stage, and with my friends. But before every play I would joke about my lack of talent, using comedy as an expression of my self-pity, preparing everyone for failure. No matter whether the play went well or not, my blasé attitude espoused that I could have always done better – I either wasn’t trying or someone else stole the show, etc. Using these as excuses, I was no longer at risk of letting myself or others down. The only time I would wallow in public was through this self-deprecating humour. Using whatever wit I could find, I would paint myself as this unintelligent, clumsy girl who used luck and fluke at her bidding. Although I am not the funniest, self-deprecation tends to bring in the laughs (see Insane in the Membrane 6 for other British eccentricities). Towards the end of school, I convinced myself I had failed every exam I took, so was constantly surprised at myself for passing anything, eventually blaming it on fluke.
By the time I arrived at University and had run out of reasons to explain why I had been accepted, I would make up scenarios; the examiners took pity on me so they let me in, or my teachers had seen the papers before so I was overly prepared. I spent far too much time not giving myself the credit that I deserved. It was an alien concept that I had achieved these results, by myself, on my own merit. Not a useful tool when attempting to improve one’s self-image.
But as dangerously comforting as wallowing can be in the short-term, the long-terms risks have excessively negative side effects. Too much indulgence and you could fall trap to the victim mentality; feeling victimised by circumstance, people, events, anything that could justify your sadness. Self-pity has the potential to lead to depression. This is a terrifying thought. I would not wish my illness on anyone. Excessively, it can be used as an excuse for why certain aspects of your life are “failing”, or why you are unworthy. It is fuelled by comparison, by Tony in accounting who somehow manages to balance a hectic job, four kids and a thriving social life, or Sarah who just smashed her medical exams and is now a doctor at 23, while you still live at home, are consistently rejected for jobs and have become somewhat of a recluse.
For those already with depression, self-pity can be a profound hindrance to recovery. As difficult as it is to feel constantly optimistic and as comforting as self-pity can be, it can only serve to exacerbate the problem. Misery is comfortable, it’s addictive and, when in the throes of it, self-pity can feel like a warm safety net. No one can harm you because you alone hold the worst opinion of yourself. That title is exclusively yours. “Self-pity’s like a cosy blanket you can wrap yourself in to keep warm, except the only reason you’re cold in the first place is because you’re insisting on sitting outside naked in the snow.”
When depression is involved it becomes harder to differentiate when the self-indulgence is needed, or when it’s not self-pity, but real misery. Depression is complicated, it can twist your mind to the point of not knowing what to think, everything becomes blurred and unfocused. For years I believed that although my emotions were negative and self-admonishing, they were just a form of self-indulgence. That I was being selfish and self-obsessed. That I needed to “toughen up” and “pull myself together”. That my panic attacks were pathetic and a sure sign of weakness. And without speaking to anyone about how I was feeling and dealing with this tornado of emotions, I duelled in this internal battle for years. If you tell yourself that you are weak and pathetic for a long period of time, self-confidence isn’t likely to come naturally.
There are times for self-deprecation; it can make others feel better about themselves, douse tension, and is part of almost every stand-up routine. But when continually used against yourself, it can convince you that what you are saying is true. That you really are relying on fluke to get you through life. That your friends do see you as a joke. That you are a limpet on your pals’ successes. So, to wallow in self-pity is essential for some rites of human passage – grief, closure, acceptance, and so on. But allowing yourself to wallow, as hippos do, in excessive self-pity will only cause you more harm in the long run.
Mental health always needs more support, socially and fiscally. Mind, Heads Together and Rethink offer easy ways to get involved/fundraise/donate/campaign. The Arch2Arch run, London Marathon and Tough Mudder can all be done in the name of mental health. Or, if you’re like me and not a natural athlete, you can use easy ways to recycle to raise awareness and donations alike. Petitions like Time to Change and the Survey of Mental Illness in the Workplace are a click away from de-stigmatising mental illness.
Sofa Activism is easy ways to give, and possibly the easiest of them is Savoo Search, just use it as your default search engine and it’ll donate 1p every time you search something to the charity of your choice (I would recommend through Rethink).
SAMH and Action Mental Health are aimed at Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively, targeting mental health stigma on a more regional scale. Mind Cymru and Mental Health Wales focus on Welsh Mental Health.
Art by Julia Veldmanc