Constructive Wallowing and Self-Esteem

Stressed looking man in bathroom mirror

What do you do when you feel bad? You may clean your house, take a walk, or binge on sweet or salty foods depending on who you are and what habits you’ve developed. Does whatever you do make those bad feelings go away? If so, for how long?

Your feelings – good, bad, or ugly – represent your reactions to experiences. When you disown feelings, you disown yourself. This hurts your self-esteem. Let’s take a closer look at why.

By definition, you can not esteem someone who you are unfamiliar with. Self-esteem requires some knowledge of who you are and what you’re about. In other words, to have healthy self-esteem, you need a measure of self-knowledge. The more aspects of yourself you are aware of, the better you know yourself.

When we try to avoid to feeling the way we actually do,we are performing a kind of psychological gymnastics. We are maneuvering around inside ourselves in an attempt to distance ourselves from the pain. Cutting ourselves off from the pain rejects the part of us that is feeling pain. It’s a sacrifice similar to cutting off a leg caught in a trap in order to save the rest of our body.

Nobody wants to feel badly, which is why we try so hard to feel happy most of the time. When we can’t avoid feeling unhappy, we often try to contain any damage by “getting over it” quickly, or trying to talk ourselves out of an underlying feeling of loss. Some common examples are:

  • “He was no good for me anyway.”
  • “I should be glad I still have my health.”
  • “She’s in a better place now.”

This is adaptive behavior that attempts to minimize emotional pain. Unfortunately, such attempts sometimes succeed too well in the long term. We isolate our hurt selves. We become fragmented in the process and keep ourselves from the healing we need.

At a deep level, we are aware of this banishment of our hurting selves. We know that we’re keeping something from ourselves. This knowledge itself must be hidden. Losing connection with the pain worsens as we lose trust in ourselves. There are too many secrets. We might even have lost self-respect because of what we dimly perceive as a lack of courage. We are afraid to repair the rift and invite all those suppressed feelings back into our awareness.

Feeling separated from ourselves erodes self-esteem, just as a collection of “No Trespassing” and “Keep Out” signs might erode the goodwill of one’s neighbors. Self-esteem requires that we embrace every aspect of ourselves. We need self-awareness and self-acceptance to feel whole. What many call “wallowing” is an opportunity for both awareness and acceptance of ourselves. Constructive wallowing is not for the weak or the idle. It takes courage and fortitude.

True wallowing is not like sinking into a warm bath; it’s more like getting a bikini wax. If you want the smooth results, you’ve got to endure the uncomfortable process. Just as it’s said that there’s a price for beauty, there is also a price for self-esteem. If it were easy to come by, more of us would have it. The price of self-esteem is full awareness and a willing embrace of our emotional pain.

Only by fully experiencing our pain can we reunite with the cut-off parts of ourselves that carry our deepest hurts. Through allowing ourselves to have our true feelings without self-criticism, we can know our whole selves and experience the courage of our intent to be who we are. This is the essence of self-esteem.

© Copyright 2010 by By Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Alex

    September 15th, 2010 at 1:56 PM

    I really enjoyed the waxing metaphor, it really made the idea sink in.
    Another interesting link to look at would be that between cognitive dissonance and self-esteem.

  • Tina Gilbertson

    September 15th, 2010 at 5:18 PM

    Alex, what a great idea for another article – the wheels are already turning! I would love to hear your ideas on that if you’d care to share them.

  • adam M

    September 15th, 2010 at 7:06 PM

    I always believed that once we distance ourselves from some pain,that’s it!Its gone!

    But this article has got me thinking about how it remains inside of us and needs to be treated and healed,not just gotten away from.

    But I have a question here.What if the hurt is too much to encounter and I fear that it might take too long to heal it and during that long testing period,I might just break down?What do I do in such a scenario?

  • Robyn

    September 16th, 2010 at 4:35 AM

    Oh I totally wallow, but maybe for too long?

  • isabel

    September 16th, 2010 at 5:44 AM

    I feel that whenever I am surrounded by nature I am on the path to discovering myself.The daily humdrum just doesn’t allow me to think for my own and to see what is actually in me.
    Nature brings out the true me and I feel great.

  • Tina Gilbertson

    September 16th, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    Adam and Robyn, you’ve touched on a crucial question: How much and for how long?
    Imagine if the feeling you were aware of needing to wallow in was joy. Would you be wondering, “What if I can’t help but laugh aloud?” or “How long is too long to be joyful?”
    Positive and negative feelings work in exactly the same way; they’re designed to dissipate once fully experienced, not to hang around forever.
    Wallow for as long as you can. When the feeling is done with you, it will let you go. (It might be an hour or a year; we don’t get to choose.)
    If you feel up to your eyeballs in pain that seems to be endless, what you’re likely dealing with is a thousand separate hurts, each of which needs its share of your time, attention and compassion.
    Remember that “breaking down” takes courage, and is often a necessary part of coming together again as a whole, happy person.

    NB: It’s not uncommon to daydream sometimes about not having to deal with life anymore, but if you find yourself coming up with a specific plan and intent to end your life, please seek help immediately by calling a friend, your therapist, your local crisis hotline or 9-1-1.


    September 16th, 2010 at 10:56 AM

    I do not like to question myself and go back to things that have already flown by. Yes, I may have committed a mistake, but that’s only human, isn’t it?

    I do not understand the need to actually make myself feel bad about it by revisiting the episode rather than going on being fully aware that its nowhere in my mind and that its not going to haunt me.

  • Alex

    September 16th, 2010 at 2:49 PM

    I would love to!
    Any particular contacts where I should send my take on cognitive dissonance and self-esteem to?

  • charlie

    September 16th, 2010 at 4:06 PM

    Burying hurt just makes it go deeper and deeper. I was brought up to say what I feel and to hell with the consequences. Being true to yourself is the only way to be. Yeah, it works. I sleep like a baby because I know who I am and wear no masks for anybody.

  • Tina Gilbertson

    September 16th, 2010 at 4:11 PM

    Alex, you can post a few thoughts here or write directly to me. Or both!
    Click at the bottom of the blog post to contact me directly. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • Paulette

    September 16th, 2010 at 6:21 PM

    How can you be like that and not hurt another person along the way Charlie? You may sleep like a baby. Do they? There’s a thin line between being true to yourself and being narcissistic.

  • Mandy

    September 16th, 2010 at 8:10 PM

    I am very sensitive emotionally and have no problem expressing my feelings or picking up on the feelings of others. In fact I’m “too much of an open book” my husband says. I believe pain has to be felt and the source acknowledged, dealt with and let go. When you learn to do it properly it is such a release of pent-up feelings that your chest literally feels lighter.

    Hurt weighs you down. Let it bubble up, examine it, learn from it and release it in your mind and heart. You don’t need to attribute blame or judgment. You don’t even need to understand it. Just let it go for good.

  • Wanderer

    September 16th, 2010 at 10:20 PM

    If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment. – Marcus Aurelius

  • Tina Gilbertson

    September 17th, 2010 at 7:36 AM

    Thanks so much, everyone, for your thoughtful comments!
    I’m glad someone brought up the Marcus Aurelius quote (Comment #13).
    The first self-help book I ever read was called “Creative Responsibility.” I remember reading in it that if someone says something hurtful to you, they’re basically handing you a knife and asking you to stab yourself with it.
    The message was that of Marcus Aurelius: You react according to your “estimate” of the thing you’re dealing with.
    For example, if you truly believe that the other person’s hurtful comment is about them and not you, it won’t bother you so much.
    There is gold in this idea – powerful stuff, and undeniably true.
    However, in trying to make use of this idea, we tend to overlook two important facts:
    One, that our estimate is made in our hearts, not our heads, and
    Two, that once we have feelings about what happened, it’s too late to change our estimate!
    We can TELL ourselves that the comment isn’t about us, but if we don’t believe it, it doesn’t do a thing to alleviate our hurt.
    Feelings, once planted, must bloom before they can die. That’s why we have to go with the feelings we have – we’re stuck with them until they move completely through us.
    If we try to change our feelings after the fact, we end up with racing thoughts and yucky feelings that stick to us like glue as long as we struggle with them.
    Thanks again for all your valuable comments.

  • Cate

    September 17th, 2010 at 5:42 PM

    When I’m upset I seek out solitude. I can’t be around people when I’m upset. I need my own space. Never offer me a shoulder to cry on because refusal often offends. Sometimes that makes me feel worse than I did when I started, but that’s rare.

  • Eve

    September 17th, 2010 at 7:59 PM

    I’m the opposite. I want to be with friends when I’m upset for support. There’s nothing worse than feeling upset AND alone. They also help me be more rational than emotional about whatever it is. They make me feel better by letting me talk things out. If they show me that I’m being an idiot, then I feel worse before I feel good. Normally those talks are enough to clear my mind.

  • willow

    September 18th, 2010 at 6:45 PM

    I fully encourage wallowing. The world would be a more compassionate place if we took the time to understand our own hurts and pain. We could relate better to each other having “been there”. Nice article.

  • Joanne

    September 19th, 2010 at 6:42 PM

    I have to be outside and breathing fresh air when I get upset. I get claustrophic and there’s no room in the house that’s big enough for me when I’m anxious. The open space settles me down. It’s only temporary though.

  • Hope

    September 19th, 2010 at 10:31 PM

    I sleep and sleep and sleep. When I feel bad I feel very drained suddenly and go lie down. Dreams are about the only place I can escape to and call my own. If I’m at work I can’t wait to get home and crawl into bed.

  • Alex

    September 20th, 2010 at 10:00 AM

    Hey Tina,
    I’m glad my notes helped. And yes, I did feel some relief when I said to myself “So what if I’m lazy? I’m allowed”. I guess that living in Romania, where you have to work really hard to get something, I’m hardwired to see laziness as a more serious thing.
    Here’s another article idea: Social cultural background and self-esteem.I haven’t seen one about that on the site, but if there is one, point me in its direction, sounds interesting. :)

  • Bernie

    September 20th, 2010 at 2:44 PM

    I buy junk food, put on a favorite movie that makes me cry and spend the evening feeling sorry for myself. After a good cry I feel better and sleep better. That’s my way of releasing it.

  • Rowan

    September 20th, 2010 at 4:44 PM

    I don’t believe in wallowing. The sooner you shake it off and put it behind you, the sooner you get over it. Wallowing’s a wasteful way to spend a day.

  • Tina Gilbertson

    September 20th, 2010 at 8:01 PM

    What a rich collection of comments! It’s true that everyone is different; we all react in personal ways to emotional pain. Some like to be in Nature, some alone, some with others, some sleep and sleep, some cry and eat junk food, and some even manage to shake it off and put it behind them.
    I say: If what you’re doing is working for you, keep doing it!
    Alex, thanks again for your input – that’s another great article idea (Comment #20). I wish I knew how to research it; I think it would be absolutely fascinating.

  • Carlos

    October 28th, 2012 at 10:15 AM


    I’m 32 and I’ve struggled with self confidence issues all my life. It has been so bad that it has kept me from ever having a girlfriend and have solid friendships. I was bullied all my life and abused by my parents(100% authoritarian) and I can’t seem to overcome this problem, after 15 yrs of therapay it just doesn’t go away. By this time I thought that my efforts would have proved well spended, but this is my Achilles tendon, and girls still dislike me for that. Can a nice guy like me become the man that girls want to be with? I’ve heard it’s possible, but I haven’t been able to achieve it :0(

  • Steven Krautkramer

    December 1st, 2013 at 12:49 AM

    Very beautifully written! I think our society itself gets in the way of letting people grieve and actually feel our pain to its fullest. I’m a firm believer in the idea that no emotion is endless, but if we refuse to feel it, it certainly seems that way. The only counter argument I would say would be to be aware if someone is wallowing for some secondary gain and allowing themselves to stay “stuck.” Also, if one wallow too long, it can almost become difficult to be free of that way of thinking because it may have become part of their identity. The real trick, I suppose, is finding that balance between what’s appropriate and what’s not allowing a person to progress.

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