Recently I met a new client (let's call her Greta) who had been feeling worse and worse—depressed, defeated, devoid of energy and joy. After visiting doctors, therapists, astrologers and psychics, she scheduled me for three days of intensive coaching, proclaiming that I was her last hope. She began by showing me her diary of poetry and illustrations, which seemed to describe every bad thing that had ever happened to her, from childhood bed-wetting to split ends. You could call it Greta's Little Book of Hurt, except it wasn't little.

"Why do I still feel so horrible?" Greta sobbed. "I work so hard on myself." True, she'd worked diligently—but not in any way that would help her feel better. Instead of honoring her emotions and healing, Greta had chosen to wallow in them.

Everybody does this sometimes, including me. At my yearly retreat in South Africa, I often see my worst self in Cape buffalo, which are like cows, if cows were a gazillion times stronger and appeared to be full of seething rage. When they're not trampling hunters, Cape buffalo spend their time wallowing in mud, ruminating, and probably dreaming of ways to kill. They're metaphors for the way I can loll about in emotional negativity, rechewing stories from my own Little Book of Hurt. But wallowing only mires us deeper in the pit of despair.

The reasons we wallow are part nature, part nurture. Like all animals, we're biologically programmed to focus on injury; doing so helps us stave off threats to our survival. But we humans aren't usually defending ourselves against hunters, so our painful memories don't serve the same practical purpose. Humans also have a unique way of recovering from trauma: We need to share our hurts. Fortunately, pretty much everyone now knows that talking to a compassionate, nonjudgmental person can heal emotional wounds. But when our cultural focus on "the talking cure" joins forces with our natural inclination toward negativity, we can get stuck. That's what had happened to Greta, who didn't know that repeatedly telling a sorrowful story only lights up your brain's pathways of suffering, so you're essentially experiencing the tragedy over and over. At least buffalo wallow in soothing mud and rechew tasty grass. Humans wallow in emotional acid and ruminate on the bitterest moments of our lives.

If you wonder whether you're honoring your feelings or stewing in them, see if these statements ring true:
  • Your thoughts often drift toward the same story of loss or injustice—and each time, you're left unhappier.
  • You can feel mildly peevish or gloomy, then brood until your feelings intensify into fury or depression.
  • The agony feels perversely comfortable, like a pair of well-worn sweatpants.
  • Your loved ones glaze over when you talk about your problems.
  • You're starting to bore yourself.

    Sound familiar? Chances are you're up to your eyeballs in muck. Luckily, you can pry yourself out. Here's the key: Change the way your story ends.

    A South African friend says that Cape buffalo look at you as if you owe them money. Emotional wallowers are also obsessed with unpaid debts: Someone has done them wrong, and they deserve reparations. That payback never comes, so the tale of woe isn't resolved. In his book What Happy People Know, psychologist Dan Baker, PhD, says that joyful people finish their life stories on a very different note: appreciation. Instead of going over and over what they've lost, they focus on what they've gained. He recalls a woman who reminisced fondly about her deceased husband: "I said something along the lines of what a good man he must have been. 'No way,' she said. 'He was a womanizer and a drunk. A real pain in the butt. But we had more love than most people ever dream of.'" That's a heroic ending if I've ever heard one.

    If you've suffered deeply and no one knows, by all means, find an accepting, empathetic person to talk to. You'll feel a wave of pain, followed by ease, lightness, and freedom. After two or three tellings, those emotional waves will begin to subside. That's the time to walk out of your wallow and see yourself as a hero. Yes, you went broke, but people who loved you stepped up to help. True, you totaled your car—but in the moment you thought you were about to die, you experienced a peace beyond fear that you've been able to access ever since.

    These aren't stories of self-pity. They're epic sagas that end with beauty, courage or wisdom. You don't have to feel that way immediately, but you'll get there eventually if you can find a way to honor your own story without sinking beneath it. Alas, Greta's pain did not abate during the days she spent reading to me from her Little Book of Hurt. You can't pull a buffalo from the mud; it has to climb out under its own steam. 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. Now, that's something to chew on.

    In a series of studies at the University of California, Riverside, unhappy subjects who ruminated were less likely to come up with effective solutions to problems—and reported being less willing to implement solutions they did come up with.

    Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Using the Greek Goddesses to Create a Well-Lived Life for Women.

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