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Book Review: ‘Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them’ by Tina Gilbertson

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One’s conception of life is of big importance as to how we deal with mistakes. If life on Earth is but one chance to do everything we have to do before disappearing for good, then of course mistakes are unacceptable. But if one understands life on Earth as the beginning of an eternal path on which we hone our virtues to perfection, then mistakes become a great learning tool.

Even with such an attitude, there are some mistakes that really get us down, sometimes for years, if not for a lifetime. These are the mistakes author Tina Gilbertson helps us face in her book, Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them, in which she questions the common belief that wallowing is a bad thing. Instead, she encourages us to not shut out negative emotions, but acknowledge and deal with them. Gilbertson believes that if we learn to identify our negative feelings through the exercises presented in this book, we will understand where they come from, and develop the skills to learn from them and move past them.

The book is very well written, combining serious discussions with just enough wit to make one smile without getting detracted from the goal. Furthermore, the chapters are structured in a way that allows the reader to easily follow the author’s line of thought. Another aspect that helps the reader easily follow the sometimes quite complex line of thought is that Gilbertson does not go off on tangents; rather, she points them out and refers us to future chapters where they will be discussed.

Just like with any self-improvement book, this one has to be read with a grain of salt. It is so important for the reader of any such book to remember that the author, even the most qualified, is not perfect; one must analyse the concepts within the book and measure them against the concepts that guides one’s life. In my case, I found that the idea of self-compassion that Gilbertson suggests in this book is a double edged sword.

On the one hand, I agree with it, as we all have a shadow of the child we once used to be hidden behind the façade of the adult we have become. When children are hurt, what do we do? We hug them, kiss them, pat them on the back, and, when the tears have stopped, reflect with them on what happened and they learn how to deal with the situation a bit better in the future. But when the child inside of us is hurt, we can be quite cruel, telling it to be quiet and stop making a fuss, sometimes locking it away in the deep recesses of our heart and mind. If we instead learn to take care of the child within us in the same way we treat children around us, no doubt we will not only suffer less, but we will ultimately learn a lot more.

On the other hand, we do live in a world that strongly encourages individualism and strokes the ego. Consequently, we have to be careful that we do not mistake taking care of the child within with stroking the ego. I did not feel that the author was at all encouraging such an attitude; but I do think the book would have benefited from some thorough comments on the matter.

There is also the concept of dwelling. It could be a matter of semantics, but I do not agree with the importance the author places on dwelling. While wallowing, as defined by Gilbertson (allowing ourselves to feel our emotions) does seem healthy, the reason for it should not be dwelling. Quite the contrary; dwelling can bring us into a very dark place, perhaps the very place we try to avoid when we refuse to look at our negative emotions in the first place.

And so, while I do think that we should accept how we feel, I feel that it should not be for the sake of dwelling on it. Rather, it should be for the sake of reflecting on why we feel that way, make a plan of action based on how we would like to feel instead, and then stop dwelling. Just like with a child: once the child has been comforted and a lesson has been learned, there is no purpose in reminding the child constantly about what happened that made him/her cry in the first place! This is all the more important for those who believe that the purpose of life is personal spiritual development: wallowing allows us to figure out where we are, reflecting allows us to figure it out where we want to be, and action, not dwelling, brings us closer to our goal.

Gilbertson also discusses how we should never think that we should not have a certain feeling. In a conception of life on Earth as an opportunity to learn how to transcend our lower nature – the one guided by earthly, material, and physical passions – there are certain emotions we should learn to move beyond. Of course, to learn to move beyond, say, anger, we have to acknowledge that we are angry and take the time to deal with it, there is no doubt about that. And some of the practical ways Gilbertson shares in her book are indeed quite useful to do so.

However, it does not mean that we should accept the negative emotions as a normal part of life. Instead: “We ought to show something greater than forgiveness in meeting the cruelties and stricture in our lives. To be hurt and to forgive is saintly, but far beyond this is the power to comprehend and not be hurt. (…) It is not that we make the best of things, but that we may find in everything, even in calamity itself, the germ of enduring wisdom…” It is a delicate balance between accepting that we feel a negative emotion without a shred of guilt, and working to become the kind of person that doesn’t feel these negative emotions. And while this balance is very difficult to achieve, every step towards it brings one great inner peace.

Tina Gilbertson’s Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them is a great tool to help you think about how to deal with those emotions that can negatively affect your life. What I appreciate the most about this book is the clarity of thought the author demonstrates, reflected in the clarity of writing, which allows for readers to consider the advice given within the framework by which they live their lives.

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