Last week’s post discussed our choices in stepping up or slipping down when facing turbulence, adversity, or unwanted change. This often involves suffering or loss — a loved one, our health or physical mobility, a relationship, a job, money, autonomy, control, or status.

It’s so easy — and often comes too naturally — to slip down into negativity, despair, and awfulizing bad situations.

Here’s how defines wallowing:

  1. To roll oneself about in something dirty, for example, in mud.

Pigs wallow in the mud.

  1. To move lazily or heavily in any medium.
  2. (figurative) To immerse oneself in, to occupy oneself with, metaphorically.

She wallowed in her misery.

  1. To live or exist in filth or in a sickening manner.


SARAA: Changes, Challenges, and Choices

Life’s most turbulent times or traumatic losses are major choice points. Do we ultimately become better or bitter? Do we climb the leadership stairs to a higher state of awareness and appreciation, or do we slide down into the quagmire of hopelessness and despair?

The International Committee for the Study of Victimization looked at large groups of people who had experienced major traumatic events. These included prisoners of war, accident victims, cancer patients, survivors of large-scale natural disasters, and the like. Years after the ordeals, they found that the survivors fell into three broad categories: “those who were permanently dispirited by the event, those who got their life back to normal, and those who used the experience as a defining event that made them stronger.”

Our response to the Richter-scale shocks that life throws at us can cause seismic reality shifts. When the quake hits — often when we least expect it — most of us experience one, two, or all three of the first steps of the SARAA formula below. Whether we successfully get to step five depends upon whether we choose to wallow, follow, or lead.

The first three steps are below the line, in the wallowing swamp. They could be part of a grieving process. We might need to let go of what was, face what is (step four), and move ourselves onward and upward with our lives (step five). If we eventually manage to climb the leadership stairway after a major setback or loss, we’ll often reflect on the experience. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” “It made me stronger.” “I appreciate life more now.” “It reset my priorities to what’s really important.” “I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.” “It forced us to make the changes we really needed to make.” “It shocked us out of our complacency.”

Steps one through three can be a time of emotional readjustment or healthy venting. But to get bogged down in any one of these stages is to stew in the swamp and begin breathing in the toxic vapors. We may find ourselves on an occasional detour through the emotional quagmire of why-me and this-isn’t-fair, but to languish there is deadly to our health, happiness, and success

Drowning Rats and The Pike Syndrome

A multitude of experiments with animals and people show that helplessness can be a conditioned or learned response. In the cruel old days of animal testing, an early experiment with learned helplessness was demonstrated with rats. When they were put directly in ice water, they could swim around for forty to sixty hours. But if the rats were held until they stopped struggling and then placed into the ice water, they gave up immediately and drowned.

In another study, scientists put a pike in a large aquarium with smaller fish that it eats. However, the pike was separated from its tasty meals by a layer of glass. At first, the pike continuously smashed its head against the glass to reach its prey. Eventually, it abandoned the painful and futile attempts. It sank to the bottom of the tank and just lay there.

At that point, the scientists removed the glass partition. But the pike now ignored the smaller fish, even when they swam right next to it. Eventually, the pike starved to death, despite its meals being right in front of its pointy nose. This behavior came to be known as “The Pike Syndrome.”

Swamped By Personal and Collective Helplessness

Many wallowing people, teams, and sometimes entire organizations choose to become victims of The Pike Syndrome. Here are common examples:

Personal Helplessness

  • That’s just the way I am…
  • There’s nothing I can do…
  • He/she makes me so mad…
  • They won’t allow it…
  • Nobody ever listens to me…
  • I am no good at…

Collective Helplessness

  • Forget it! We tried that before…
  • The collective agreement won’t let us…
  • Management/staff/head office/customers/operations/sales…don’t listen to us…
  • The systems/policies won’t let us…
  • It’s in the DNA of our culture…

Statements like these are sometimes a legitimate, healthy acceptance of barriers or limitations blocking the way. We may be better off just dropping it and moving on to something else. But in most cases, statements like these are excuses to give up.

We can P ourselves with permanent, pervasive, and personal explanations conditioned responses from past failures or setbacks. Like the pike, we may have smashed our noses against the glass ceiling or wall a few times and stopped trying. When conditions change, and those barriers are removed or reduced, pessimistic people and teams still wallow helplessly and give up.

We can take a warning in this line from The Simpsons; “With Smithers out of the picture, I was free to wallow in my own crapulence.” It’s bitter swill to wallow.