If you are anything like this pig – you are miserable. Very. Very. Miserable. And with reason – you are overworked, totally out of your element, not getting enough sleep and not getting enough…calcium. At the same time, you feel like you should be able to “snap out of it” or just “be positive.” Maybe you even feel bad about feeling bad because other people have it much worse. It could be that you live where most people consider “paradise” and – despite the Mai Tais – you are struggling. You have tried it all: meditation, medication, exercise, wine and chocolate. Sadly, nothing has done the trick to make a sustainable difference.
I have what might seem like a counter-intuitive approach to getting out of your misery. It involves wallowing in it – literally. When pigs wallow in the mud they roll around in it to improve their situation. It helps them keep cool and protects them from biting insects. What I am suggesting is that you wallow in your misery in much the same way – to improve your situation.
The 3-part process I introduce here is designed to help you splash about in the mud of discontent so you can bring about real change and end the sting of agony. I will begin by introducing three simple components of good wallowing: observe – serve – unwrap. Each is illustrated with examples from my own life so you can see what they look like in action. I also share the Wallowing for Change Cheat Sheet so you can immediately apply these to your own life. In exchange for testing out this 3-part mud immersion, I expect you will have better energy, feel a greater a sense of peace, and simply have more moments of happiness. Now that is worth the wallowing.
What got me to jump in the mud
One morning I looked in the mirror and I barely recognized myself. It was not a pretty sight. I am not referring to the late-30s wrinkles or additional gray hairs that had sprung up the night before. I am talking about the deep dark circles under my eyes and clouded gaze that was formerly-known-as a sparkle in my eyes. The last several months had taken a toll on my body. In the mirror I was facing the last seven months of a serious lack of sleep. These sleepless nights were closely attached to pregnancy, a C-section and bladder surgery, full-time breastfeeding, raising two children and a giving it my all at work. On top of that, the sleep deprivation came at a time when my husband and I made a major decision to uproot our lives and move to West Africa. I am serious when I say sleep deprivation: I was fantasizing about sleep like men fantasize about sex. I was so overly tired that even when the children were sleeping, I couldn´t fall sleep. I caught myself checking my phone in the middle of the night to find out the time. I repeatedly counted how many hours of sleep I got, or better said, focused on how little I had slept.
The impact on my brain slowly became apparent. I started to become highly irritable, irrational and often forgot things. One day I seriously almost left the house without pants. Low moment. While my husband was away for weeks in West Africa, I was home trying to launch my business and function with two kids who were feverish from the immunizations they were required to get for the move. It just couldn’t go on like this anymore. I had started to feel the sharp edges of my limits. I felt like I was barely surviving. To the outside it may have seemed like I was functioning. To those who knew me best, I was suffering. Something had to change. Better said – I had to change.
What I changed was my approach. I started to apply observe – serve – unwrap and reaped the benefits. I am sharing what was most effective for me so you too can create positive change in your life.
Observe – Serve – Unwrap
One night while my husband was abroad I was up late doing the dishes after my children had finally fallen asleep. Being the nerdy coach I am, I had bribed myself into this task by adding a glass of wine and a webcast with Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle on A New Earth. If you know Tolle´s work, it is probably no surprise that he discussed the importance of being present and taking on the role of the observer. Of course as a coach and intercultural specialist, I was already very familiar with these practices.
However, as I stood in front of my sink with the soapy dishrag in my hands, I knew with my whole self that becoming more present and actively becoming the observer was what I needed to move up and out of my suffering. So the next morning I quietly and calmly started to notice being tired. And, unlike most mornings, I just let it in and then let it go. Instead, I shifted my focus (while I poured a strong coffee) to being present with my children. I concentrated on these amazing beings right in front of me. This focus muted the persistent thoughts that had been running on default about how many hours that I hadn´t been able to sleep. And this is how I began to observe my body and any physical suffering in a new way. I just took it in as information and dropped it. A great side effect of this practice is that it allowed me to focus my attention on the suffering I was creating through my thinking. I quickly noticed how I had a clear “lack” mentality to sleep. I was focused on how many hours I had not slept.
Purely as an experiment, I made a conscious effort to see what happened when I reframed this focus. I chose to play with what was abundant. From this perspective, I recognized that I had been able to rest for seven hours and actually slept for two. I noticed how this perspective brought about a totally different physical sensation in my body. I felt less tension in my body. I generally felt more relaxed and I was more present with my family. I started to focus on all that I was able to get done in a day on this relatively small amount of sleep and rest. This filled me with a sense of accomplishment and gratitude for being quite functional considering the circumstances. Observing my thinking and then experimenting with other perspectives actually helped create more energy in my body – exactly what I needed at the time.
Observe – Serve – Unwrap
Although becoming the observer (of the body and mind) made a big impact on reducing my misery, I knew that wasn´t enough. I needed to add the next layer: serve. Combining serve with observe means using what you notice in your body or thinking as clues to what you need. This information allows you to serve yourself up a healthy portion of what will give you critical relief.
The following jewel from my miserable exhaustion involved a caretaker for my children who had cancelled several times in the past but had always been great with the kids. On this particular day, she had agreed to help me in a jam. Suddenly, I was filled with anxiety and wondered if I should have a friend “drop by” to check on her while I was away. I called a much-better-rested friend of mine for advice. She listened patiently. We agreed that my rational thinking skills were melting away like the wicked witch on the Wizard of Oz. Once I was able to see this from a distance, I could reflect on my more outlandish thoughts neutrally (Wow! Look what garbage your brain produces when it is so tired), with caution (Whoa! Sundae, this is a warning sign that you really need to prioritize your health higher at the moment) and with a bit of humor (I wanted to spy on my babysitter, WTF?!?). These observations helped me see that it was high time to put my physical well-being at the top of my priority list – for everyone´s sake! To get closer to what I needed I started to ask myself these questions:
- What am I really craving right now? (deep rest, more energy, etc.)
- What is the kindest thing I could do for myself right now? 
Through this process, I realized that I needed to serve myself up a heaping plate of self-compassion. I finally accepted the humanity of my material self and better understood my limits in these challenging circumstances. (p.s.  Thanks to Laura Van Wyngaarden for sharing this very powerful question!)
Observe – Serve – Unwrap
Observe and serve made a huge impact on my well-being; however, I didn´t stop there. I needed these questions to move me forward:
- What gifts are hiding under my discomfort?
- What am I (un)learning?
Observe and serve humbled me, gave me energy and allowed me to be far less attached to my misery. This made space for me to unwrap the gifts hidden in the challenges. I was able to take stock of the creative and useful strategies I had begun to put in place as a result of going to the edge of exhaustion. I got better at asking for help – without the guilt. I focused on optimizing communication with my partner. I was further developing skills to navigate high-stress situations. I was able to more quickly notice and stop being tortured by my own painful thoughts. I began to celebrate that I was dealing with exhaustion, uncertainty and a major transition. I managed to stay focused and present with my kids. I didn´t down bottles of wine by myself (ok, maybe a glass or two). I did not get swallowed by the darkness of exhaustion, stress and fear. What have I gained? Energy. Freedom. Peace. Happiness. It was so worth it. Now it is your turn.
Wallowing for Change Cheat Sheet
Use these questions to bring you back in the moment and collect important information:
- Am I present in the moment?
- What physical discomforts are capturing my attention?
- How is this information useful?
- What thoughts are causing me the most discomfort right now?
- What are some alternative perspectives that I could experiment with?
Use these questions to serve yourself up a big portion of what you need:
- What does the information from my body and mind suggest I need right now?
- What am I really craving right now (deep rest, release of anger, calm, etc.)?
- What is the kindest thing I can do for myself right now?
Use these questions to identify and celebrate what you are gaining:
- What am I learning?
- What do I gain from this experience?
- What am I unlearning?
- What am I shedding that has weighed me down in the past?
- What gifts are hiding under my discomfort?
I hope you emerge from the mud as I did – stronger from it all and dripping in gratitude.