Are you old enough to remember Weebles?
They were (apparently still are?) egg-shaped figurines with a weighted bottom, sold as toys to little kids who … like to play with egg-shaped figurines, I suppose. I never actually owned a Weeble, but their tagline has been indelibly etched in my brain: Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.
I think there is a lot of value in being an emotional Weeble, regularly wobbling as you experience the highs and lows at the extremes of the emotional continuum (and everything in between), all the while trusting you will not fall down.
When it comes to experiencing strong emotions, too often the people I meet in therapy fear they will fall down, or worse, feel they have previously repeatedly fallen down and now live in dread of the next time it will happen.
One of the hypothesis to explain the development of panic disorder is to view it as a “fear of fear”: the noxiousness of a previous experience of panic leaves us hypervigilant and sensitized to any changes in our body that might indicate another one is around the corner. This level of vigilance itself leads to symptoms in the body (since it activates the fight or flight response), which we then notice and attribute catastrophic meaning to. Catastrophizing thoughts create more fear, which exacerbates our physical symptoms, and the cycle continues.
Similarly, some of my clients with a history of depression are understandably highly attuned to their emotional fluctuations and notice subtle changes in their mood state. Developing a level of self-awareness and attunement to the early warning signs of depression is actually an important part of relapse prevention, but it can also be counterproductive when the emphasis gets narrowed to the moment-by-moment ‘how am I feeling’ rather than the broader ‘how am I doing’.
Depression is a pervasive mood state that impacts all aspects of our experience (our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour), while sadness or grieving are feeling states. Feeling sad about a saddening event is not likely to lead to a relapse into depression, but interpreting that sadness as a sign of an impending return to depression – and acting listless, resigned and despairing in response, avoiding work and social interactions, letting nutrition, sleep and exercise lapse – certainly could.
Being an emotional Weeble means being both willing to experience our emotions, and able to see that they are passing feeling states. Just like the Weeble that one might imagine screaming as it teeters to its edge, having a solid and grounded centre helps us pull back upright. And just like the Weeble, we likely won’t stay upright for long before the next wobble sends us teetering.