Drowning in Emotion

Dr. Bill Spaine

By far my favorite job in late adolescence and early adulthood was being a lifeguard and swimming pool manager for the four years during college. It was mostly an Andy of Mayberry sort of job that was best accomplished by maintaining a spirit of friendly respect, order, and safety among the children, teenagers, and adults who frequented the pool. The actual performing of the heroic and dramatic water rescue, for which all lifeguards are trained, was rare– much to my youthful disappointment. If someone did begin to panic and flounder in the water, he could usually be sufficiently aided by tossing him a kickboard or an air-mattress from the deck of the pool. This Andy of Mayberry genre of rescue drew less attention to the often embarrassed struggler and facilitated the calm and casual ambiance of our little community.

This approach to life guarding serves another purpose, as well: keeping the rescuer safe. As every lifeguard knows, people who are drowning are panicky, may be terrified, and, are usually desperate. If you swim out to them, you had better have a significant amount of skill and a very good plan, for many, if not most drowning people will grab you by the head and push you under the water. This isn’t because they are mean-spirited folks or because they don’t like you. Their intention is not to harm you, nor are they upset by your presence. They are quite pleased that you came to help. Most are not, however, chiefly concerned about your safety or well-being in this particular situation. No, they will claw you and violently climb to the highest point available, which is likely to be your head, because that next breath is so urgent to them. Their anxiety has reached crisis level, and most will do whatever it is they need to do to take that next breath and survive.

Again, these are normally well-intentioned, intelligent, church-going, civilized human beings, but when people are drowning, or even think that they are, anxiety, terror, and the will to survive often take precedence over their concern about you and your well-being.

Next: Are you Reacting or Responding?

What do you do when you feel you’re drowning in emotion…

Copyright © 2011 William E. Spaine, Psy.D.