This years annual conference on the Royal College of Occupational Therapists was kicked off with a keynote from Paul McGee. Paul is a performance coach and author of the book Shut Up, Move On. Several minutes into his presentation you could feel the energy lift in the room. I’m in the process of writing a review of Shut Up Move On (to appear shortly) but was particularly caught by one of the chapters entitled Hippo Time Is OK.

The reason this caught my attention? Its acknowledgement of the fact that when we experience major disappointments we need time to ‘wallow’ before we can move on. A lot of the positive psychology messages we are surrounded by are calls to take control of our lives, stretch into new areas, adopt a can do attitude. But, with the best will and intentions in the world, not every venture is going to succeed and turn out as we hoped for. This chapter is a realistic call to acknowledge this and allow ourselves to wallow a little before moving on.

So what is hippo time?

Wallow is a lovely word isn’t it? I looked it up – to roll around or lie in. In this instance we are talking about rolling around in sentiments like: ‘poor me’, ‘what if’, ‘if only’, ‘it’s not fair’, ‘I don’t deserve this’. Have you been there? Lets be honest here, I know I have.

As researchers our work is exposed to constant critique, wallowing is needed. Personal research related wallowing times that spring to mind? Some of the following:

  • receiving feedback on a draft paper I’d worked on for ages when the feedback was almost as many words as the draft
  • messing up a really important presentation/meeting/phone call/conversation
  • having a paper rejected from an academic journal in a less than diplomatic way (implied this is rubbish)
  • having an application for a personal fellowship rejected in a way which felt like, ‘seriously you think you’re good enough to apply for this?’
  • being unsuccessful in a major funding application(s)
  • not being successful in a job interview

I’m guessing you will have your own examples to add to this list.

Why wouldn’t you feel disappointed? We invest a lot of time, energy and passion in what we do and the more important something is the more we care and the more vulnerable we make ourselves. So when something we care about greatly doesn’t come off as we hoped for we aren’t exactly going to jump with joy.

We may try to tell ourselves to be, ‘grown up’ about something, our colleagues may tell us to, ‘get used to it because it goes with the territory’. But we know that is not what we feel at the time. To stand on that ground is a denial of what we are really feeling.

A comment Paul makes is that, ‘no feeling is wrong’. This resonated with me as a phrase I hear on a regular basis in my coaching work is, ‘I shouldn’t feel this way’. We are so good at attaching judgement to our emotions. Seeing them as being right or wrong. So give yourself a break when you experience a major disappointment allow yourself some hippo time. It is OK. It’s an expression of how much you care about what you do. This is serious self-care time. Time to connect with things that you know lift you and people you know are good at patching you up so that you are ready to go again.

Here comes the but……

No self-respecting hippopotamus spends all of it’s time wallowing. Places to go, things to do, other hippopotami to see. Hippos wallow to cool down, it is a mechanism they use to control their temperature. Perhaps this is a good analogy for think about. We can allow ourselves wallowing time as a way of cooling off, restoring our equilibrium before we climb out of the mud and move on. Therefore the key thing to remember about hippo time is that it is only a stopping off place to cool down in.

Amongst some thought provoking questions Paul raises he also provides 3 tips for hippo time:

  1. Think about who you talk to. Find someone who will listen actively and doesn’t feel the need to offer advice or turn the conversation round to their experience of something similar.
  2. Be careful how many people you talk to. Every time you recount a disappointing experience you are reliving a negative experience.
  3. Be mindful about how long your hippo time lasts. This is a temporary stopping off space folks. It is important point to know when you’ve wallowed enough. Be sure your wallowing is commensurate with the situation (is it proportionate?).

An ear worm

I was reflecting on hippo time when I was out walking last night and you know when a song pops into your head and turns into an ear worm? Well the song was a childhood memory of, Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud. Growing up in the countryside there was a lot of mud and this was what we sang as we plodged through it in our wellies. Of course I could only remember the chorus so needed to look it up when I got home. For anyone who is unfamiliar with it (or would like to revisit it) here it is. It will make you smile.

And remember the all important line, ‘They dived all at once with an ear splitting splosh and then rose to the surface again’.