The drowning story is a powerful metaphor for understanding emotional pain, but actually it’s too easy. The circumstances of real life are much more difficult.
The Danger of Lifesaving
In real life, drowning people are desperate and dangerous. With occasional exceptions, they will fight your efforts to save them. If you throw a rope, they’ll yank on it and knock you off balance. If you go out in a rowboat, they’ll tip you over. And if you’re brave enough–or perhaps foolish enough–to jump in the water to help them, they’ll pull you under the surface.
Anyone who has attempted to be a wise man for another person knows how this metaphor plays out. Emotionally drowning people are desperate. In their attempts to fill their emptiness or relieve their pain they don’t consider or realize their effect on others. From their perspective, the pain of their situation justifies any injury they might cause to others.
The Picky Drowners
Drowners rarely accept whatever help you offer without criticizing it. If you throw a rope, it won’t be the right material, or color, or thickness. Or your throw will miss them. Heaven help you if you throw the rope and hit them in the head. They’ll scream that you’ve hurt them, that you were mean, cruel, and thoughtless, blaming you for their entire condition. Many people would rather drown than accept a rope thrown imperfectly.
We see this every day from people who have no solution to their misery but are quick to curse the mistakes–real and imagined–of anyone who tries to help.
Some people will accept your attempts to pull them from the water, but then they’ll jump right back in, so they can cry for help again. They find this endlessly entertaining.
We see this acted out by people who enjoy the attention of being rescued. They enjoy it so much that it almost seems that they choose to create situations where rescue is required.
The Denial of Drowning
Some people simply deny that they’re drowning. They splash everyone, but if you point that out, they respond, “Oh no, I’m just swimming. I’m not splashing you. What are you talking about?” You point out that you and everyone else are getting wet, but they respond that it must be raining.
You might ask them if they notice that they are thrashing in the water, and that their breathing is difficult. “No,” they say. “I’m fine.” You are quite surprised at this, but they continue to say that they are fine.
It is common for people to deny that their behavior is affecting anyone in a negative way, including themselves. If people admit they are drowning, they would then be obligated to do something about it. So they choose denial, which they believe is the easier course. Insane, but there you are.
The Denial of Responsibility
Some people will admit that they’re drowning, but they deny responsibility for it. They believe that somehow that will make their situation better. “Yes, I’m drowning, but it’s not my fault.”
Take anger, for example. People might admit that they’re angry, but then they blame it on others. They hope that this approach will magically confer happiness on themselves and others–which it never does.
If you attempt to show how someone’s behavior hurt another person, he might respond, “I didn’t mean to.” He thinks that this excuse will make the hurtful behavior disappear.