Do You (Figuratively) Lick Your Wounds? Should You?

After failure or defeat, what are the pros and cons of licking your wounds?

Posted Jul 21, 2016

Sad Woman/Pixabay
Source: Sad Woman/Pixabay

For humans, the essence of wound-licking involves not a lapping tongue but a rationalizing mind. And perhaps more than anything else, a mind that is engaged in feeling sorry for itself. At its worst, it might even be seen as a pity party for one.

Certainly, in the face of disappointment, ridicule, failure, humiliation, or defeat, licking one’s wounds is completely understandable. Basically a reaction to hurt feelings, it frequently involves not only self-soothing but also a certain amount of righteous self-pity. And, as I’ll describe below, it can entail quite a bit more than this.

But just how helpful is it? How effectively can it heal not physical but psychological wounds? And—going forward—how likely is it to lead to a more positive outcome?

Retreating from others to lick one’s wounds can in fact “play out” in various ways. Curiously, although I spent several hours researching this intriguing (to me, at least) subject, I couldn’t find a single article on the Web exploring it. Yet, doubtless, at one time or another, we’ve all relied on supposedly salutary “wound-licking” to lessen our distress over a situation that temporarily left us distraught, depressed, or overwhelmed.

Let’s look briefly at how a couple of dictionaries have characterized this idiomatic expression Cited by thefreedictionary.com, the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs (2002) describes licking one’s wounds as a way to recover from a defeat or a rebuke (as in, “After the terrible meeting and all the criticism, I went back to my office to lick my wounds”). And this online dictionary also refers to the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms (2003), which defines this expression in terms of avoiding or ignoring other people after an unpleasant experience (as in, “Mary’s film career was a failure, and she went home to lick her wounds in private”).

Etymologically speaking, all dictionaries agree that this idiom derives from the well-recognized fact that after animals are injured they instinctively lick their wounds, presumably in the effort to clean and heal them. For animals, then, it’s a recuperative act.

And, metaphorically, for humans? The behavior is sufficiently universal to conclude that our motives are similarly remedial or restorative. But how effective is doing so for us?

What I’ll suggest below is that its results are mixed. So when you’re engaged in (verbal) wound-licking, it’s important to know what’s best to say to yourself, as well as when—if at all—to return to the person or situation that prompted you to retreat.

First, the pros:

  • We all need some time to recover when we’ve been antagonized or had our feelings hurt. So to exit from the precipitating event to afford ourselves that “downtime” can be understood as an essential aspect of self-soothing. In a sense the withdrawal is a fundamental aspect of self-care or self-compassion.
  • If we use this wound-licking respite wisely, it can be a necessary first step in getting back up from a perceived defeat by integrating the experience so that it no longer feels so overwhelming. Wound-licking might be seen as a stage that precedes resilience. That is, we’re emotionally recuperating from our wounding experience so we can return—or spring back—to the problem that temporarily got the better of us.
  • When we’re flooded with emotion because of some disturbing conflict with, say, our child or life partner, it can act as a much-needed “time-out.” It may be imperative that we go off somewhere to calm ourselves down, or cool ourselves off, so later we can see this adverse situation from a different vantage point—and likely one that shows greater understanding and empathy for the other’s perspective.

And now for the cons:

  • Licking our wounds can lead us, self-indulgently, to luxuriate in feelings of tender self-pity, and so interfere with our getting over our upset, or responding effectively to an issue that needs to be confronted. (And it might be noted here that it’s hard to think of a more scathing expression than to speak of someone as “wallowing in self-pity.”)
  • It can promote an attitude of self-justification—even an air of (feigned) superiority. In the moment such an “adaptation” may make us feel better, but it’s not likely to do anything to help us reach our objectives or goals.
  • Even as it soothes our feelings by assisting us in confirming the legitimacy of our position (assuming that someone has just denigrated or dismissed it), it may be counter-productive as regards problem-solving or conflict negotiation. It can hinder our ability to appreciate the other’s viewpoint, which is imperative if we’re to re-approach the conflict in a way that leads to a mutually acceptable solution.

... So, ask yourself: If you’ve gone off to lick your wounds in the past, did it serve you in realizing the pro’s suggested above? Or did it tilt in the other direction?

And if the latter, and you need to give yourself a restorative time-out in the future, can you contrive to make this period of disengagement as fruitful, or fertile, as possible?

In various ways, many of my posts on relationships may be seen as complementing this one. Here are some of their titles and links:

“Compromise Made Simple: 7 Handy Tips for Couples”

“How to Optimize Your Relationship: The 70/70 Compromise”

“How to Respond When Your Partner’s Bark Feels More Like a Bite”

“How Fair Is Your Marriage?”

“One Marriage = Two Realities”

If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, kindly consider forwarding them its link.

To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad range of psychological topics—click here.

© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

---Finally, to be notified whenever I post something new, I invite readers to join me on Facebook—as well as on Twitter where, additionally, you can follow my frequently unorthodox psychological and philosophical musings.