Sink or Swim

You will know by now that I love an extended metaphor.  And I love water imagery.  So when a friend helped me to come up with this idea a few weeks ago it really resonated.  I have been using it every day, and it is helping.  So I thought I would share.

The phrase “sink or swim” suggests that those are the only two options we have in life, and we all know what they both feel like.  Sinking, or drowning as I think of it, is the times when it has all gone to shit.  The black dog of depression is upon me.  Or my anxiety is out of control.  Or I’m having a panic attack.  I feel like I’m drowning.  And you will know what drowning feels like for you.

Swimming is the other end of that scale.  These are the times when we are making progress.  So for me that is winning a new client, having a parenting breakthrough, doing billable hours, figuring out a new issue in therapy, clearing crap out of my house….. Again, it will look different for all of us.  But we know when we’re swimming. When we’re moving forward, making progress, feeling good.

The majority of life, though, doesn’t involve sinking or swimming.  The drowning times are hopefully few and far between.  And so are the swimming times, because we can’t be making progress all the time.  That would be crazy, and it isn’t possible, or at least it’s not sustainable.


So what do we do for the rest of the time?  The rest of the moments in our day when we’re just “being”?  The school run, the grocery shop, the precious free time before bed, the moments with our friends, all the “other stuff”?  What are we doing then?

For me I have worked out that I have two choices in all of those moments.  I can tread water…..or I can float.

Treading water used to be my default.  And again, if we stop and think then we all know when we’re doing it.  Expending lots of energy just to stay still.  Keeping moving even though we’re not going anywhere. Sometimes keeping moving in a desperate attempt to avoid drowning. Sometimes because we wish we were swimming, or we think we “should” be swimming so we keep moving, not really knowing how to stop.

It is exhausting. It depletes our energy, making it harder to then swim when we have the opportunity. And because it is exhausting it actually makes it more likely we will start to drown. It gets us nowhere. It is so very tiring.

So instead of expending all this energy treading water why don’t we just…..float?

Beach ball floating on water at beach

Floating takes no energy. Floating is calm and slow and it allows us to breathe and to think.  It builds up our reserves for the next time that we need to swim, whilst at the same time keeping us safe from drowning, almost indefinitely. It is a far more logical, a far healthier, a far more productive choice. And it feels so lovely.

A lot of people, particularly women, will struggle to float. Because in order to float we need to stop. And cessation of movement is difficult because we feel like we should be swimming ALL THE TIME, and if we stop moving we are admitting that we’re not swimming. And that that’s okay. If we are not swimming, and thankfully we are not drowning, the best course of action is to float. Give yourself permission to stop treading water. It is depleting your energy reserves, and it is getting you nowhere.

What floating actually looks like will differ from person to person. For some people it will be specific activities – they will be floating when they are doing yoga, or knitting, or walking outside, or meditating. Or spending time in an actual flotation tank. There are lots of activities which make it easier to float. For me, I am trying to make it a moment by moment thing, I am trying to float no matter what I am doing. It is a deep breathe, an acknowledgement of my surroundings, a grounding in the moment. Some people would call it mindfulness. Whatever works for you. It is an understanding that I don’t actually need to check Facebook, message my friend with my latest stream of consciousness, load the dishwasher straight away, check my emails for another task, wander from room to room looking for activity…. I am not swimming, I am not drowning. So. Just float.


I did think the other day that this would have been particularly relevant when I had newborn babies. Because parenting a baby is the ultimate in treading water. You can achieve nothing, or nothing that you recognise as an achievement at the time. You are constantly trying not to drown. So you create pointless, mindless activity because you miss swimming and you don’t know how to just stop. People told me at the time to “go with the flow” but that meant nothing to me. What I needed was to be shown how to float.

Although of course no new mother can actually take on board sensible advice at all! It’s all just too hard. But when I thought I was drowning, and I was actually just desperately missing swimming, learning to float would have helped me a lot.

So the next time you don’t message me back straight away, or “like” my Instagram post, or get my birthday card to me on time, or remember that thing I told you about a while back…..don’t worry. I am not offended. I am not worried. I will know that you have put aside pointless activity. You are floating. I am floating. And when we are ready, and rested, and re-energised, maybe we can swim together.


April 2019

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