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Psychology of the Drowned 

An analogy to psychological processes 

mão na água pedindo socorro

                                                     Psychology of the Drowned


The title of this article may seem strange, but I believe that this is a phenomenon that is extremely easy to recognize.

I swam for many years, and part of the learning of this sport involved rescue techniques [1]. One of the rules that swimmers should obey was never to swim alone, that is, when swimming in a deep pool, where we could not reach the bottom easily, or when swimming in open areas, in lakes, rivers or ocean, we should make sure that someone could ask for or provide help if we needed it.

This first lesson, of a practical nature, implies maintaining the swimmer's safety, which could be put at risk by his hybris [2], or ego inflation [3], which can occur in each one of us whenever we acquire a new capacity or talent.


Each swimmer was warned that, even if he was an excellent athlete, if he was sick in the water, whether from a simple cramp, or from a more serious problem, such as a sudden illness, this athlete, professional or amateur, would be rescued in time.

Knowing that we are capable of help makes us aware of possible dangers, and aware of our current, possible, or sporadic weaknesses.


When we feel unable to get out of the water, we should remain calm and float around waiting for help. Of course, this is the most difficult part, anyone who has had a cramp in the water knows that the pain is not simple, and that it can be exceedingly difficult to reach the edge of a large pool, or reach the beach, which we would do in seconds when in our ideal condition.



Humility in recognizing that we need help is another valuable lesson, trusting that the help we need will come is no less important.

The second part of the training involves life-saving lessons. The first impulse of all when asked what they would do, if they saw someone drowning, was to throw themselves in the water and carry out the rescue, which proved to be the last of the alternatives to be considered, but still with some rules that would determine the safety of all and the success of the rescue.

It turns out that when someone is drowning, the tendency is to use the person who comes to his rescue as a lifeline, leaning on the lifeguard, making him submerge, with a great chance that both will drown, as a fight can act, putting the life of both, the drowned and the lifeguard at risk.

In this case, jumping into the water to make the rescue, which seemed the most correct and heroic attitude, at least at first glance, was almost a suicide mission.

One of the first viable options would be to throw a floater or a swimming board so that the drowned would have a support, until someone would approach to carry out the rescue itself. Another would be to extend some rod or beam and pull the drowner close to the edge, facilitating the rescue.

Another recommendation would be that we should not be standing on the edge, but lying close to the edge when we pull the drowner to a safe place, otherwise we could lose our balance and fall into the water, running the risk of being used as a lifeline and putting the life of the drowned and our own at risk.

I find the analogy of the psychology of drowning especially useful when comparing not only the therapeutic process, but also every act of helping others, whether through social or religious charity.

When helping someone, we must be efficient and maintain our own security and integrity. To do this, we need knowledge and strategic planning, which in the specific situation of drowning, some people have already acquired throughout their lives, but in so many other situations of help, we can rely only on common sense.


An old study of which the source does not recall, demonstrated that the said heroes of the day to day proved to be people who in a fraction of a second evaluated the situation of risk, calculating their chances of success before deciding, making the rescue effective and safer than it would appear in the eyes of other people, that is, instead of being impulsive, they were extremely quick in their assessment of risks and their own abilities.

I would say that this would be a capacity for healthy and creative empathy, after all the rescues would be carried out, with no or minimal damage to the lifeguard, of course considering the severity and circumstances, after all, some wounds and discomforts are infinitely less than someone's death.


Something interesting to make an analogy, would be that standing would put us at risk of falling into the water and drowning too. Making an analogy with the psychotherapeutic process and other help professions, we must place ourselves as close as possible to the level of the person we want to help, that is, not to look at the person helping from the top down, but in an equal position.


The limits of aid and its effectiveness have always been the subject of discussion in the aid professions [4], a discussion that has worsened enormously due to the Covid-19 pandemic, where the number of “drowned” has increased in an uncontrolled way, both in matters of health and care, as in matters of material survival caused by unemployment, which has mainly affected less qualified professionals, or underemployed.

We are living an ethical dilemma without measure, on the one hand wanting to do our part, giving our best, on the other hand, running the risk of overloading ourselves in a way that can put us at risk.


What is the limit of the help that we can and should offer? How to deal with the stress of a collapsing society?


I do not think I have a definitive solution, but rather to raise the reflection on certain possible behaviors, because if there is something that we psychotherapists do all the time, it is dealing with this psychology of the drowned.

So many times we see our patients drowning in problems, and we have to contain our anxiety, after all, we cannot take on the life and choices of someone other than ourselves, we are looking for the balance between being close enough that the patient does not drown alone in his/her problems, but we also have to keep a certain distance so that we don't lose sight of the whole water, or of the unconscious processes that are present in all human relationships.

What water does our patient drown in? Light or dark? Deep or shallow? Calm or revolt?


If we use the rescue techniques learned in swimming, we know that we need to have a view not only of the risk area, but also of the rescue resources. What resources do I have that are useful for this situation? What is the safe distance for both? After all, if I drown, I won't take anyone out of the water.


That is, if I get personally involved with the patient's complaints, I lose the range of vision that a certain distance gives me. The therapeutic process implies a dance, in which we alternate approach and a certain distance, as when we swim, we dive, but we have to get our heads out of the water to breathe from time to time.

The most effective technique for getting a drown out of the water, when the last available resource is to throw yourself in the water and swimming, we must surround the drowned, approaching from behind, that is, avoid unrestrained defenses that may make it impossible to save the drowned, who instinctively will push us down. We must pass the arm under the chin towards one of the armpits, so we keep the drowned with the head out of the water, able to breathe, and with the feeling of security of those who are sheltered in strong arms, so we can still use the other arm and legs to take the drowned to shallower waters, or wait for help and collaboration from another person, who in the case of the drowned may be someone else on the rescue team, or in the case of a patient it may be the medication, the family support or from any branch of society in which it is inserted, such as religious, alcoholics  or narcotics anonymous groups, or others.


The ability to detect the most effective and safe aid is part of the psychotherapeutic process , in which we deal with defense mechanisms, both neurotic, psychotic, narcissistic or psychopathic. We need to identify them in order to develop the best treatment tactic.


The same procedure, or tactic, can be thought of in the assistance groups that multiplied during the pandemic. Keeping a certain distance in order to make more balanced decisions instead of succumbing to the noble desire to help can make aid more effective and lasting.


Recognizing our limited support capacity can help us to surround ourselves with a larger and more comprehensive support network, which is also more effective.


Planning an aid that goes beyond the emergency, can, for example, turn occasional help into ordinary, respecting the time that the individual needs to get back up, either emotionally or financially.


Of course, those who are hungry are in a hurry, as much as those who drown need to breathe, but we need to avoid being devoured or drowned by the needs of others, just as we need to respect the limits of each one in offering us the possible and feasible help at every moment and need. after all, rescue, like first aid, is just the tip of the iceberg.


In this pandemic moment, responsible citizens are covering the many absences of the State, but a single individual does less than a couple or a group of people.


The easiest rescues need technique, equipment, and a support network, this goes for psychotherapy, for war situations, as well as the calamity that this pandemic has caused us.

Health centers, hospitals and philanthropic entities are drowning in the face of a superhuman demand for work. Professionals are acting beyond the limits of their physical and mental capacities, putting their own health at risk on many occasions. Often the hero’s call can lead us to suicidal behavior,


Philanthropic entities are desperately trying to cover the hole caused by a lack of adequate government assistance, and even government forces trying to do their best are not performing well enough to meet this extraordinary demand for relief and care for this population, massacred by the pandemic.


The hero's frustration at not fulfilling his mission is terrible.


We see several professionals from the aid professions and government entities collapsing, trying to alleviate the damage caused by the pandemic situation, watching without understanding the individuals who throw themselves into a deep pool without knowing how to swim, often drunk, intoxicated by the thirst for living, flirting with death, trying to lead a “normal life”, in a totally abnormal situation.

Yes, we are living in an abnormal, atypical, extraordinary situation, which in large part could be

avoided by the presence of a responsible state and conscientious citizens.


The principle of pleasure, strong in cultures of matriarchal predominance as ours, confronts the death instinct. Having a normal, happy, and pleasurable life at any cost is not unlike a suicidal tendency, whether we are aware of it or not. The eagerness to enjoy life at any cost is similar to the desire to dive into rough waters while intoxicated.

The impulse of life and pleasure can also have the same effect as a drug, in which one seeks the increasingly intense intoxicating experience, and consequently, riskier.


Taking risks is an attribute of the hero's archetype, but also of the Puer [5], as the consequences always come to meet us.


Would we be living in a society in which there is a prevalence of Puer, that is, of puerile, irresponsible behaviors, in search of the eternal and unattainable lightness of being?

The boldness of the heroic act implies assessing the risks, but when the enemy is an invisible and little-known virus, obeying the impulses of pleasure is the same as throwing yourself into an abyss blindly, jumping on a hang glider without a guide and without experience for the first time, or to swim in treacherous waters, without knowing how to swim.


Some people go through life as if they were eternal drowned, counting that some hero comes to rescue them.


Such individuals follow their impulses and needs, relying on the luck or the divine providence or of the people around them, and this is much more common than imagined.

Some individuals really do not have the resources to survive without material help, given the unequal conditions that are perpetuating in our society, which depend on government investments in health, housing, education, and basic sanitary conditions. Even so, these conditions do not require a few decades to stabilize after its implementation, however, there are individuals who have had access to all of this and who continue to behave as drowned.

These symbolic drowns alternate life between calls for help, being rescued, and returning to the rescue situation countless times, repeating an endless pattern. Many of them pretend to end up drowning to take advantage of those who drown in pathological empathy, of those who compulsively put themselves in a position to help others, often being in shambles themselves.


Many of these symbolic drownings have other psychopathologies, such as psychopathic defenses or narcissistic wounds. Many present early wounds in the development of matriarchal dynamism, fixed in a development phase prior to the dynamism of alterity [6], where the matriarchal and patriarchal dynamics dialogue, defensively using mechanisms that prevent their development as capable and responsible adults.


These unidentified, or misidentified, pathological defenses can constellate the hero archetype in many of us, a genuine need to help others, characteristic of mature and capable individuals.

However, the naive fantasy that a heroic gesture directed at these supposed drowns is enough to resolve everything, proves ineffective on many occasions, triggering dependency relationships, since these symbolic drowned behave like emotional and material vampires, sucking the energy and efforts of those who help them, using them as access bridges, drowning their lifeguards, in the symbolic sense of exhausting the resources of those who help them, always wanting more and more.


That is why aid professions, and philanthropic entities in general need to obey some rescue rules, so that they are not pushed to the bottom, some of these attitudes can be confused with the bureaucracy and coldness of government organizations, whose methods can be questioned, but their absence can be chaotic.


They are:

  1. Observe and understand the request for help, both personally and collectively

  2. Recognize their own capacity and limits in relation to this demand

  3. Plan help

  4. Use intermediate resources, such as laws, contracts, codes of ethics, that is, equivalent to the floaters and rods that lead the drowned to the edge, or provide the drowned with these resources

  5. Avoid direct confrontation, that is, in the rescue of a drowned, we surround the drowning victim, hold him behind his back and create a certain immobilization in order to conduct the rescue in a safe way for both, discarding this resource when the drowned is on land firm, or in touch with reality. Equivalent to this, when dealing with psychological defenses we need to be aware of which and at what time they can be confronted, since at first the ideal would be circum-ambulate[7] around them, until the confrontation itself can be carried out , if necessary.


These guidelines tend to avoid the formation of a shadow in the relationship between the one who helps and the one who is helped, because the help relationships, by themselves, can trigger envy and resentment, not just gratitude and admiration, as it is normally imagined happening.


The help relationships place the aided person in a situation of possible inferiority, and these guidelines can be an important tool for this not to happen, since if the individual who received any kind of help feels humiliated, and experiences of humiliation are shadowy by themselves.


In any case, some maxims of Christianity are applicable to psychological knowledge, because whoever helps is in a privileged situation that does not allow to judge who is being helped, should not wait for gratitude or recognition. After all, the best recognition that aid has been effective is when it is no longer needed, and our presence becomes unnecessary.


This should be the aim of psychotherapy, to become unnecessary after a certain period of time, thus fulfilling its role as a transforming agent.

Bibliographic references


Byington, Carlos Amadeu Bueno - Creative Envy

Jungian Symbolic Psychology

Campbell, Joseph - The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Cultrix / Thought

Edinger, Edward - Ego and Archetype

Guggenbuhl-Craig, Adolf - Eros on Crutches - On the Nature of the Psychopath

The Abuse of Power in Psychotherapy and Medicine, Social Work, Priesthood and Teaching.

Freud, Sigmund - Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920

Eros and Thanatos

Hillman, James - Suicide and Soul

Jung, Carl Gustav - The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious

The Nature of the Psyche

Personality Development

Von Franz, Marie Louise - The Problem of the Puer Aeternus

Zweig, Connie and Abrams, Jeremiah - Meeting the Shadow - The Hidden Potential of Human Nature

Technical Manual of Aquatic Rescue - Military Fire Brigade of Espírito Santo


[1] Water Rescue Technical Manual - Espírito Santo Military Fire Brigade


[2] Hybris, in Greek mythology, personifies insolence, violence, reckless pride, arrogance and any outrageous behavior in general. Such a concept implies everything that goes beyond the measure, or an excessive confidence.

[3] Identification of the ego with the Self, in which the ego attributes itself to broader qualities, equivalent to the archetype of the Self. See Edinger.

[4] Guggenbhul-Craig, Adolf

[5] Puer Aeternus - adult person whose emotional life remained at the adolescent level. One of its characteristics is the greed for freedom, independence, opposition to limits and intolerance to restrictions

[6] Byington, see bibliography.

[7] Circumambulatio - refers to the idea or process of looking at or approaching a problem from different angles, in reference to sacred rituals where an image is surrounded and treated with respect and reverence.

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