What is Sadness? What is its purpose in our lives?
The emotion of sadness is essential to our survival and has been a part of human experience since the beginning of time. Sadness is our body’s way of telling us that an event (e.g. the death of a loved one, divorce, infidelity) and/or internal experience (e.g. thoughts, beliefs, memories, our imagination) has hurt or upset us.
During our childhood, sadness is there to communicate our distress and our caregivers respond by providing help or comfort while we cry. As we grow up, we learn of grief and betrayal and devastation, and very quickly sadness can morph into intolerable pain. The way our loved ones and society cope with sorrow will influence our willingness to let our sadness in. For example, it would be challenging to cry if you believed others saw you as ‘weak’ or if your friend told you there’s ‘nothing to cry about’.
Perhaps it is no surprise that ‘the quick fix’ (i.e. medication) is so often sought so we can resume living our apparently perfect, productive lives. Anti-depressants were not designed to eradicate a universal, healthy emotion. I fear that our society is becoming intolerant of sadness, which is only reinforced through labels such as ‘weak’, ‘silly’, and ‘depressed’.
This social perception needs to change; no matter how long we try to avoid, criticise, or eradicate our sadness, it will always find a way to ‘connect’ and force us to listen. In the end, we need to feel sad.
Why should we let ourselves feel sad?
In its most simple form, we have two ‘brains’: The Emotional Mind and The Thinking Brain.
The Thinking Brain processes our life as a series of events whereas the Emotional Mind focuses on how we feel about what has happened. Every significant event needs to be processed by the Thinking Brain as well as the Emotional Mind. Feeling sad, angry, fearful, and joyful are essential features of our Emotional Mind, and they all have an important role to play when we emotionally process life’s events.
Sadness’ function is twofold: To let us know that we need to grieve and to seek out those who love and support us. But this is often ‘easier said than done’. Many of my clients tell me that they understand the role of sadness and why they need to let themselves feel it, but they are not sure how to connect with the feeling when they have avoided it for so long.
How can we connect with our own sadness?
- Trust sadness: If you feel sad, then you feel sad. Sadness is there to help you. Own it, embrace it, and trust in it. Trust in sadness’ ability to guide you through your pain and grief, and you’ll be the stronger for it.
- Give yourself permission: Make space for sadness to be a part of you and your experience. You may feel the urge to write down your feelings, keep a diary, write a letter to those who have passed or hurt you or speak with a confidante to help explore and validate your sadness.
How can we connect with others through sadness?
- Vulnerability – Sadness is arguably one of the more difficult emotions to express to others because it requires vulnerability; to let our internal world be seen without the guarantee that someone will be there to support our experience.
- Empathy – When we see someone else crying or in distress, most of us instinctually feel a pull towards that person; we want to help. To truly connect with that person, it isn’t about having all the answers or knowing the right thing to say; often it is about listening and just being there.
- Communicate what you need – I like to believe that most of us would willingly support someone through their sadness if we only knew what to do or how to help. Reminders such as: “Don’t try to fix the problem, just let me feel sad for a while” or “Please hug me until I calm down” can help our helpers feel useful and confident in their support of us during our grief.
Sadness helps and guides us through multiple emotional and necessary journeys throughout our lives. the feeling is important and we all need to listen; the only way to make our pain disappear is to feel it and process it, because only then will sadness let us move forward. And you may be surprised to discover that wherever there is sadness, joy isn’t far behind!
For further information and learning:
- Learning about Sadness through Popular Culture – The Disney Pixar animated film, Inside Out (2015) provides me (and I imagine, other Psychologists as well) with an incredible foundation from which I can talk to my clients and loved ones about sadness, its importance, and just how much we all need it.What would appear on the surface as a children’s movie about the emotions of a girl named Riley, actually contains boundless depth, truth, and insights. [Warning: Spoiler alert! Please skip to the next section to avoid spoilers!] Inside Out beautifully depicts society’s relationship with Sadness- she is ignored and isolated because no one knows why she’s there except to bring us down. Although her family’s relocation meant she lost her best friends, her childhood home, and her beloved hockey team, Riley’s Sadness was ultimately over-powered by a well-meaning Joy who simply wanted Riley to be happy. We then see the consequences of ignoring Sadness: Riley’s core memories become irretrievably sad; her identity islands collapse; and Anger and Fear fail in their attempts to help her. Through Joy’s journey with Sadness, she learns that her companion actually serves an important purpose: To signify to Riley that she has lost something important, and her need to seek comfort from her parents.Indeed, Inside Out was an exciting step forward in pop-culture’s acknowledgement of the importance of our feelings, in which sadness played a starring role. The movie is a true gift to my profession and a resource I recommend to all of my clients who are experiencing loss or grief, or simply struggle to accept their sadness.
- “The Power of Vulnerability”– Brene Brown is a social worker and researcher who has dedicated much of her life to the understanding of human emotions and the need for vulnerability and empathy. Her videos titled: ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ and ‘Brene Brown on Empathy’ are excellent places to start if you wish to learn more.