When we’re upset, many of us do everything but cope with our sadness. We work. We shop. We eat. We drink. We clean. We run errands. We organize. We simply don’t stop moving. And we convince ourselves that we’re too busy to feel sad.
We just can’t pause when there are piles (and piles) of things to do. We try to avoid sadness at all costs. Maybe we’ve learned to see sadness as an emotion we definitely don’t want to feel.
“Many well-intentioned parents will often tell their children ‘you’re OK’ when they are distressed, inadvertently sending the message that these feelings should be avoided,” said Agnes Wainman, a clinical psychologist in London, Ontario.
Maybe we’ve learned to see sadness as a sign of weakness. There’s pressure in our society to be “strong,” and sadness may be viewed as the opposite. Yet when we describe someone as being “strong,” what we’re really saying is that they appear stoic. And while it’s important to regulate our emotions, “we often swing to the extreme of not wanting to show any feelings at all,” she said.
Many of Wainman’s clients try to talk themselves out of their sadness. They believe “they are not entitled to feel sad.” Clients who are caregivers — to kids, partners, parents or in their profession — believe they shouldn’t focus on their emotions, she said. They’ve even described feeling their own feelings as “selfish” or “self-indulgent.” Instead, they focus on everyone else.
People minimize and invalidate their feelings in other ways. Wainman’s clients have told themselves: “Other people have it worse than me, I should suck it up.” They’ve created other kinds of negative self-talk: “I shouldn’t be bothered by this.” “Things could always be worse.” “I should be grateful for all of the good things in my life.” “I need to stop wallowing.”
Yes, things could be worse — they could always be worse — but this doesn’t mean that your pain is insignificant, said Wainman, the founder of London Psychological Services and a self-proclaimed self-care activist. And while it is important to practice gratitude, we also need to balance that with letting ourselves feel our emotions, she said.
We also might have unrealistic expectations about sadness. Maybe you think that sadness has a timeline or time limit. Maybe you think that you should stop feeling sadness about the past. However, while the intensity of sadness typically subsides over time, “there will always be things that make us sad.”
So how can you cope with sadness if you’re more used to avoiding, ignoring or pretending that it doesn’t exist?
Wainman shared these suggestions for easing into your sadness:
- Acknowledge your sadness. Simply recognize that you feel sad. If you aren’t sure what triggered your sadness, explore the root cause. According to Wainman, “Did someone hurt your feelings? Were you reminded of something or someone that you lost? Are you feeling lonely?”
- Give yourself permission to feel sad. This might seem easier said than done if you haven’t connected to your feelings of sadness in quite a while. Wainman suggested checking in with your body and paying attention to your physical sensations. For instance, maybe you feel tightness in your chest or a lump in your throat. “Allow yourself to cry if you need to.” And if critical, judgmental thoughts arise, refocus your attention on what’s happening inside your body, she said.
- Extend some self-compassion. “Treat yourself like you would treat a friend. You likely would not shame a friend for feeling sad; give yourself the same compassion,” Wainman said.
It also helps to realize that sadness can be a valuable messenger. For instance, sadness might tell you that you need to change something. “If we feel sad when we are with our partners, that may mean that something needs to be acknowledged in the relationship,” Wainman said.
Sadness might tell you that something was very meaningful to you, she said. “If we are sad at the loss of a person or relationship, that means it contributed to our story. While the sadness is uncomfortable, it can indicate that we did something worthwhile and significant.” Maybe you let yourself be vulnerable and take an emotional risk, she said. It might’ve turned out the opposite of what you wanted. But “this is part of the human experience.”
Sitting with your sadness is not easy, especially when you’re more used to doing everything else. But practicing the above suggestions can make a big difference. Because that’s really the key: practice. Practice honoring your feelings, which thereby helps you to honor yourself.
Sad woman photo available from Shutterstock