Sadness is integral to the human experience — so why do we often push it away?
Sadness probably isn’t one of your favorite feelings, but it’s still a valuable emotion, and it’s OK to be sad. While it might be uncomfortable, letting sadness in can come with many benefits.
It’s common to label sadness as a “negative” emotion and avoid it as a result. You might find yourself using distractions, like browsing your phone or snacking when you’re not hungry, to keep that heavy feeling in your chest at bay.
Sometimes, avoiding sadness can even look like lashing out when someone brings up a topic that’s sensitive to you.
Avoiding sadness can also come with a side helping of toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is when you banish difficult emotions and only acknowledge more favorable ones, like happiness. It can seem helpful, but toxic positivity may cost you your authenticity and take an emotional toll.
While running from sadness can keep you stuck in a rut, acknowledging and processing it can make it easier to move forward meaningfully in life.
Letting yourself feel sad doesn’t mean wallowing in self-pity. Choosing sadness brings a variety of benefits. For instance, it means accepting the reality of your current emotions and taking the first step toward processing them.
It connects you with others
One function of sadness is that it encourages others to treat you with empathy, according to a 2018 review of research. This means that embracing sadness could connect you with compassion and care when you need it most.
A 2015 study found that expressing sadness can also bring people together by creating a shared sense of values and belonging to a group. Many cultures even have specific practices and rituals for expressing sadness as a community.
Participating in a communal expression of sadness, such as attending a memorial service or vigil, is one way sadness could help you feel less alone.
It helps you process complexity
Sometimes sadness causes you to seek space from others instead — and this may actually be another benefit.
Research from 2018 suggests that when sadness urges you to disconnect, you’re experiencing a protective mechanism meant to keep you safe during a vulnerable time. A bit of solitude when you’re feeling sad may help your body and mind cut down on unnecessary stimuli. This can give you space to process intense or complex feelings.
It’s part of grieving
Sadness is an aspect of grief, the natural process for responding to and managing loss. Experts suggest that sadness may be a phase in the cycle of grief that promotes reflection. This means that sadness may actively help you make sense of the strong feelings that grief can bring.
Expressing sadness by crying can also signal to those around you that you’re experiencing grief and could use support and understanding.
It allows you to adapt
Sadness can help you respond to the thoughts and feelings it has helped you process.
Rumination, when you go through the same thoughts over and over, is often seen as an unhelpful behavior. But when it comes with sadness, it may actually help you come to terms with letdown or loss and build a new strategy for moving through it, according to a 2018 review.
Sadness is also connected to post-traumatic growth, which can happen after difficult life circumstances. Post-traumatic growth could lead to a deeper sense of spirituality or motivation to enact positive change.
It can teach you about yourself
Because sadness is often a response to feelings of failure or loss, it’s also a reminder of what you care deeply about and of the qualities that make you human. These include your:
- values, goals, and beliefs
- capacity to love
- interdependence with others
It can lead to more satisfaction
In some cases, sadness may be a sign that something in your life, like a relationship or job, isn’t working out.
For example, lingering sadness and depression can be signs of burnout. Burnout is an indication that your energy is being depleted and it’s time for a change. Tuning in to that feeling can be the first step toward making a change that serves you.
When is sadness really something else?
Sadness is a natural emotion. But if you experience it for long periods or it gets in the way of your daily functioning, it could be a sign of a mental health condition like depression.
Here’s how to tell the difference between sadness and depression.
It can seem all too easy to become overwhelmed by sadness. You might worry letting sadness in will mean it’s there to stay.
Self-care that minimizes distraction and maximizes mindfulness could help you get in touch with sadness without losing yourself in it.
Writing down your feelings could help you tap into sadness in a manageable way. For instance, a small 2016 study found journaling helped registered nurses process negative emotions associated with their work.
Setting aside some quiet time to journal might help if you’re having trouble getting in touch with buried feelings of sadness. As you write, you might imagine your sadness surfacing and moving through you and onto the page.
Keep a broad perspective
The right perspective and some self-compassion could help you manage the uncomfortable aspects of sadness and stay present with them.
You might imagine your emotions as weather — just like storm clouds, sadness will eventually pass. It can help to remember that emotions are temporary if sadness brings up fears that you’ll never feel happy again.
A 2020 study also suggests self-compassion may help when managing depression and deep feelings of sadness. Self-compassion involves maintaining a perspective of kindness and nonjudgment toward yourself.
Meditation could help you regulate, or manage, emotions like sadness constructively. A small 2019 study found that meditation that focused on positive emotions was especially effective at helping people regulate emotion.
On top of helping you manage sadness, meditation could lower its intensity and make the process of moving through it feel less overwhelming.
Want to know more? Here are some kinds of meditation that can help with depression and sadness.
Talk it out
Expressing sadness to an empathetic loved one can be a great way to process it, allowing you to feel less alone.
If you’ve experienced loss or a setback alongside another person, it may feel even more natural to share your sadness with them. Setting aside time to speak candidly about disappointment or grief may foster a sense of closeness with that person.
Talking through feelings of sadness with a mental health professional is another option. Therapy could help you confront feelings of sadness and offer support as you unravel them.
Being present with sadness can be an opportunity to investigate the emotion a bit further. Using an emotions wheel like this one could help you narrow down the broad feeling of sadness to something more specific to your situation, whether that’s discouraged, hurt, or gloomy.
Letting sadness in can help you process life’s difficulties and connect with others in times of hardship. You might just find that letting yourself feel sad in the short term brings you to a happier place overall.