In our society, we’re constantly striving to feel positive emotions—only positive emotions. Happiness. Joy. Gratitude. Calm. Peace. We see sadness as unhealthy and wrong, so when it arises, we feel unhealthy and wrong for experiencing it.
We see sadness as unproductive. We just “don’t see the point” in feeling sad, said psychologist assistant Lena Dicken, Psy.D.
We also might be scared to feel our sadness, which is understandable. “If there’s a lot of sadness, due to grief or loss of a loved one, it can feel overwhelming, like a bottomless pit.”
Plus, there’s a kind of pressure to “at least appear happy all the time,” said Zoë Kahn, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice, primarily seeing clients on the Eastside of Los Angeles. She noted that advertising and social media play a pivotal role in this image making. There’s apparel with sayings like “Good Vibes Only,” and memes with happiness quotes like “Choose Happy.” People don’t want to be seen as a “downer” or a “negative person,” Kahn said. Which means we keep our sadness to ourselves—or even from ourselves.
Ultimately, we see sadness as an emotion to avoid at all costs. And we do try to avoid it at all costs. “Most of us weren’t taught how to be there for ourselves when we’re feeling down, so avoidance feels like the only way to alleviate the pain,” said Joy Malek, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with people who are intuitive, empathic, creative and highly sensitive.
“We are socialized to ‘just get through things’ or ‘toughen up’ so it makes sense that our first inclination would be to avoid experiencing sadness (or other negative emotions) in order to be resilient,” Kahn said.
People do “just about anything” to avoid feeling sad, said Dicken, founder of Saltwater Sessions, an innovative therapeutic program that combines surfing and mindfulness. For instance, many get angry. “Anger gives us a (false) sense of power over the situation by making us feel like we have control and are in charge.”
Many focus on changing their mindset and being optimistic, she said. But this also brushes sadness under the rug, which means “you end up with a huge pile of unprocessed feelings. It’s only a matter of time until the feelings spill out and leave you no choice but to deal with them.”
Many of Kahn’s clients talk about zoning out while watching TV, sleeping long hours, self-medicating (with food and substances), working long hours or taking on numerous projects. “I’ve listened to many clients talk about filling up their days with ‘distractions’ in order to stay busy and ultimately avoid feeling sad.”
The Power of Sadness
But sadness is actually a good thing. It’s actually a vital, valuable emotion. And it’s critical that we carve out time to listen to it.
According to Malek, sadness is “an expression of the soul, with valuable information about what we’re experiencing and what we need.” It is the first step in fulfilling our yearnings, she said, in giving ourselves what’s missing in our lives.
Similarly, Kahn noted that sadness is a sign of something we want to change, of an opportunity to grow and learn about ourselves on a deeper level. “It can be our psyche’s way of shedding light on some truth we’ve hidden from ourselves subconsciously or a truth we’ve been too afraid to face because it feels scary.”
Kahn shared these examples: We realize that we’re lonely, and we’d like to connect more with others and have a richer social life. We realize that our relationship just isn’t working, and we need to start couples therapy or break up. We realize our job isn’t working out, and we need to find a better work environment or a different career. In other words, sadness can guide us toward the direction we need to go to create a more meaningful, connected, fulfilling life.
“At times when we are grieving a loss, sadness reminds us that we are human, and that we need comfort, support, and space to mourn,” Malek said.
Our grief also speaks to the power of the relationship and our love for the person we’ve lost. According to Jamie Anderson in this beautiful piece, “Grief, I’ve learned, is really love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot give. The more you loved someone, the more you grieve. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes and in that part of your chest that gets empty and hollow feeling. The happiness of love turns to sadness when unspent. Grief is just love with no place to go. It’s taken me seven years to realize that my grief is my way of telling the great vastness that the love I have still resides here with me. I will always grieve for my Mom because I will always love her. It won’t stop. That’s how love goes.”
Bottling up our sadness (or any other emotion) doesn’t make it go away. Instead, it stays and expresses itself in unhealthy ways. “Bottling up emotions could lead to any sort of addiction,” said Dicken. Which might include anything from alcohol to gambling to exercising to suppress your emotions.
Bottling up our sadness also shapes our behavior in relationships, and can lead us to feel disconnected from others. We might snap at a loved one or say something cruel. We might be sarcastic or cynical: Oh, that must be nice. Good for you.
Feeling Your Sadness
If you’ve been avoiding your sadness, it can seem almost impossible to feel it. But there are ways you can ease into the process. According to Malek, “It is difficult to face sadness alone, and it multiplies in isolation.” Which is why she suggested working with a therapist or turning to a trusted friend. “We often don’t realize that just speaking about our sadness out loud to someone who cares about us and wants to listen is healing in itself.”
Dicken suggested putting on music that makes you feel emotional, lighting a candle and being present with whatever feelings arise. Reflect on what might be causing your feelings. “Try not to distract yourself from the feelings with your phone or TV, but do notice the desire to do so if it comes up.”
When easing into sadness, Kahn encourages her clients to focus on self-compassion and self-care “first and foremost.” This means inviting sadness in “as a friend who has some valuable wisdom to share.” She also suggested exploring where your sadness is stemming from, but it’s OK if it’s unclear at first.
This means using “self-care activities to create a compassionate, loving environment in which to explore and understand your sadness.” Ask yourself regularly: “Is this a loving choice for myself?” Kahn said. Is having drinks tonight a loving choice? Is resting and going to bed earlier a loving choice? Is staying up late and scrolling social media a loving choice?
You also might journal; listen to a guided meditation; or connect to nature by taking a walk or hiking a trail. Kahn stressed the importance of finding what works best for you—which might not be journaling or meditating or walking.
Remind yourself that sadness is not permanent. After all, “feelings come and go,” Malek said. “If we look back on our lives, we can see times when happiness, inspiration or connection were foremost.”
And remind yourself that sadness isn’t pointless. When you sit with your sadness, you realize it has many stories to tell you. Stories about your needs and longings. Stories about loved ones you’ll never stop loving or missing. Stories that are meaningful for you to explore—and use to help you make important decisions.