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How to be sad

Part three of a series exploring difficult emotions and how to cope with them.

Part one: no bad feelings (ideally read this one first)

Part two: Anger

This piece is about the emotion, sadness, not the illness depression or the experience of grief. Though as sadness is a common feature of depression and grief it's likely this information will be helpful.

Why we dislike sadness

Sayings like 'stiff upper lip', 'keep calm and carry on' and 'chin up' describe a cultural tendency for emotional stoicism and resilience that can easily veer into lack of expression or even repression. Sadness is one of the most common feelings that we bottle up and feel embarrassed or even shameful for expressing in public. But why are we like this?

You can think of a therapist as a bit like a personal historian; excavating for clues as to what happened in the past that explains the way a person thinks, feels and behaves in the present. If we think of Britain as the client, for a moment, they might have an 'a ha!' moment talking about the French Revolution.

Before this time, the stereotypical emotional restraint didn't exist. In fact in his 1604 book Passions Of The Minde In Generall Thomas Wright wrote that, compared to the people of Italy and Spain, Brits wore their hearts on their sleeves. So what changed? In a nutshell, after the Revolution things in France got a very violent and out of control. The reaction from Brits was to assume that too much emotion was dangerous and to be avoided, and hence a desire for restraint and calm was embedded in to the collective psyche.

This distaste for expressive displays for emotion gains an even darker and more unpleasant layer when we consider the expansion of the British Empire and colonisation of foreign lands. Briefly (you can read more in depth about this here) control and disconnect from our feelings allowed our British ancestors to conquer other nations and commit acts of violence and oppression. Which is ironic, really, when initially the emotional control was developed as strategy to avoid violence and destruction. It made us the perpetrators of violence rather than the victims and was reinforced whenever it resulted in gaining power, land and other resources. Britons distanced them selves from indigenous people by distancing themselves from emotion, especially sadness.

This passage from Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man (1872) highlights this history well and is deeply uncomfortable to read now:

“savages weep copiously from very slight causes” while “Englishmen rarely cry, except under the pressure of the acutest grief.”

This narrative of lack of emotional expression being a sign of bravery, control, resilience and strength is further reinforced during times of suffering such as World War 2.

The message that "boys don't cry" is just one manifestation of this incorrect link between emotional expression and strength.

So, circling back to our question - why do we dislike sadness - we can see that there are deeply rooted reasons for this that centre around fear of danger and desire for power over others.

Many people have very similar personal histories to this cultural one, for example growing up with a depressed parent or caregiver who's sadness turned into bitterness or anger. Experiences like this make us think that sadness is bad and so we don't allow ourselves to feel or express it. Making sense of our past is often the first step to positive change.

We need to unlink feeling sadness with negative outcomes because it's not the feeling itself that's the problem, it's the actions people take when they don't know how to manage the feeling that's the problem. And learning to manage it and safely express it can never be achieve by avoiding it.

Pause & reflect:

When have you experienced someone else being sad? What was the impact on you and what did you assume/learn from this experience? How helpful has this been for you?

Four purposes of sadness

Now we know a bit about the history of avoiding sadness and can work to reject the idea that expressing it is "bad", we can think about the potential benefits of experiencing a melancholy mood.

Philosophers, psychologists, poets and songwriters have written a lot about sadness and offer us suggestions as it's role in the human experience. I've collected some prominent ideas and perspectives, which do you connect with?

  1. Some say sadness doesn't have a purpose but is a consequence of broken attachment or loss. We are social animals and so it makes a lot of sense that when a relationship goes wrong or ends we feel pain. This encourages us to see connection with others and make efforts to stay together.

  2. Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle thought expressing sadness is a catharsis and helps us to empathise with others. He felt it was important for personal growth and made us more compassionate and understanding of others. I certainly know that my own experiences of sadness have increased my empathy and tenderness to other people; it's about recognising the pain inherent in the human condition and helping each other carry this weight.

  3. On a similar track, German philosopher Nietzsche, in the late 1800s, felt that experiencing sadness builds our resilience and is an opportunity for self improvement. If we can't tolerate any sadness in ourselves then it's going to be very difficult for us to tolerate it in others, meaning we can't really be there for people when they need emotional support.

"What brings us to tears, leads us to grace. Our sadness is never wasted." - Bob Geldoff

4. Even if we never feel pleased to be sad, we must accept that it is part of the spectrum of emotions all humans feel and that without it we wouldn't be able to experience happiness. Just as light needs the dark, melancholy is the contrast that enables us to know when we are moved by joy, inspiration or delight.

"You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness" - Jonathan Safran Foer (novelist)

Pause and reflect: when did you last feel sad? What caused it? And what would it be like to just allow that feeling to be there?

How to cope with sadness

Remember that emotions are energy in motion (e-motion) so they are, by nature, temporary. When allowed to, they flow through us. So, how do we go about doing that in a healthy way?

note from Virgina Woolf to a friend "I'm in a cursed mood and can't bear the human face"
I love this note from Woolf - she's being honest about her feelings and suggests that it will pass. From @lettersofnote on Instagram

The most obvious way to express sadness is by crying. Emotional tears release oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel good and encourages us to connect with others. I've written more about the benefits of having a good cry in this focused blog post.

As a counsellor I'm of course going to recommend talking about it, not necessarily in therapy though that might help, but with a friend, colleague or relative that is able to listen and provide support and possibly a nice hug.

Listening to sad music can actually help feelings of sadness lift as you feel understood or moved by the lyrics and notes. Sing out your sadness or simply let the feeling be there as you listen.

Take a walk in nature to connect with beauty and other than human life. Being in nature is often a safe place to feel our feelings without fear of judgement. Really embrace the mood by taking a walk in the rain and imaging you're in a scene from a movie where the main character is low just before things start to look up.

A creative activity like making art or journaling can provide an outlet and safe container for your feelings - it doesn't have to be 'good', it's just about expressing emotion. Choose colours, shapes or words that communicate your experience. Often seeing this on the page or canvas provides catharsis and perspective.

Find comfort in soothing things like batch cooking a nourishing soup, watching a favourite film, reading in bed and having a morning bath. The idea is to take care of yourself whilst you feel sad so that the sadness is tolerable rather than to try to force yourself to cheer up. Making or tending to something with our hands often feels good and help an emotions to move through us.

Because of our history with sadness avoidance, it's likely that people - with good intentions - will try to cheer you up. Sometimes that's welcome and other times we want to tell them to F off! Don't expect everyone to understand that you're OK to be sad for a little while (not everyone is as enlightened as you and they might not have read this fantastic blog...!) they don't need to agree and you don't need to explain yourself. Kind communication and clear boundaries are key here. Equally, don't expect people to mind read; tell people you're not feeling great and ask for what you need.

TLDR: the main points to takeaway

  • There's a long, sometimes disturbing cultural history of emotional disconnection which has led to Brits not displaying sadness.

  • We can mistakenly link the feeling of sadness to negative experiences, then avoid or repress it, resulting in negative outcomes like emotional outbursts and mental and physical illness.

  • Sadness can be a result of loss or an attachment wound. We are build for connection so it hurts us when our relationships fail/end.

  • Experiencing sadness can help us empathise, become resilient and more compassionate.

  • Without sadness we can't experience happiness and joy - we can't selectively numb our emotions.

  • Sadness, like all emotions, needs to be felt and there's lots of ways we can safely express this emotion and communicate with others about what we need.

Additional resources & references:

A short history of sadness:

Teach me a lesson - Why we need sadness:

A new anatomy of melancholy:

School of Life - How to be sad:

Images via Unsplash

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