Over the next couple of months in my blogs, I’m going to focus on sadness, loss and grief. We are thankfully much more able, these days, to talk about mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and addiction. But perhaps less likely to talk about our sadness, our losses and our grief which are all normal and natural parts of life. And which very often lie hidden buried under our anxieties and our low moods and our addictions.
Digging down and uncovering these emotions can very often lead to a quite remarkable shift in how we feel. And what is really important is that this isn’t just for ourselves. If we are able to recognise and really feel sadness and grief, we are then able to start to recognise it in the people around us. This can lead to empathic communication that binds people together. We recognise our universal kinship through such direct and vibrant fellow-feeling.
My first couple of blogs look at sadness, an emotion that we tend to avoid, or quickly cover up. As adults, we are quick to comfort and hush crying babies or tell our children when they are upset, “Don’t be sad. Cheer up. You’re fine. Stop crying.” Of course our small ones need comfort and reassurance from us, but we can unintentionally pass on the message that sadness is bad and should be avoided. Yet, research has shown that sadness can be an adaptive emotion with real benefits. So, why is it that we are so afraid to feel sad?
Sadness is confused with depression
One reason is that sadness is often mistakenly confused with depression. Unlike depression, sadness is a natural part of life and is usually connected with our experience of pain or loss. Depression, on the other hand, can arise without a clear explanation or can result from an unhealthy, non-adaptive reaction to a painful event, where we either steel ourselves against our natural reaction to the event or get overwhelmed by it. When we’re in a depressed state, we often feel numb, an absence of emotions. If we do feel anything, it may be the destructive emotions of shame, self-blame or self-hatred, which will continue to drain our energy and vitality.
The surprising nature of sadness
Sadness can actually be awakening. It can remind us of what matters to us, what gives our life meaning. In general, when we recognise our emotions and allow ourselves to feel them in a healthy and safe capacity, we feel more grounded, more ourselves and even more resilient. On the contrary, suppressing emotions can actually make us feel more depressed.
Why do we feel sad?
Life can be very tough. Throughout our lives, we are confronted with pain from our relationships, rejections, frustrations and the small everyday hurts we experience in our interactions with others. We face the pain of loss, illness and deterioration and, ultimately, death – both in ourselves and those we love.
In addition, we often hold pain from our past and have implicit memories of difficult emotions we experienced but were too young to make sense of. As children, we depended on others for survival, making many things, like an angry or inattentive parent, feel scary or even life-threatening. At this early stage, we couldn’t verbalise or articulate our pain and fear. Yet, we may carry this sadness with us into our adult lives.
The downside of burying our sadness
We tend to be fearful that tapping into any sadness will strike into this well of buried emotion. So it makes sense to cut off these painful emotions, to put up walls around them. But often, the methods we use to cut off or dampen our pain, in actuality, end up being harmful to us and those we care about the most. The lengths we go to avoid emotion actually push us away from life itself.
- We may avoid getting too close to someone or fail to pursue meaningful goals in a misguided attempt to protect ourselves.
- We may form an addiction to substances to numb us from pain, we may throw ourselves into over-work or busy ourselves with mindless social media scrolling or TV to ward off difficult emotions, but these behaviours keep us from spending time relating to the people who matter to us or engaging in the pursuits that bring us joy.
- Numbing pain means also numbing joy. When we suppress “negative” emotions, we lose touch with our adaptive emotions like love, passion, warmth or desire, and, therefore, lead a much narrower, less alive life. When we feel our feelings, our lives have meaning, texture, depth, and purpose.
- We lose our real selves. Author Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “Sorrow is one of the vibrations that prove the fact of living.” When we avoid feeling, we often lose touch with our real self. When we feel our emotions, our lives tend to hold more value to us. We care more, love more, grow more and aspire more. The fuller we live our lives, the happier we are, and yet, the more poignant sadness we feel. This adds a dimension of meaning to our experiences.
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!