The Value of Sadness
The Value of Sadness
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” – Kahlil Gibran
Love Makes Us Sad
Love can arouse feelings of sadness. This is not the kind of sadness that comes when our feelings are hurt or our heart is broken. That sadness makes sense to us. This type of sadness is perplexing because it is aroused when we are treated with kindness and compassion and sensitivity. One of the reasons it is difficult to understand these sources of sadness is that we expect love to make us happy.
When, in spite of being in love, we feel sad, this feeling may confuse us because it is counterintuitive. It is much easier to understand the sadness that is aroused by unhappy or negative events. Even though we may have difficulty understanding the sadness that comes from positive and loving experiences, if we really think about it, we are all aware of times we have known this feeling.
It’s the emotion you observe between a bride and groom when they tear up as they stand at the altar. It’s the emotion you, as a member of the wedding party, experience as you witness them. It’s the sadness that you feel when someone does something for you that indicates a special sensitivity to you. It’s the sadness that surprises you when you do something for someone else that expresses your sensitivity toward them. It’s the feeling that wells up inside you when you see somebody overcome a significant obstacle to their development or achieve a meaningful victory.
By the time we reach adulthood, we are largely programmed to avoid sadness. Typically, we feel shame when we are sad. We are embarrassed if we tear up, and we are often uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is crying—we have learned to look away, almost instinctively.
Most of us grew up learning not to cry. Most parents make a point of never crying in front of their children. Babies are shushed or quickly soothed when they begin to sob. Children are ridiculed the minute their bottom lip starts to quiver. We come to regard sadness as a negative emotion, a stigma that should be hidden if it can’t be avoided. We learn this lesson in our families, and society reinforces it. The widow who doesn’t weep at her husband’s funeral may be praised for being strong; the child who fights back his tears is a “big boy.”
Sadness is generally misunderstood. When sadness is associated with unhappiness and emotional pain, it is an unpleasant experience, although even then it is a healthy release. Childhood is filled with this type of sadness because children are so often overlooked, misunderstood, and inadvertently hurt in the course of growing up. But there is more to sadness than unhappiness, and it is in our interest to broaden our understanding of an emotion that is typically considered negative.
There are many misconceptions about sadness, and many of us regard them as the truth. It is valuable for us to investigate our assumptions and examine the facts. What we discover will give us what we need to become comfortable with our sadness. These are some of our common misconceptions:
Sadness is an abnormal emotion
On the contrary; to be sad is to be human. In 1980, psychologist and researcher Robert Plutchik developed one of the most influential classification approaches for general emotional responses. Sadness is one of the eight primary emotions he identified (the others being anger, fear, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy). He proposed that these “basic” emotions are biologically primitive and have a high survival value. Sadness is not only a fundamental part of our being human; it plays a primary role in our survival as well.
Sadness is bad for you
And yet sadness is a natural state of mind that exists not only in humans but also in nonhuman primates, for good evolutionary reasons. It is beneficial for you to feel sadness. Many people resist feeling sadness because they anticipate being engulfed in a negative emotion. But when sadness is suppressed, it can build up so that when it is finally released, it is felt intensely. If sadness is felt as a natural part of everyday life, however, it arises and then departs, even when it is strongly felt. And there is great relief in letting it out. After expressing deep feelings of sadness, people report that they feel more unified or integrated and have a stronger sense of identity. In his book Emotion-Focused Therapy, Leslie Greenberg observes, “Sadness of this type gives meaning to life and leaves us in some unique way feeling both invigorated and tired, maybe from the intensity of it all.”
Sadness is the same as depression
It’s true that we often equate sadness with depression, thinking of depression as an extreme state of sadness. And some of the same reactions (crying, lack of energy, grieving) occur in both of these emotional states, but the two are quite different from each other. Sadness is a healthy human emotion, a natural reaction to painful or even unusually positive circumstances. Everyone experiences sadness. Depression, however, is a clinical diagnosis with many more symptoms (such as overall hopelessness, despair, and loss of pleasure in life) than an unhappy mood. Psychoanalysts have traditionally described depression as primarily due to anger directed against the self.
Sadness will last forever
When we feel sad, it can seem as if sadness will never end. But this is not the case. We have to be patient and tolerant because being sad is something that we need to go through. It can’t be rushed or avoided. When we are willing to stay with it and let it take its course, we come out better on the other end. In his book, Lincoln’s Melancholy, How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, Joshua Wolf Shenk quotes from Abraham Lincoln’s letter consoling a friend:
“In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and … it comes with bitterest agony…. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now believe that you will ever feel better…. And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. Knowing this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had enough experience to know what I say.”
The tender feelings we experience in an intimate relationship often arouse a poignant sense of sadness in ourselves as well as in our partner. Sadness is something that most of us go to great lengths to avoid, using all kinds of defensive maneuvers. But we need to tolerate and value sadness as a natural consequence of genuine affection and love, and as a life-affirming emotion. When we stop defending ourselves from sadness, we are more open to all our emotions. We are less cynical and more tolerant. We develop compassion for ourselves, which we can then feel toward others. We become more likely to thrive—and to have love in our lives.
Avoiding sadness is especially detrimental to a relationship. Sidestepping sadness when it comes up kills the closeness and magic of an intimate moment. And if we repress sadness, it becomes more difficult for us to achieve deeper intimacy with others, including our partner. For this reason, it is important to actively encourage sadness. Resist the temptation to avoid sad feelings when they are aroused in you, or in your partner. Don’t make a joke or change the subject. Don’t make a comment to lighten the mood. Don’t even look away. Remain engaged and present so that the sadness can be a shared experience. When we share our most sensitive and vulnerable emotions, we are at our most open and undefended with each other.
Welcoming the sadness that comes from love allows for an even deeper closeness and special tenderness with your partner.
About the Author
Tamsen Firestone is the founder and editor-in-chief of www.psychalive.org, an online mental health resource visited by millions of people each year. She has also been the principal editor for many of the books written by her husband, author and clinical psychologist Robert W. Firestone. Among these are Fear of Intimacy, Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, and The Fantasy Bond. Her work, including the PsychAlive website, speaks to the general public and provides easy-to-understand, practical steps that a person can follow to apply her husband’s theories of human behavior in order to experience a more rewarding and fulfilling life. Daring to Love is her latest endeavor in this effort.