Our tendency to avoid sadness is almost instinctive. From a very young age, we try to avoid sad feelings. As adults, we’re quick to shush wailing babies or offhandedly say to sobbing children, “Don’t be sad. Cheer up. You’re fine. Stop crying.” Though not intentional, we tend to 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?
Often sadness is mistakenly confused with depression. Unlike depression, sadness is a natural part of life and is usually connected with certain experiences of pain or loss or even a meaningful moment of connection or joy that makes us value our lives. 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 or deadened to our emotions. We may have feelings of shame, self-blame or self-hatred, all of which are likely to interfere with a constructive behavior, instead creating a lack of energy and vitality. Sadness, on the other hand, can be awakening.
Sadness is a live emotion that can serve to remind us of what matters to us, what gives our life meaning. As my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, has pointed out, “When we feel sadness, it centers us.” In general, when we recognize 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. So, what are we really avoiding when we cut off our sadness?
Throughout our lives, we are confronted with painful realities, pain from our interpersonal relationships, rejections, frustrations and the incidental hurts we experience in our interactions with others. We face the pain of existential issues, loss, diseases and deterioration and, ultimately, death. In addition, most of us harbor a lot of old 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 verbalize or articulate our pain and fear. Yet, we carry this sadness with us throughout our lives.
Most of us are, to varying degrees, fearful that tapping into any sadness will strike into this well of buried emotion. This fear can drive us to seek methods to cut off our emotions. As children, we develop certain psychological defenses to adapt to painful circumstances, so life may feel more bearable if a bit duller. Often, the methods we use to cut off or dampen down our pain, in actuality, end up being harmful to us and those we care about the most. These methods may have been adaptive once, but they now serve to limit us in our adult lives. For example, 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, but these behaviors often lead to hurt. We may engage in activities like working all the time or busying ourselves with trivial matters to ward off difficult emotions, but these behaviors keep us from spending time relating to the people who matter to us or engaging in the pursuits that bring us joy. The lengths we go to avoid emotion actually push us away from life itself.
In therapy, I’ve witnessed time and time again the widespread, indiscriminate depths of emotion people of all ages and experiences are able to access simply by lying down and letting themselves feel. Sometimes, this starts with the person just breathing or making a soft noise. Other times, people will use current examples of frustration or anxiety to tap into their feelings. Yet, in pretty much all cases, the people I’ve worked with have been able to access much deeper, primal emotions. Many of these feelings originated in the very early years their lives. With these feelings come memories, images and flashes of painful events as well as a strong sense of the raw realities of the human condition. It never fails to surprise and touch me how such deep emotions can so quickly rise to the surface. It’s a brave act to witness, especially when most people, just going about their daily lives are trying so hard to avoid these feelings.
The problem is we can’t selectively numb pain without numbing joy. Our ability to feel emotion is part of our human heritage. Emotions provide us with information and help us survive and thrive. When we suppress “negative” emotions, we lose touch with our adaptive emotions like love, passion, warmth or desire, and, therefore, lead a much more deadened life. When we feel our feelings, our lives have meaning, texture, depth and purpose. As 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 and our attachment to it. When we feel our emotions, our lives tend to hold more value to us. We care more, want 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.
Of course, we can misuse our negative emotions by allowing ourselves to dwell on them or by feeling victimized by our circumstances. Often, people tend to either diminish or dramatize their emotions instead of just feeling them. To exaggerate or ruminate in our sadness or to engage in self-pity can be very destructive and maladaptive. On the other hand, if we let ourselves feel our real sadness about real things, the emotion can move through us like a wave, reaching its peak, then washing over us and eventually dissipating. That’s not to say all the pain will be smoothed over or gone forever, but we can learn to feel it when it arises and then continue to live our lives, feeling more vital, truthful and balanced within ourselves.
If we choose to feel our emotions – to let them move through us – we make better choices about our actions and lead a more goal-directed life. We can learn to accept that we need our pure and real feelings, because they connect us to ourselves, what we love and what we want.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org