When we share our sadness, we are our most open and undefended
Joy’s smile is much closer to tears than it is to laughter.
—Victor Hugo, Hernani
We often retreat from love when it unconsciously arouses painful 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.
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.
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.
The Sources of Sadness
The sadness aroused by love comes from two sources. One source is our long-buried pain. The other source is emotional closeness and intimacy that we experience in the present. An understanding of both sources helps explain how positive and rewarding interactions can precipitate sad feelings that we unconsciously try to avoid by rejecting or distancing ourselves from our loved one.
Sadness from the Past
To the degree that we have suffered a painful childhood, being treated with love and tenderness can cause us to be deeply saddened. In part, being responded to in this different way initiates our becoming aware of what we were missing as children. The contrast between the two kinds of treatment stirs up painful feelings of loss or rejection that we have suppressed, and we unconsciously expect these emotions to resurface with their original intensity. They don’t, because we’re adults now, not children. But we still reflexively react against feeling sad, and we often defend ourselves by pushing away the love that is triggering our sadness.
Sadness in the Present
At times of exceptional closeness with our partner, both of us are likely to feel sadness. This unexpected emotional reaction to love is quite common. Sadness is often aroused when we are open and vulnerable to each other, when we have a moving personal dialogue, and when we experience compassion and empathy for and from each other. During these poignant moments of communion, each of us has an appreciation of the preciousness of life. The love we are sharing enhances our existence and adds value to our life together.
Sadness is perhaps most bewildering when it follows an especially intimate and gratifying sexual encounter. The combination of satisfying sex and emotional intimacy can elicit many different feelings— tenderness, excitement, pleasure in meeting the wants and needs of your partner, the thrill of having your own wants and needs met, and the gratification and joy that come from sharing such a meaningful experience. When eyes-open emotional intimacy is combined with passionate sex, two people are at their most vulnerable and accessible, and the sense of togetherness that follows often leaves them feeling sad.
Sadness is generally misunderstood. When sadness is associated with unhappiness and emotional pain and loss, feeling sad is an unpleasant experience, although even then, it is a healthy release. Childhood is filled with 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.
Sadness is a normal emotion
To be sad is to be human. In 1980, Robert Plutchik developed one of the most influential classification approaches for general emotional responses. Sadness was 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 not the same as depression
We often equate sadness with depression, thinking of depression as being an extreme state of sadness. Even though some of the same reactions occur in both (i.e. crying, lack of energy, grieving), these two emotional states are 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 than an unhappy mood.
Sadness is not bad for you
Sadness is often good for you to feel; yet most of us grew up being taught 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. Youngsters are threatened, “Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” Children are ridiculed by their peers, “Look at the cry-baby!” “Crying is for sissies.” By the time we reach adulthood, most of us regard sadness as a negative emotion that should be avoided or at least hidden.
Sadness doesn’t last forever
When we feel sad, it can seem like it 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. Abraham Lincoln, who suffered from “melancholy,” wrote,
In this sad world of ours sorrow comes to all and it often comes with bitter agony. Perfect relief is not possible except with time. You cannot now believe that you will ever feel better. But this is not true. You are sure to be happy again. Knowing this, truly believing it will make you less miserable now. I have had enough experience to make this statement.
How to Face Sadness
It is vital to our well-being that we be able to accept our sadness and feel comfortable with it. When we defend against it and try to elude it, we interfere with our natural ability to process this emotion. Like any other avoidant response, steering clear of sad feelings not only increases our anxiety and tension but also exacerbates the intensity of our sadness.
When we try to numb ourselves to sadness, we invariably numb ourselves to all of our experiences. In the process of cutting off this one feeling, we necessarily end up blocking all our other feelings. The downside isn’t just that we cut off the emotions that enhance our life, such as joy and excitement; it’s also that we cut off the emotions that play a necessary role in our survival and self-preservation, such as fear and alarm. The more removed we are from our feelings, the more disengaged we become from ourselves and the more estranged we become from others, and the less capable we are to cope with life.
Allow Sadness in Yourself and Others
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.”
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.
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. In the words of Kahlil Gibran (1996, 16), “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”