The importance of sadness

‘Only love can break your heart’
– Neil Young

I will often hear a client say, ‘I’m afraid that if I start crying, I’ll never stop.’ The sadness they are holding in feels so overwhelming that they try to keep it all pushed down.

Another client will say: ‘I don’t feel I’m making much progress – I’ve felt so sad all week.’

But recognising, and experiencing, our sad feelings something new can be freed up, a space can be made for other feelings.

In contrast, by consciously holding it all in, or unconsciously repressing the sadness, we can end up in a worse situation in the long term.

To feel sadness, to feel grief, is to be at odds with the dominant values of our society. We are told to ‘think positive’ and to get on with things. Or to distract ourselves from such uncomfortable feelings with TV, work, drink, cleaning the house or anti-depressants.

And yet, when we suppress these feelings they do not disappear or melt away. Instead, they flow below the surface of our consciousness like an underground river. They make themselves felt through illness, tiredness, anxiety, depression or addiction.

This is what Carl Jung meant when he said, ‘The gods have become diseases’, that when we do not attend to all parts of ourselves, like the ancients honoured their gods, the result is neurotic symptoms.

When we feel sad about something it can be very tempting to push the feeling away, to distract ourselves or ‘count our blessings’. This is especially likely if we grew up in a family in which sadness was not really seen as an acceptable emotion and instead was judged as ‘self pity’.

Psychotherapist and author Robin Skynner, in Families and How to Survive Them, distinguishes sadness from depression. He points out that sadness is a rich, deep emotion even though it hurts. It can make us feel more alive and connected to others.

Depression, on the other hand, which often results from suppressed sadness or anger, can leave the individual feeling empty, ‘dead’, and disconnected from others.

This is because if we try to squash one important emotion, such as sadness, we end up squashing, or ‘depressing’, all our feelings including ‘positive’ ones like joy and enthusiasm.

It is important to recognise that sadness plays an essential role in our development because it helps us deal with loss. From early childhood onwards we experience losses, large and small, in our lives. These can range from the gradual losses involved in the process of a child separating from mother, to the loss of a job or the death of a loved one.

Feeling sad about these losses, grieving them, enables us to honour what has been lost and, ultimately, move on.

Being told to put the event in the past too quickly, before the loss has been grieved and the sadness expressed, can result in a false feeling of moving on.

In therapy it is an important moment when a person is able to get in touch with sadness that has been pushed down, rejected or forgotten about. Frequently this sadness relates to the unmourned losses of childhood, such as how parents were not able to be there for the child in the way the child needed them to be.

Providing a supportive space for these feelings to be expressed can help the individual come to terms with the losses and disappointments of childhood. That, in turn, can enable the individual to take more responsibility for their life and not continue in the vain hope to find parental substitutes to give them what they didn’t get as children.


How much should you know about your therapist?

ImageIn the novel Lying on the Coach a therapist makes a dramatic decision – he will try a completely different approach with his next client and be as honest as possible.

Uncomfortable with the gap between his professional persona and personal life, the therapist, Ernest, decides to be much more open with clients.

“Is it so impossible for therapists to be genuine, to be authentic in all encounters?” he asks himself.

Ernest finds himself getting tangled up as he realises how difficult it is to be genuinely open while also maintaining appropriate boundaries.  The matter is made more complicated by the fact that his client turns out to be a woman he finds himself highly attracted to and who wants to seduce him for her own ends.

Nevertheless, Ernest’s struggle to be open does bring benefits to the therapeutic relationship, even with a duplicitous client!

Clients who have been frustrated by their therapist’s with-holding of personal information may applaud Ernest’s attempt to be more open.  After all, there is a grain of truth in the cliché of the therapist who replies to every question with another question.

Controversy over how much therapists should disclose about their personal lives goes back to the days of Freud, who argued that therapists should be a ‘blank screen’. But much depends on the theoretical approach of the individual therapist. Those from the ‘psychodynamic’ school, who work more with clients’ projections, are likely to be less self-disclosing than ‘humanistic’ therapists.

One of the main objections to self-disclosure has been that it can be used for the therapist’s gratification. For example, certain disclosures could lead to the client feeling they need to care for the therapist.

Whether there has been any increase in self-disclosure is unclear but the growth in therapists’ websites and social networking sites has clearly made it much easier for information to be made available and shared.

To what degree therapists should take advantage of these channels is debatable and will depend a lot on the individual personality.

Irvin Yalom, existential therapist and author of Lying on the Couch, is at the more open end of the spectrum, possibly because of his background in group therapy where there is more pressure on the therapist to self-disclose.

Yalom argues that therapist disclosure encourages client disclosure.  He is happy to say whether he is married, whether he liked a particular film, etc. Disclosing this kind of information does not mean the reason for the question – the process – cannot also be explored, says Yalom.

But there are caveats, he insists, such as being aware that any information given to a client may be passed on to their next therapist! So don’t disclose anything you genuinely want to remain private.

This suggests that there are three levels of information therapists work with – public, personal and private. A therapist may choose to disclose some personal information, in the interests of the client, but will not disclose private information.

Jungian analyst Jane Haynes says in her memoir that she is willing to share aspects of her personal life selectively with clients. She says there are some aspects of one’s personal life that are private, even secret, and other areas that it may be beneficial to share.

She says: ‘Any therapeutic disclosure requires careful thought and personal scrutiny. Possibly, it is in those creative tensions that distinguish spontaneity from impulsiveness that wisdom resides.’

It seems likely that the more experience a therapist has the more likely they are to self-disclose. In a study of leading therapists’’ approaches, author Michael Kahn says that most became more self-disclosing the course of their careers: ‘[They came] more and more to trust their spontaneity and express their human warmth.’

Nevertheless, Kahn believes that caution is the watchword when it comes to disclosure, as ‘it can reduce the opportunity for the client’s valuable exploration of fantasy.’


Between Therapist and Client, by Michael Kahn

The Gift of Therapy, by Irvin Yalom

Lying on the Couch, by Irvin Yalom

Who is it that can tell me who I am?, by Jane Haynes.


Why couples need to parent their own inner child

Only you can re-parent your inner child. No-one can do it for you.’

–       Lucia Capacchione, author of Recovery of Your Inner Child

A common theme in couple therapy is when each partner criticizes the other for the same thing. They may complain that their partner is too ‘needy’, not loving enough or too controlling.

When you actually look beneath the surface, however, it often turns out that both partners share similar feelings of low self-worth. Deep down they don’t feel lovable and don’t trust that their needs will be met.

They also feel shame in acknowledging this to themselves, let alone to the other person.

What can then transpire is that they, unconsciously, seek to get their partner to be a ‘parent’, giving them the unconditional love and understanding they lacked in their own families. When they don’t get this idealised love they feel disappointed and angry with their partner.

A useful prism to view these relationships through is that of the inner child. For many, more skeptical, people the concept of the ‘inner child’ has become a cliché of therapy. But in my work with clients I find it an extremely valuable way of helping people understand their behaviour and feelings.

So, what or who is this inner child? He or she is that part of you that feels like a child and can behave like one – in both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ ways. The inner child is often a part of us that we are uncomfortable with and that we can disown. This is because it can represent our more vulnerable and sensitive feelings.

But rejecting this vulnerable part of us also means rejecting our spontaneity, passion and playfulness.

A relationship in which both partners are, without realizing it, carrying a wounded inner child is one that will usually feel unsatisfying and frustrating to both parties.

This is because each partner is not really taking responsibility for looking after their own inner child. They aren’t listening to what its needs are and finding appropriate ways to meet those needs. Instead they are looking to their partner to be the perfect parent they never had.

The first step in healing this dynamic is for each person to become aware of their own wounded inner child.  With this new knowledge they now have an opportunity to grieve what they did not receive as children.

Often a person with a very wounded inner child grew up in an environment in which basic emotional needs were not met. Part of the process of nurturing one’s inner child as an adult is to grieve what was missing from one’s childhood.

Paradoxically, getting in touch with the sadness, anger and grief over what one did not have as a child can open up the possibility of coming into relationship with that loss and moving on.

Therapist and author John Bradshaw describes the ‘original pain work’ that people with wounded inner children need to do. What he means is feeling the sadness and anger of the child who was not properly cared for.

He says: ‘Grief is the healing feeling. We will heal naturally if we are just allowed to grieve.’

Further reading

Homecoming – Reclaiming and Championing your Inner Child. By John Bradshaw

Recovery of Your Inner Child. By Lucia Capaccione

Embracing Each Other. By Hal Stone and Sidra Stone

Healing the Child Within. By Charles Whitfield