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.