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Some Opportunities Only Sadness Can Offer

Late-night demon-wrestling sessions are rough, but can pay off.

Now the standard cure for one who is sunk is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering—this is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutary day-time advice for everyone. But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work—and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

As a survivor of early childhood maternal loss—among other things—I’m no stranger to dark nights of the soul. Many’s the time I’ve been up in the very wee hours of the morning, flooded with a kaleidoscope of emotions, half-memories, anguish, impressions and other powerful and vivid, mentally distinct, yet cognitively indistinct experiences.

Over the years I've learned to embrace these times. They've gone from being the rule to being the exception. They've gone from being uncanny and terrifying to being opportunities for me to grow closer with myself, even surprising moments of intense joy and light. Night owls know that something special happens early in the morning, when it feels like the rest of the world is asleep and we have everything, including us, to ourselves.

One of the elusive-yet-obvious experiences during these 4 a.m. awakenings for me has been simple sadness, which in the past was only theoretically calm, accepting sadness, and felt more like rage, despair and struggle. Sadness is a timid emotion, soft, yet insistent. Small and quiet, yet pervasive. Sadness can suddenly overwhelm, becoming all-powerful and totalizing. As such, it needs to be handled with care as strong medicine. In the roundness of time sadness is often that which ultimately brings us back home, especially as we tire of battle.

1. Inviting sadness may lead to deep relaxation.

Sometimes people hold back what feels like an ocean of sadness behind an impregnable dam. Countless times have I heard someone tell me that they are afraid that if they start crying, they’ll never stop. Blocking sadness keeps us from terrible ideas, sometimes, painful thoughts or memories, so allowing the emotion in does mean being prepared for whatever might follow. But when we are ready, the relief is considerable from no longer having to burn constant fuel fighting back feelings. Even when we suppress sadness as second nature, it is a huge energy sink. Deception in some ways drains more mental energy than do things that feel true.

2. Getting past stigma about being sad frees one up greatly to feel more true to oneself.

Being able to say, “I’m feeling sad”, “Oh, this is sadness’, “I’m just sad [versus something incorrect, e.g., angry, irritable, anxious, etc.]” opens up non-judgmental ways of seeing oneself that are more functional than negative, self-effacing patterns of inner experience. Sadness can burn away lies to reveal what feels true. Overcoming the fear of crying can be a life-changing tipping point. While not all crying leaves us feeling better, tears often bring needed relief. Then we may get to meet ourselves with new eyes.

3. There is a difference between sadness and depression.

While sadness is a deeply human experience, feeling very sad does not itself define clinical depression. Sadness is normal. One of the problems contributing to stigma is the pathologizing of sadness. When feeling sad means being bad (like a naughty child) or sick (from a cultural perspective), we’re like fish swimming in a tank with a broken filter. Unmentalized feelings like sadness build up, polluting our minds. If you are clinically depressed, seek treatment. But labeling normal sadness as depression, even casually, runs the risk of preventing effective ways of honoring and moving into reparative sadness, even grief.

4. When we feel sad, we often connect more meaningfully with others.

Because the shared act of suppressing feelings of sadness means taking a collective vow of silence by not acknowledging reality and authentic inner experience, navigating sadness together builds intimacy and reverses the lonely-but-not-alone condition that submerged sorrow invites. In addition, research shows that shared pain improves teamwork. Shared acknowledgment of sadness, collective grief and memorializing, from the family to the community to the culture, are required to keep us moving forward.

5. Feeling sad increases empathy and compassion.

It’s very hard for many people to truly empathize with others while suppressing strong healthy feelings, even if they are feeling a bit blue. Sometimes people can have high cognitive empathy but low emotional empathy. Being able to work with one’s own sadness allows a deeper emotional communication to take place, as one’s subjective experience matches the actual experience of the other person and catalyzes mutuality—setting in motion a fundamental shift in relationships.

“There’s a dark side to each and every human soul. We wish we were Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for the most part we are, but there’s a little Darth Vader in all of us. Thing is, this ain’t no either-or proposition. We’re talking about dialectics, the good and the bad merging into us. You can run but you can’t hide. My experience? Face the darkness. Stare it down. Own it. As brother Nietzsche said, being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol’ dark night of the soul a hug. Howl the eternal yes!”

—Character Chris Stevens, Northern Exposure

As long as these kinds of feelings can be tolerated and worked with, being sad with others typically increases compassion, facilitates communication, deepens bonds, and improves the ability to listen fully. According to research, people are more likely to help those who are crying, as tears stem from infantile distress cries.

Suppressing tears would make it less likely that kind people will approach offering help. On the other hand, crying is so vulnerable, and not everyone who offers help has their heart in the right place. Those who have experienced betrayal are most concerned with safety, physical and emotional, and getting to a place where sadness is OK doesn't happen overnight. When it arrives, persistent yet graceful, be grateful.

More from Grant Hilary Brenner MD, DFAPA
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