Psychological Purpose/Meaning of Sadness: Depression Coping

The next time you feel blue, consider not pushing the feeling aside.

Posted Mar 23, 2011

So you think you're the only one who would rather avoid feeling sad than deal with it head-on? Guess again.

I recently attended a mental health training that focused on the unique mental health needs of military families. Not surprisingly, the training addressed that fact that military personnel are often uncomfortable talking openly about their negative feelings for fear that intense focus on their emotions will weigh them down or distract them from the uber-pragmatic goals of their profession. What struck me, as I listened to the speaker, was the fact that military families, in this respect, aren't terribly different from anyone else. Nobody, when it comes down to it, likes to deal with negative feelings.

In fact, one of the most consistent trends I see in my clinical practice is that men and women alike disavow sadness like it's betrayed them somehow. Imagine, for example, an advertising executive pitching sadness to a group of executives in a glossy boardroom high above the streets of Manhattan. You can practically hear the hollers or the shouts to stop because "it's just not sexy!" Back at the reality ranch, you, too, must agree: When you feel down or depressed, you typically feel lethargic and low, like there's not a lot going on, and even less to look forward to. Other negative feelings, like anger, are much more appealing because they feel empowering: You feel a rush and feel keenly aware of who is to blame and why. But sadness feels blob-like; it's an amorphous dose of nothingness that slows you down like a Frisbee-size Xanax.

When it comes to sadness, the problem is that people don't honor it for its true purpose - and yes, it most definitely has one. The purpose of sadness is to remind you that something has been lost, and it's the sufferer's job to do the mental work and figure out what that is. This points to a more extensive problem that many people have as they go about their daily business: too often, we get so distracted simply bumping around from point A to point B that we mentally check out, eschewing intentionality in favor of ticking off to-do lists and simply getting by. Ladies and gentlemen, we all know that just getting by isn't enough, and that becoming more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and motivations will lead to better decisions and overall greater satisfaction in your life.

So, the next time you get struck by a lightning bolt from the tear-bearing gods above and sadness begins to creep its way in, take the sadness to heart. If you slow down long enough to notice it, you'll find that sadness bears a message worth listening to.

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