5 Ways to Honor Sadness Instead of Distracting From It

Making room for sadness is an important component of psychological well-being.

Posted Jan 03, 2016

Researchers Jonathan Adler and Hal Hershfield found that experiencing feelings of happiness and sadness concurrently in psychotherapy "was associated with and preceded improvements in psychological well-being."

Focusing on the "good" is a terrific coping strategy in many situations. Extensive research that shows that gratitude improves well-being. However, there is also great value in honoring sadness rather than suppressing, distracting away from, or ignoring it. Adler and Hershfield’s findings suggest it’s important to “take the bad with the good” and make room for both happiness and sadness.

Many people put pressure on themselves to be happy all the time. When they get sad, they often try to distract themselves so they can move on with their lives.

Even if they did commit to listening to how they really feel, there’s no time for it. They’ve got to zoom to work, pick up the dry cleaning and milk on the way home, and fill the air in their tires before squeezing in a run and whipping up dinner while checking their e mail.

However, feeling sadness is the one thing that helps release it. Bringing a spirit of curiosity and compassion to anger, fear, or sadness lets you explore feelings without getting stuck in them.

Here are 5 ways to give time, space, and the microphone to emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones.

jaykayl/DepositPhotos
Source: jaykayl/DepositPhotos

1. Notice Where They Are in the Body

Feelings often present themselves in the body. You might notice a heart that actually aches, a tightness in your lungs, a heaviness on your shoulders, tears just behind your eyes, nausea in your stomach, or a draining fatigue. You may notice where feelings are showing up by closing your eyes and being still.

2. Go Back to Their Roots

Think about when you started feeling this way. Was it last Friday when your boss made a mean comment at work? Was it two weeks ago when your child was in the hospital? Now think even further back. Is there anything familiar about this feeling? What early life experiences felt similar? If your current feelings are a stick poking out of the water, what’s in the rest of the tree trunk under the water’s surface?

3. Invite Them In

If you actually used a sick day to be sick, you would nap all day, watch movies in your pajamas, drink tea, and eat chicken soup. (You wouldn’t be half-working from home, cleaning out closets, or doing your taxes). Similarly, if you let yourself be sad for a second or an hour, what would you be doing? What song would you be listening to? What would you be saying? If you let yourself feel scared, what are the thoughts that would go through your head? What would you worry about? What would your body be doing?

4. Be Artistic About Them

Art unlocks emotions that our intellect tries to keep muffled. It’s a great tool to explore the hidden aspects of our feelings. Whether we draw, write, paint, sculpt, or do something else, our feelings tend to flow into what we’re making (without being filtered by “shoulds”).

5. Bring Compassion to Them

Often it’s not negative feelings that are the issue – it’s our reaction to them. “I shouldn’t be so anxious. There’s nothing to worry about.” “I should just snap out of this. I need to stop wallowing and moping around.” “I shouldn’t really be mad about this.” Instead of scolding or talking ourselves out of feelings, we can summon kindness and understanding.

Part of our glorious humanity is experiencing negative emotions as well as positive ones. While no one wants to be sad, angry, or scared forever, making space for these feelings, (instead of distracting away from them), can be a powerful tool for healing.

Copyright Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD

Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD, is the author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents (2017). She is a psychotherapist in Chicago's western suburbs. Join her mailing list at her website www.erinleyba.com, join her on Facebook or Twitter, or read her blog.