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Is Sadness Healthy?

Myths and realities of sadness that will optimize your emotional intelligence.

Sadness has gotten a bad rap in U.S. culture. It seems everywhere you turn you will find a plethora of options for avoiding sadness and becoming "happier." Social media is a prime culprit, with endless Instagram feeds dedicated to showing the world only our happiest of faces. In many ways, happiness, or at least the performance of "being happy" on social media and in daily life, has become an indicator of success while sadness has become an indicator of failure or pathology.

All of this making you sad? Of course, there's an app for that.

Actually, there are about 10 apps for that in all styles and approaches, from CBT to DBT to positive psychology, to Donald Trump and beyond.

So, is sadness bad?

Well if you follow the breakout success of Disney/Pixar's Inside Out, an animated film about the internal emotions of a tween girl, hinged upon the protagonist Joy (Happiness) and her confusion about the role of other emotions like Sadness the answer is clear.

Spoiler Alert: Joy discovers that Sadness has a very important role in our lives—exactly what I help many of my patients and clients do in therapy and coaching.

Inside Out helps us see that there are many problematic myths about sadness that get in the way of our abilities to live healthy, meaningful lives. Here are a few of the most common myths and realities about sadness in U.S. culture that I've encountered in my work over the years.

Myth: Being sad means you are depressed. Equating sadness with depression is one of the number one mistakes I see many people make when negotiating their emotions. Most psychologists would agree that being sad is an indicator that something painful has happened in your life-usually a loss or emotional injury of some kind. If you've been in a relationship for years that suddenly ends, of course, you'd feel sad about the loss of connection. If someone important to you demeans or rejects you, it makes sense that you will feel sad and in pain.

Sadness is the healthy emotional response to pain and/or loss and it signals a need for care and compassion from self and others. Depression is a clinical disorder where one is not simply sad. Unlike with sadness, people struggling with depression have a very poor self-concept and often think that the world would be a better place if they weren't around. Depression is not sadness but it often involves a lot of sadness that has not been addressed or expressed.

NeonBrand/Unsplash
How to use sadness correctly
Source: NeonBrand/Unsplash

Myth: Showing sadness is a sign of weakness. Sadness is one of our strongest emotions because it signals and pulls others towards us when it is expressed. In other words, sadness is the emotion that can most often elicit empathy and care from others. Think about a crying baby—it has no other way of communicating its needs for support and care than through expressing sadness. Crying and expressing discomfort or pain is the first way we all learn to communicate our needs for care and support from the environment. Sadness is meant to be seen in order to signal others to respond because we are a heavily social species. In fact, many have argued that homo sapiens as a species, without claws or venom or any other natural defenses, have survived and thrived due to our ability to read, respond, and co-manage each other's emotions as a group. When we comfort those who are scared or in pain, when we receive care and encouragement from others, humans have effectively responded to sadness with empathy which acts to "cool down" our entire nervous system. The ability to "cool down" or regulate our nervous systems as a group allows us to effectively engage our "thinking brain," the prefrontal cortex, which is how we can plan, create and succeed whether it's overcoming a sabertooth tiger or sending an astronaut to the moon. Communicating our emotions to each other to efficiently manage strong emotions as a group is our greatest strength as a species. Failing to express sadness deprives you of this evolutionary gift.

Myth: If you let yourself be sad you’ll get stuck in sadness forever. The biggest fear I encounter in my clinical work is helping folks believe they can feel strong emotions without becoming overwhelmed or "stuck" in a painful emotion like sadness. While emotions may feel powerful and unmovable, all emotions are actually quite fleeting and transitory because they only exist to signal immediate behavior. Emotions are simply your mind and body's way of pulling your attention to something in your environment or life—think of them as "tweets" from your five senses. Sometimes people have difficulties effectively understanding and responding to their sadness because they believe the myths above which make being sad seem quite dangerous and threatening. This is where most people become stuck.

How does this look in real life? Paul,* a new parent and executive, came to me because he couldn't seem to feel happy or much of anything after the birth of his son. Over time, it became apparent that Paul was feeling down and at a loss with how to be a good father while balancing out the demands of his busy career. However, Paul felt guilty about having these feelings as he was taught he wasn't supposed to feel sad because it was a sign of weakness and would only lead to depression. Once I helped Paul understand how much his sadness made sense, how it actually indicated that he was a caring father and committed professional who was struggling with a major life adjustment, he thanked me through tears for finally helping him feel happy and connected to his son. When he expressed his sadness to me effectively, he received comfort and relief and it passed. Sadness was no longer needed. All emotions pass when we respond to them by acting effectively. Sadness is no exception.

Sadness, like all of our emotions, is healthy and meant to help us better respond to ourselves, others, and the larger world around us. If you consistently struggle with sadness, have difficulty understanding why you are sad or what might be off in your life, working with a skilled clinician can help you get back on track and back into your life.

*Paul is not a real client but rather a representation of a typical client created from a combination of prior clients whose information has been slightly changed to protect confidentiality.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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