Embrace your sadness
What if you can’t suppress feelings selectively? What if, when you deny negative emotions, you also deny the chance to fully experience positive emotions?
WHEN I was growing up, I remember being encouraged in so many ways to be happy – but no one ever explained to me how to be sad.
Knowing how to be sad might seem bizarre. After all, who wants to be sad? In an ideal world, we would avoid any kind of suffering at all and live life in constant peace and contentment. But we know it’s not possible to be happy all the time.
Regardless, we carry on with smiles on our faces and a cheery “everything’s fine” ready to hand whenever someone asks how we are. And while this serves social norms, it comes at a significant emotional cost when we wrestle with the inevitable strains of life.
In the early 20th century, little thought was given to our emotional well-being. For instance, when it came to the relationship between mother and child, experts of the time believed that bonds developed not out of love and care but because the mother provided their child with food and clothing and other material care.
In the 1920s a leading childcare expert, John Watson, advised parents to refrain from making emotional connections, as this would lead to children being egotistical and spoiled. “Never hug and kiss your children,” he warned. “If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.”
Thankfully, the importance of emotional bonding has since been recognised as being vital to our psychological well-being. Humans and other mammals are wired to connect with others, as demonstrated by the famous monkey test: In the 1930s, the psychologist Harry Harlow separated rhesus monkeys from their mothers and isolated them in cages; when given the choice between a “metal dummy mother” fitted with a milk bottle and a cloth dummy with no milk, the baby monkeys clung to the cloth dummy for life. These experiments, cruel though they were, revealed an important truth of life: we can’t thrive with material resources alone. To enjoy balanced mental health, we need to form connections and bond with others.
These days, we take our emotional health more seriously. However, there is a tendency to lurch to the other extreme. In our well-intentioned efforts to promote mental health, we’ve retained the compulsion to chase away any flicker of negative emotions that arise, so keen we are to make sure people are positive, happy and joyful.
I’m sure we’ve all had many experiences of being upset or sad. Perhaps we have found ourselves crying or in despair for a number of reasons. Kindhearted friends might find us in a state and ask, “What’s wrong? Cheer up, there’s nothing to be sad about.” There’s an immediate desire to make our problem go away rather than to help us understand what’s going on. Ironically, this can make us feel worse. The author and education scholar Brene Browne suggests that we should embrace the vulnerability that exists within all of us. It’s impossible to be selective in the emotions we suppress, she suggests. When we suppress unpleasant emotions, we’re also suppressing our ability to fully experience positive ones. Everything gets diluted. Opening ourselves up to unpleasant emotions such as sadness doesn’t mean that we should allow them free rein at every opportunity, but it does mean that we should be free to feel any emotional pain and allow ourselves to process that pain fully. Otherwise, such emotions will invariably find other ways to express themselves.
For example, we might become fidgety or agitated as a result of our suppression. We could develop addictions or become aggressive, we could develop other unstable behaviours, such as superficial positivity, where we come across as bubbly and joyful when, deep down, we feel anything but.
Our attempts to fool ourselves and everyone around us that “everything’s fine” when it’s not comes at a costly price, and is one we really should stop paying.
Emotions such as sadness act as a pressure valve within stressful situations. When we push them away, we’re simply adding to the pressure. But when we allow ourselves to unashamedly be with our emotions, we are then able to fully process what’s going on with honesty and authenticity.
Of course we all want to avoid suffering, but suffering will always be a part of life. When we stop hiding from that truth, we might find the courage to fully open ourselves up to our feelings and emotions. Only then will we be in a position to begin to suffer less and become more at peace with life and with ourselves.
Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail email@example.com.