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?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opinion - star2@thes­tar.com.my Sandy Clarke

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 star2@thes­tar.com.my.

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