In my experience, sadness is not tolerated well or at all. It is not given much room, and it is not given nearly enough time. It is shamed. It is seen as weak. It is hidden and dealt with privately, or not at all. Often times, it’s covered up and comes out disguised as another feeling altogether.
Has anyone ever told you to: Cheer up! Look on the bright side! Everything will be ok. Don’t cry. You need to move on. Get over it.
I don’t know about you, but when I feel sad and someone tells me something like what I listed above, it makes me feel even worse. It makes me feel like there is no room for my sadness. My feelings are not ok. Not only that, but that you (the person invalidating my feelings) cannot tolerate my sadness for some reason. A person’s reaction to another’s feelings says a lot about how Person 1 deals (or doesn’t deal) with strong emotions. I see, so you need me to be ok, or at least appear to be ok, because you can’t handle your own tough feelings and thus can’t help me by bearing witness to mine. I get that. I get that you can’t help another person until you’ve processed through your own stuff to some degree.
Because when I share my sadness with you, I am not asking you to fix it. I am not asking you to cheer me up. I am asking you to bear witness. I am asking you to join me in empathy, just for a little bit. And yeah, that can be uncomfortable. Sadness isn’t easy. It’s extremely vulnerable and humbling. But it also takes courage.
Have you ever cried in front of another person? And I mean outright balling. The Ugly Cry. Sure, sometimes it just happens and we can’t help it, but for the most part, that takes huge amounts of courage. If I am showing my delicate, fragile underbelly of sadness to you, it means I trust you. I’m hoping you’ll understand me, but even if you don’t, my hope is that you respect the feeling and don’t push it away.
Sometimes I find myself get swept up in the urge to fix, especially when I’m the “expert” at work and it’s my job to help people feel better. With one client, the one positive thing she identified in her life was her dog, so I started asking questions about him. What was his name? What breed? How old was he? And my client stopped me, her face dripping with fresh tears.
I know what you’re doing, she said, And I want you to stop it.
What am I doing? I asked.
You’re trying to make me feel better, and it won’t work.
And you know what? She was right. At least for that moment, she just needed to sit there and cry, and she wanted me to just sit there with her. And so she told me to back off, and I did. We just sat. Because even for me, the “expert,” I can’t magically fix things if the client isn’t there yet. She wasn’t done feeling sad, simple as that.
Looking back on that session, I realized that, at least initially, I was feeling uncomfortable with her sadness. And this wasn’t just sadness, it was despair. It was dark and heavy and…scary. I was afraid for her, and also for my professional self. Was she going to be ok? Was she feeling suicidal? Was I doing my job to help keep her safe? All these things were going through my mind. It would be great if I just reminded her about all the glorious things in this world and she’d snap out of it. That would certainly make me feel like a miracle worker. It would make me feel good about myself and my abilities as a therapist. It would stop reminding me that life is often very hard and scary. But it also wouldn’t help.
My client reminded me, not so subtly, about my training: You have to start where the client is. You just have to, or it won’t work. I had to join her in her despair. I had to put myself in her shoes and think to myself, if I had been through everything that she had been through, would I feel the same way? Hell yes I would.
This reminds me of one of my most favorite sad movies ever. You know those times when you want to cry, but can’t? You need a catalyst, something to open the flood gates. When I feel that way, I put on What Dreams May Come. (SPOILER ALERT) It’s about love and family and death and suffering. A man dies and his wife then commits suicide. He goes to heaven and she goes to hell. The man travels to hell to find her and bring her to heaven. Against all odds, he finds her in hell, but she doesn’t know him. She’s suffering tremendously, and she’s lost. Unable to get her to recognize him or come with him, the man decides to join her. He decides to give up everything to be with her, even in hell. And only by joining her does he help to save her in the end.
Even though this example is rather dramatic, the core concept is true. I am reminded of this again and again when I forget.
How do you express your sadness? How do you express your sadness to others? How do you let people know that it’s ok for them to share their sadness with you?
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