Tolerating Sadness

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?


I brought the crazy to Facebook, folks.  Please like my page – it’s better than a Valium milkshake.


73 responses

  1. Pingback: My feelings are not to be fixed | Psychobabble

  2. I feel you… I’m taking AD and AP stuff.. blurting out online helps too. For me, its like therapy. I try not to care about anything else… I don’t know. Message back, we’ll talk :)

  3. this is the typical “how are you” question where the person asking is only looking for one answer “I’m fine”. people aren’t equipped for dealing with sadness or plainly don’t want to. sadness is a necessary emotion and like any emotion it provides depth to to feelings. actually a lot of poetry would not have been written without it. it is an incredible pressure to present that “I’m ok” facade so that others don’t have to make an effort, whilst you struggle with bottling up emotions which is never good. another of these catch 22!
    maybe it is about finding a safe outlet for that sadness or a friend that will take you as you are and give you a big hug until you feel better because a true friend takes you as you are…
    thank you for sharing that post

  4. Great post, as always, Lyssa. I’ve pretty much dug myself out of a 2 year stint of depression. It’s hard to feel like the sad person in the crowd, when people expect you to be funny, strong, or ok. Lost one of my closest friends over it… and that was really hard. In the end, I’ve learned that if you can’t take me sad, then I don’t want you when I’m happy. Seriously. I believe in expressing ourselves authentically, and I don’t have time or energy for people who aren’t there for the full spectrum. I’m posting about the blues on Friday (all ready to go)… and not Muddy Waters. Again, excellent post!

  5. This is a wonderful post. A friend of mine gave me the link to it after having read my post about feeling down this morning.
    I can really appreciate what you’re saying, from both points of view (the one who is sad and the friend of someone sad). I am the sad one at the moment, and it’s nice to think of it as something to embrace instead of escape. There are things I am legitiamtely sad about…but I kept feeling like I should cheer up.
    I also have been guilty of trying to cheer others up instead of just being there for them, and letting them be sad.
    Thanks again for your take on sadness! Very much appreciated today. XO

  6. I have so many thoughts on this! But, first, thanks for validating some of my own feelings. I have struggled with trying to get family members to understand that just because I’m sad, or down, or feeling stressed out, that I’m not broken, or this fragile little creature that they have to whisper about in private. I have made the choice to be open and public about my struggles, and that makes LOTS of people feel uncomfortable. Which, then in turn made me feel extremely guilty and alone. But, through the process, I’ve realized I am allowed to own my feelings, and not be ashamed, and not worry about if it makes other people uncomfortable. This post needs to be read by everyone if you ask me! But, especially by those that don’t understand that having emotions (that people see) is OK!! I shared on FB. :)

  7. I love What Dreams May Come. Last year, after my wife left me, I needed to cry and I just couldn’t get started. So I put on Jersey Girl. An odd choice, you might think, but when the mom dies at the very beginning of the movie it just opens the flood gates. Sometimes a good cry makes you feel much better than anything anyone else tries to cheer you up.

  8. I am VERY guilty of this. As Speaker7 said above, I know what it’s like to feel sad, and I hate to think that anyone is experiencing this. The idea that we have to “fix” implies that being sad means being “broken” and that’s dysfunctional thinking. I know that I’ve wanted to feel sad without feeling broken…because I wasn’t.

    Thanks for getting me to think about this. Awesome post.

  9. I’ve noticed in my life that many people haven’t “allowed” me to be sad, like you said. I understand that they’re just trying to cheer me up, but I always thought “Why can’t I just be unhappy for a little bit?” I never thought it was because of them feeling awkward towards my sadness until now. Interesting. Things have been okay for me for a while though.

    That is a good movie for some tears. I like “Hard Ball” with Keanu Reeves. In it he’s a deadbeat with a gambling problem. His problems finally catch up to him and he ends up having to coach a little league baseball team, from the hood. One of the little kids ends up getting shot in some cross fire. Very sad. It gets me every time.

  10. I followed a link that Emily posted, and I’m glad I did because this was an excellent read – one that resonates with me a lot.

    Sadness was pretty heavily shamed when I was a wee lad. Seemed like it was always “grow some thicker skin” or “stop whining”. To this day when I hear someone say shit like that to a kid, I feel rage. Like, pure, uncensored, I want to put my fist in your teeth, rage.

    It took me a long time to learn how to cry again. I think without being able to let go of stuff as it happens, rather than repressing it because someone tells you to shut the fuck up, a lot of distress accumulates that turns into other stuff: Depression, Rage, Anxiety…go on down the list.

    The happy-go-lucky attitude that gets constantly blasted all over Social Media makes me physically sick. Not because I’m not an advocate of having a positive attitude, and not because I don’t practice it myself, but because of all the points you made in this post. I think a lot of people walk around with the same attitude about sadness that I always had, well, actually STILL have, which is that it’s a sign of weakness.

    It’s not.

    The shame still pops back in from time to time – you know, those *triggers. It screws with me. What’s your hourly rate? jk

    Great post.

  11. I loved this message. It’s such an important skill to learn, and yet we’re almost always taught the opposite. “Your friend looks sad, go cheer her up.”, “Your sister had a bad day, see if she wants a muffin.”, etc– fixing emotion is built into our framework. It’s a good concept on the outside, but you’re right about what it looks like from under a magnifying glass. Well-said! :)

  12. This post was fantastic and so important. My husband and I express our sadness in really different ways, and it’s been a challenge to meet each other halfway, especially since the same instances usually make us emotional and deflated. But it’s gotten easier the longer we’ve been together. We have become more empathetic to one another, and I’m so grateful for that because I never want to be part of a marriage that just kind of floats along.

    • Ooh, you bring up a good point. After the wedding, my husband and I had very different ways of handling our grief. I am a talker, and I needed to cry and wail and talk and I wanted him to listen. For him, he needed some time alone. Navigating that was (and still is) a challenge.

  13. This is a brilliant post. It really made me think. I am a therapist also, and I have a hard time sitting with sadness and just being quiet while a client has a good cry. Part of it is my maternal instinct kicks into hyperdrive when i see someone in pain, and that isn’t really helpful for anyone (except maybe my kids when they fall on the playground…) Another part of it is a lot of times my clients seem to be demanding that I improve their situation (usually by waving my magic wand and making their child behave in the way they want, or to fix their financial situation with a referral to a fairy godmother, or something) so the pressure gets to me, and it is hard to be graceful in the face of that despair…. anyway, this post is a little gem that I will sit with and be mindful of while I am with clients this week.

    • Thank you.
      I’ve had the “fix my child” client and people who expect me to do the work for them, and it’s hard for me to not get caught up in that and feel responsible.

      I have to remind myself that it’s not fair to me or the client for me to carry their pain. I can only bear witness and suggest other ways of thinking about it, etc. and the client has to be the one to do the work.

      Also, I believe that a client who doesn’t do the work (or who wants to stay sad, in this case) is simply not ready yet. That’s neither good nor bad, nor is it my responsibility. It just is.

  14. Lyssa,
    I love this. I’d have more to say, but I’ve spewed all I had last week on a post called Wolves, which was about emotions like sadness and anger which personally, I had difficulties sharing because I thought they were shameful…

    Once again, we’re in sync…
    Le Clown

  15. This is something I talk about a lot. Having suffered from depression whenever I am feeling sad and upset with the world inevitably the people who care about me show concern as they are worried I am spiraling down into depression again. I remind them that sadness is ok, depression is ok. These things are not the same and at some point they are feelings a lot of people will experience. I allow myself to be sad and cry if I need to because my depression was a result of attempting to control and hide that sadness. ‘Being strong’ was part of my downfall.

  16. Interesting post. I’m guilty of trying to make the sad person feel better because I know how shitty it is to feel like shit and I want to relieve them of that, but sometimes people just want to cry, right?
    Speaking of crying, my go-to cry medium is not a movie but an episode of Futurama called Jurassic Bark. Kills me every time.

      • Seriously, watch it.
        *spoiler alert* So Fry–wait do you watch Futurama?–anyway Fry was cryogenically frozen and is unfrozen in the future. In his past he was a pizza delivery guy and he had this dog. Well in the future, he finds his fossilized dog and could bring it back, but figures the dog doesn’t even remember him so decides against it. Then it cuts to the dog in the past waiting for Fry on the curb in front of the pizza parlor and the seasons change and the dog just waits and wait and I’m tearing up as I write this and this is the longest comment I ever made.

  17. Very interesting. I have to say that sometimes, when faced with sadness, I tend to try to find a “solution” to make the person feel better. I know how to deal with my own sadness but not with other people’s sadness. I want to let it be but I feel like I HAVE TO say something, that the other person is expecting me to say something… and I don’t know what to say except that I understand the feeling and offer him/her words of sympathy… is that not ok? What is the best way?

    • One thing that helps me is to remind myself that another person’s sadness is not mine to fix.
      And in my opinion, I think offering up just an “I’m sorry” or “That sucks!” is just right. If you’re not sure what to say, then I suggest just asking what you can do to help. Even though it may not seem like much, just being there to listen is HUGE. 90% of my job is listening. That’s it.

  18. Your post came at a perfect time. I was struck, out of the blue, with an incredibly rare spinal disease in early August. Was in the hospital for 6 weeks after an acute onset. I went from skiing, swimming, biking to learning to walk again. Electric shocks course through my body at times, and I must send people from the room. It makes them so uncomfortable to witness. I now suffer permanent paralysis and nerve damage. Am not able to care for myself -yet!- so was forced to move in with my mother and step-father this week.
    The number one cause of death from this disease, Transverse Myelitis, is suicide. A lifetime of constant chronic pain, paralysis, fatigue and the other symptoms pretty much explain why. Doctors do not even know what causes it.
    My mother looks at me with pity but gets angry with me when the tears course down my face. She does not know how to handle it. It seems no one does. Hell, I don’t know.
    So just squash my feelings, put on a fake happy face and act ‘normal.’
    This causes more depression and sadness of course. Was diagnosed bi-polar ten years ago and have had clinical depression for 30 years.
    Don’t know how I am going to make it, but keep trying every day.

    I am going to forward your post to my mother, and a few of my friends. Your points on dealing with another’s sadness are salient for most everyone.
    Cannot thank you enough. Your piece hit a chord at just the right time. It gives me hope.
    ~Miss R

  19. I am sooooo guilty of this. When someone is really despairing, I turn to corny jokes and try to lighten the mood. I do it because absorbing other people’s sadness is so hard for me. (Hard because I’m already a basketcase, not because I have no empathy. My empathy overfloweth.) But when I feel really awful, I need someone just to soak it up a bit, not to solve it for me. I’m going to be adding this one to my personal improvement file. Coping mechanisms be damned!

    • Thanks for commenting.
      It’s interesting that you say “absorbing,” because from my point of view, the goal isn’t to absorb someone’s sadness because it isn’t yours to carry. I wonder if that helps to create a bit of a boundary?

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