The Upside of Sadness

It’s never fun, but over the course of a lifetime, sadness visits us all. What if instead of resisting, you could welcome it in and listen to what it has to say?

Chen Liu/Eyeem/Getty Images

Several years ago, my marriage came to an end. We had been together for 25 years, most of my adult life. On top of all the unpleasant practical matters that you have to deal with during a divorce (custody, money, property, divvying up mementos), I faced a storm of challenging emotions. Indignation and anger were the faces I wore to the outside world (the frustration, fear, and self-righteousness I kept better hidden). These feelings would arise and fall away like the weather, sometimes in great gusts, other times sticking around for days on end, and in patterns I could rarely predict. Yet there was always a steady undercurrent of sadness—over the loss of the dreams for that marriage, and simply for the fact that I had wished, deeply wished, for something else.

My experience and heartache are not unique, and not unique to going through a divorce. Part of being human is to know the weight of sadness. Fleeting or persistent, sharp or dull, threatening to overwhelm or lingering in the background, sadness touches us all:

A loss of love or friendship and the disorienting experience of the landscape shifting beyond your control.

Dropping your child off at daycare for the first time, and the accompanying guilt and realization of time passing far too quickly.

The flimsy pile of greens on your plate making you wonder if you really have what it takes to lose the weight.

A stalled car that strains your finances; one more thing to worry about.

The dirty laundry at the foot of the bed punctuating the loneliness of being single.

When an awareness of the pain and suffering of other beings suddenly strikes you with full force.

At its core, we can say sadness is the emotion that arises when we realize the unfortunate truths of being alive: we lose things, people are flawed, sometimes life is hard, and, eventually, everything ends. And when sadness arrives, we must come to the inevitable conclusion that, “Right now, it’s like this.”

I should caution that here we are talking about sad mood and not the unrelenting and persisting disorder of clinical depression. If you experience these feelings consistently over a number of days, notice that you lack energy, have sleep, appetite, or cognitive problems as a result, then you may be suffering from depression and should seek appropriate mental health treatment.

Inescapable though sadness may be, our crafty human brains like to find a way to Houdini out of its bonds, to triumphantly break free. We distract, we avoid, we play the blues to share the common humanity of sadness. We stop ourselves abruptly from crying and too quickly wipe away tears. But what are we resisting, really?

The practice of mindfulness is about being present to every moment, not just the ones that are pleasant or neutral. In fact, going into the darker, more uncomfortable places—the ones we usually try to avoid—may yield powerful insights, and may sharpen our mindfulness and deepen our compassion, both toward ourselves and others.

If truth and insight lives within sadness (the same way they live within joy, satisfaction, and wonder), what would it be like to simply contemplate this truth—to consider meeting yourself in the midst of melancholy and to see what may be there to be learned or discovered? The practice of mindfulness is about being present to every moment, not just the ones that are pleasant or neutral. In fact, going into the darker, more uncomfortable places—the ones we usually try to avoid—may yield powerful insights, and may sharpen our mindfulness and deepen our compassion, both toward ourselves and others. Maybe we could let sadness be our companion long enough to hear what it really has to say.

It Just Is

Loss, disappointment, change—these things that invoke sadness are usually beyond our control. It’s just the way the world works. No matter how hard we may try to steel ourselves, they still happen. And just as certainly we feel sad. We’re sad because our desire was for things, whatever they are, to be otherwise. Because people, moments, even numbers on a scale, matter to us. Because we cared, we hoped, maybe we even dared to dream.

Sometimes the roots of sadness are found in shame, which can begin a destructive spiral. When something goes badly, it’s easy to forget the inevitability of change. But if we’re unable to put our experience into some perspective, it’s possible for sadness to run amok. “I don’t like this feeling” becomes “I don’t want this feeling” becomes “I shouldn’t have this feeling” becomes “There’s something wrong with me because I have this feeling” becomes “I’m bad.”

When we live in that distorted world of shame—“I am uniquely bad and flawed and therefore unlovable”—sadness can lead us to isolation, rumination, and depression. So, making the sadness about how uniquely bad we are is not a helpful way to go about things. We are wallowing in sadness, making an occupation out of it.

At the other end of the spectrum, we can deny sadness. “Get over it,” we’re quick to tell ourselves. “Suck it up, buttercup.” It’s no big deal. I didn’t really care that much anyway. The thing is, though, we know that what we resist, persists. Ever tried to NOT worry? How did that work out? It’s possible to bypass our painful feelings, to erect a semi-permanent roadway that goes around, or tunnels under, or rises over, the bad stuff. But this only creates a superficial calm and composure, with a volcanic ulcer developing underneath. Someday it will give way.

When it comes to sadness, as with any emotion that makes us uncomfortable, feel vulnerable, or otherwise imposes itself in our days and lives without our permission, there’s a middle way: Letting go of resistance, and without wallowing and indulging in it, simply acknowledging the truth of the situation:

I tried and it still didn’t work. It happened and it hurts. I’m disappointed. I’m scared. I’m lonely.

During my divorce, I discovered that when I approached my sadness with tenderness, it actually helped keep me focused. I felt calmer as a result. Sadness was powerfully helpful and effective in fact, when I let it be there, with less fighting. Sadness was what tempered my anger when I wanted to lash out, to say the hurtful thing or take the action that I couldn’t take back. When I could take moments to truly admit that sadness was present for me, it allowed me a pathway back to myself; to the person I truly am and know myself to be: A man who simply wishes to be happy and free from suffering.

woman standing against foilage with eyes closed

Tiayrra Bradley/Eyeem/Getty Images

Tip: Carve Out Some Time 

Every so often, when you’re really in a rut, allow yourself to take a “sad” day to feel all of your emotions. Cancel other plans, listen to music that moves you, look through old photos, curl up on the couch, go for a quiet walk in a park or the woods. At the end, acknowledge that you’ve taken the time you needed, and remember tomorrow marks a fresh start.

Honoring Sadness

The invitation, the mindful approach, is to pause long enough to consider not only the immediacy of the moment of sadness but also how much we valued the thing we lost, the thing we didn’t get, or the thing that changed against our will. If we didn’t get the job or the promotion, sadness might signal how much we value our contributions to work. Perhaps sadness is reminding us of how much we need warm, supportive friendships when we lose one. When we realize how quickly our children are growing up, sadness informs us how deeply in love we are with these little beings and reflects our own tender hearts that treasure our connections and our responsibilities.

This isn’t simply “looking on the bright side,” but instead it is reminding us why we care. If we don’t care about something, we aren’t really sad when we lose it.

We can learn to have a less painful relationship with sadness. It begins by befriending difficult feelings when they arrive.

In a similar manner, we can learn to have a less painful relationship with sadness. And it begins by—to whatever degree we’re able—befriending these difficult feelings when they arrive. One way to do this is to recognize that we are suffering in these moments and are also worthy of comfort, of soothing, of self-compassion. Most of us are great at taking care of others, but when it comes to us, we deny ourselves that same compassion. What if we were able, when the blues arrive (as they inevitably do in every life), we could comfort ourselves in the same way we would comfort a friend in their place of feeling down? What would we say to them, what might we do, what tone of voice would we use? Could we possibly say, “This is SO hard and I know it’s painful. I’m here for you.” Could we make ourselves a cup of tea and simply allow ourselves to be with the sadness that is here? Just like with a friend, we would offer this compassion not to get rid of the pain, but simply because the mood is uncomfortable.

By being kinder to ourselves in times of difficulty, we shift the relationship we have with the suffering from one of avoidance and resistance, to one of acceptance and kindness. By softening our relationship with a feeling that is already here, that then allows us to turn toward it with some degree of curiosity and willingness to see what it’s saying to us. To hear our own inner wisdom emerge from the shadows of sadness.

Treating my sadness with gentleness and respect, I could admit that I had loved my wife and had the best of intentions for our union. That in turn allowed me to look myself in the mirror and simply treat myself (and her, on many occasions) with kindness for the hardship of divorce.

When we let go of needing an uncomfortable feeling to go away, we find we can meet it more fully and listen when it says, “this matters to me.” This is far from wallowing, ruminating, or generally getting lost in our sadness, taking it personally and making it our own monumental project or cross to bear. It’s honoring our unique journey through life: the loves and losses, the hopes and disappointments equally. And really, would we want anything else? In sadness, we can learn to simply appreciate the presence of this little bout of suffering as a reflection of our wholeness and our humanness.

Try a body scan practice for sadness and read about 5 ways sadness can be good for you.

This article appeared in the February 2017 issue of Mindful magazine.

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About the author

Steven Hickman

Steven Hickman, Psy.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and a retired Associate Clinical Professor in the UC San Diego School of Medicine. He is Executive Director of the non-profit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (CMSC), which has as its mission to “alleviate human suffering and improve the collective well-being of the planet through the practice of self-compassion”. Steve is the Founding Director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness, and has taught Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and trained teachers of that program as well. Steve is a Certified MSC teacher and a teacher trainer, leading MSC courses and teacher training programs around the world. Steve is also the author of “Self-Compassion for Dummies.”