Rediscovering Sadness: Taking Time to Feel the Depths of Your Sorrow

Person with short hair in work shirt crying on stone steps outside, covering face in handsFeeling sad does not build bridges, nor will it win a war that needs fighting. Dedicating time to dwell on past hurts also rarely brings home a paycheck (unless you’re a therapist). In a consumer, growth-oriented society, sadness seems a luxury we can ill afford in our restless race for more goods, more happiness, more distraction. We grow quickly uncomfortable in the presence of others’ sorrow. Rightly or wrongly, we all learn to keep feelings of genuine sadness to ourselves.

Yet the truth is we are hardwired for a depth and complexity that can be found nowhere more clearly than in sadness. Ask the great comedians where they discovered the roots of their humor. Almost universally, their answer is in sorrow. It is the volume of our sadness that gives dimension to our sense of joy, peace, love, as well as the full palette of human emotion.

Honoring That Which Transcends

Sadness is unique in its capacity to draw the outside world to our side. Even if our friends and family haven’t the capacity to cue in when we are deeply grieved, the environment itself leans in. Unashamed by our social ranking, dogs will tend to approach us when we have dropped our guard. Wild animals grow curious as our manic productivity ceases and we bend our heads earthward. If the sky has been dark, it may be our very tears that signal the start of a summer squall. We look up from soul-drenched misery to find a dove murmuring at her perch, watching and harmonizing with our pain. Never too direct. The dove quickly averts her gaze and takes flight, the arc of her wings nodding her approval. We see a remarkable law of call and response at play here. Nature responds well to fully expressed sorrow.

Sadness, when fully expressed, connects us even beyond the animal realm. Our small travails reflect greater laments—to the injustices, the brutal losses, and the painful ephemeral facts that constrain all life. Watch a small child howl uncontrollably after she is denied a friend’s toy. No amount of explaining can remedy such injustice. Our scolding and attempts to redirect fall on deaf ears. As we detect the absence of ploy or force in her screams, our parental instincts grow respectfully mute. We give pause before the depth of her feeling. Pure anguish. We shudder at the timelessness of her state and take side with awe at the purity of her misery. Helpless, we wait for the deep emotion to subside on its own. In her sobbing, we hear the horrifying music of galaxies clashing and collapsing into nothingness, the despair of lonely asteroids, the careless weight of entropy triumphing over all creation. If the universe needs a heart and voice to expel its pain, she is its instrument.

Sometimes we just don’t get to play with other friends’ toys! But we do get to feel sad about it.

When you attend to the depths of your sorrow, you partake in a profound transmigration of feeling. The quantum spin of one electron is entangled—via observation—with the spin of other electrons regardless of locality. Similarly, our sadness entangles with the sadness of others we have never met.

Feel It Fully to Let It Pass

Among our fellow humans, the attempt to console is fraught with mishap. Have mercy for those wishing to respond well to the tears within you. Try as they might, their brains are too advanced for the archaic wisdom that sadness requires. Aid, when it arrives too soon, interrupts the needed revelation. Arriving too late, it loses all value. The chance for misattunements are legion, and too often we are obliged to console the consoler and thus lose the true message of our sadness.

Instead, when powerful sadness wells up from within, take a meandering walk. Trust nature’s way with you as you traverse the barriers between you and your deeper self. Here are some of the barriers and passageways you may find familiar in your hunt for real sadness.

  • Anger: After misfortune and before your honest response, your imagination first compels you to repeat the details of the affront. Eons of self-preservation dictate that you can’t feel sad until you have first rehearsed the problem and invested in your own safety. Go ahead then. Blame the universe for your condition (if there’s no human perpetrator to pin it on). Compound your defeat with memories of any and all related past hurts. Recount the underlying patterns that hold you forever confined. And, of course, plan your perfect revenge. People call anger a secondary emotion, but what better avenue to divest from the rational mind and unleash your primal self?
  • Indignation: Eventually, your vision widens. All on its own, attention lifts above anger’s narrow hold and exposes you to a shakier view. At the edge of perception, you sense the arrival of another emotion entirely—something anger can’t capture or express. It is soft, undefined, and appears to lack power. Indignation is your felt experience of resistance as you begin to slide into this unknown feeling. You sigh. Small moans want to escape as you breathe. But not yet. Anger is still here and keeps you resolute. The dance between anger and indignation is its own world—a tug-of-war that hints to deeper forces but keeps the battle on the front lines of self-protection and blame. Not until you get close to the edge do you realize how difficult it is to take the plunge.
  • Vulnerability: It begins with a shudder. Then a gentling ache beneath the sternum. Then a sinking. The ground is not as stable as you hoped. Instinct will have you looking left and right for predators. When vulnerability arrives, there is no mistaking your defenselessness. Some danger girds you for fighting. But in this surrender to sadness, you recognize that you have been rendered weaponless.
  • Immersion: As the plummet commences, all energy turns to the necessary movements arising. Muscle structures in the face can be the first to melt, followed by collapses in the shoulder area and chest. Tears fill the eyes, the brow furrows, and all focus goes inward and down, down, down. The pit of the stomach is where sadness lives. There is a strength there capable of ruling all things. It is a rule that is readying for self-annihilation while simultaneously inviting mercy. Thoughts at this stage, if there are any, have given up assessing the world (“that was so mean”) in exchange for pure internal discernment (“I am just … so … tired”). If there is truth to be told, this is the place from which truth is spoken.

When you look up again, it’s hard to tell how long you have been crying.

As intersubjective beings, each of our moods connects us to larger fields. The field of sadness just happens to run deeper than the rest. When you attend to the depths of your sorrow, you partake in a profound transmigration of feeling. The quantum spin of one electron is entangled—via observation—with the spin of other electrons regardless of locality. Similarly, our sadness entangles with the sadness of others we have never met. What you sense as yours alone calls your belonging to a larger whole.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT, therapist in Campbell, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Delaine

    Delaine

    September 13th, 2017 at 10:21 AM

    There can be a big misunderstanding when it comes to the grieving process if this is not something that you have ever personally experienced. I think that there are a lot of people who think oh they will go through these prescribed stages of grief and at the end they will come out all shiny and new. I hate to tell them but it doesn’t work that way, or at least it hasn’t been that kind of experience for me. I have moments when I feel better and then I will sink into the anger and the sadness all over again. I do think that over time things may become a little easier but I don’t think that the grief for the loss of a loved one ever truly goes away for good.

  • Sarah Y

    Sarah Y

    September 15th, 2017 at 11:45 AM

    My pups always seem to know when I have had a bad day. I often think that they are more in tune with who I am and what I am feeling than my human friends are!

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