For a lot of reasons, sadness is hard to do. It’s sad to be sad, and who wants to be sad? Well actually it’s really important for you to learn how to be sad. It can really help you, everyone around you, and the world around you too.
Why we get sad
Let’s start with what makes people sad. Loss. Loss of someone, a death, or a break-up, or big change in a relationship (like if someone moves away). Losing a pet can make people feel sad. The loss of an idea for the future, or hope about things changing for the better. We can feel sad for ourselves now if we feel we are missing out on being treated as well as other people. Loneliness and the feeling of a lack of compassion for us. We can also feel sad for other people who are experiencing loss, either people in our circle or people we don’t know.
World events are causing a lot of sadness right now – poor management of Covid-19; wealth, social, and health inequality; racist policing; lack of action on climate change. A lot of people are dying before their time, or being treated really badly, or are facing poverty, or their lives are much harder than they should be. A lot of people are sad at the moment. Me too.
When you’re growing up, being sad is one of the signs that you are maturing and developing a sense of your own self. It’s the same for anger. So the ability to feel sad is the ability to be a grown up. To understand that you love, like, or value things that you can then lose is important. It helps you to understand that you are a subject of your own life story, and that others are the subject of their life story. You are you, they are them. Learning to feel sad is important, but there’s a difference between sadness and melancholy.
Sadness and melancholy
Think about sadness as an event, with a beginning, middle, and end. It could last for a few seconds, minutes, hours, or a few days. You can have recurring events of sadness about the same thing, but it definitely comes and goes. Perhaps you feel heavy, or slow, or teary. Maybe you keep your world quite small and allow yourself to be a bit vulnerable and raw.
Allowing yourself to access this feeling can actually feel quite beautiful and sometimes even really joyful (weirdly). Knowing that you are feeling sad, and having some idea for why you are feeling that way, can feel really logical and okay. It can feel a relief to know that you can feel sad. You also know that this, like all feelings, will pass. If you can get into the habit of regularly experiencing sadness like this then you can get used to experiencing this beginning, middle, and end.
There’s a difference between this kind of sad feeling and melancholia. A constant feeling of everything feeling a bit grey and heavy is a common way for people to feel when they are depressed. There can feel like there isn’t a beginning, a middle, and end to this feeling and it might not feel connected to any specific thing causing sadness. This article isn’t about depression (this website isn’t specifically about mental health) but if you want to read more about that head over to this page at Young Minds.
This depression, or melancholia means that the sadness isn’t really felt as an event but is kinda locked inside you. If you haven’t been able to experience sadness as an event when you were growing up (for reasons we’ll look at below), it can turn inwards.
The benefits of feeling sad
So it’s useful to feel sad because it helps you to release feelings that can get locked up inside you. Actually being able to feel sad helps you to deal with sadness in the long term – practice makes perfect right? However the ability to feel sad is also really helpful for you for other reasons.
Have you seen the film Inside Out? If not, and you’re finding this article interesting, then you should watch it. It’s fun but also a really interesting way of looking at feelings. I won’t spoil it, but one of the things that it teaches is that if you get really good at feeling one feeling, you can get really good at feeling others. If you shut yourself off from your feelings, that might mean you don’t feel sad at that moment, but it also prevents you from feeling joy.
Sadness also gives us important information about what is going on in our lives. If you are feeling sad about the loss of something it can give you a good idea of how much it meant to you in the first place. This doesn’t mean that you should do anything about it right now, but the feelings that come with sadness encourages you to focus on you and what you need.
Anger and Sadness
Another feeling, which I wrote about the other day, is anger. Being able to feel anger is important too because it helps you to see when someone has wronged you or someone else. I think anger and sadness can also work together here. Sometimes anger can help you to feel sad by helping you to assert your boundaries. If someone has treated you badly, or you can see injustice, it can make you angry, but it can also make you feel sad (maybe because you have lost the assumption that you should be treated better). Think about the last time you were angry, was there also something that made you feel sad too? They are both valuable and often work together to help each other. Maybe you can feel anger, and then feel sad. Or you can feel sad, and then get angry.
Using sadness for good
Being sad is really human. Experiencing love and loss is a big part of being a human and understanding what makes you sad – experiencing this means you can feel empathy and connection with other people feeling the same thing. That kind of connection with other people can give you a closeness to others and builds your capacity to experience love.
You might have seen this if you’ve been to a funeral. Mostly people are sad, but the connection with others can feel really beautiful, and sometimes quite joyful. This kind of collective sadness helps to bond you with your friends and family, but you can also experience collective sadness with people you don’t know too.
The protests and uprisings about Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the Climate Strike have lots of feelings involved, but particularly sadness and anger. Like I was saying above, sadness and anger can help each other. Being sad alongside other people can help us to feel compassion for others and a sense of collective feeling and this is also driving a lot of the protests.
How to use your privilege to be in solidarity
I’m sad and that’s okay
If you are not used to feeling sad, or haven’t felt sad in a while, you might need to retrain yourself a little bit to get used to what the sad feelings are. As Pema Chodron points out in this article about patience, maybe you can start to detect that couple of seconds when you are feeling pain, or loss, or heaviness. Do you resist them and start doing things to take your mind off having sad feelings? Or do you react and run away from them? Maybe you fight them with aggression?
So perhaps when you notice that some sad feelings might be around, just count backwards from ten to one, or take some long breathes (focus on breathing out), and try to sit with it. If you’re not in a place where this feels safe, you can take yourself off somewhere for a few minutes. Maybe you might need to keep a bit of a stiff upper lip until you can get somewhere safe enough for you to have a sad moment. If you do manage to put off your sad moment, do remind yourself to come back to it later. You don’t have to cry to be sad (just as you don’t have to be sad to cry) but you might find it a really helpful release.
Remember, you’re having a sad event with a beginning, middle, and end. Being sad is good, useful, and valuable to you and everyone around you. That’s what you need to tell yourself (to give yourself permission) but also this is something everyone else in your life could also tell you.
Sadness and relationships
If you’re sad in the context of a relationship then please try to find ways of talking about your feelings. Going around pretending that you aren’t sad can be really confusing for other people around you, particularly if they would find it quite useful for you to tell them what you were feeling. Make sure that other people in your life know that it’s okay for them to be sad. If other people are sad don’t try to regulate their feelings by minimising, or doing a Don Draper and say ‘don’t cry’ or ‘everything’s going to be alright’.
Don’t fear that other people’s sadness will make you sad. If someone’s sadness is making you sad that can feel like a lovely connecting moment for both of you. However there might be times where it is more appropriate for you to get support from someone less sad about something than you. Like if a friend has had a breakup, you can be sad, but you should prioritise their sadness first.
Being real about your feelings also boosts trust in relationships
Why being sad is hard but necessary
This all sounds very simple doesn’t it. Feel sad for a bit and then you won’t feel sad. Well yes and no. I think that many of us find it hard to be sad because we haven’t had the practice. Therapists talk about how sadness should just be allowed to happen during childhood and that experiencing sadness helps us to be stronger as a result. If sadness is hindered then it can become trapped in our bodies for a long time.
So if you’ve not had the practice at feeling sad when you were growing up you might need to practice a bit more later in life. If you find it hard to be maybe this is just something that you learned. A lot of what we have learned about sadness also comes from society and culture.
Have you ever called anyone ‘sad’ as an insult? Sad sack / bastard, saddo (that’s an old one). You can see that there is a lot of stigma about it and their shouldn’t be. There’s different kinds of stigma around for men and women too.
Sad men and sad women
Men are told that they (we) shouldn’t express their emotions at all, and that they should especially not be sad. Crying or being upset in front of others is seen as the least ‘manly’ thing for men to do. Men are told to be tough, hard and confrontational and sadness is seen as the opposite of those. As men know (because we are often on both sides of enforcing the rules of man club) the piss-taking, bullying, or even violence that men can face from being sad in front of other men can be awful.
Because women are ‘supposed’ to be whatever men aren’t (yes this is sexist and awful) it’s more okay for women to be sad. However that doesn’t mean that sad is seen as valuable and okay, it’s just that it’s more expected of women to be sad. Women get treated badly for being sad or ‘emotional’ at school or work because this is stereotypical behaviour of women. Even though it’s expected, it’s still not okay. This reinforces the idea that being rational is more important than being emotional, and that being hard is better than being soft – which is absolute bollocks.
There’s more about this and why ‘masculine’ traits are seen as more valuable than ‘feminine’ traits (and why it’s sexist and awful) at my What’s Your Gender article.
So men, be more sad more often. As I keep saying, being sad is valuable and useful and we all should do more to make this okay. Then when you’ve learned how to be sad, help everyone else you know in your life to be sad too. Stop just expecting women (or non-binary folk) to do your feelings for you.
It’s okay to be sad and it’s actually really really useful. You get valuable information from it. It increases your ability to feel other things, like joy and love. The more you do it the better you get at it. We just need to all support each other and to give each other the permission to be sad.
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.