Sadness, while deeply uncomfortable, has a purpose and lesson to teach us. What medicine can your sadness offer you?
Feeling sad is a natural, unavoidable, but often deeply uncomfortable emotion. Many of us would prefer to feel angry than sad—anger has energy, and sadness can feel like it saps our life force. So what’s the point of feeling sad?
The Power of Core Emotions
All of our core emotions have a point and a purpose. Each also has an action associated with it, something that we’re meant to do (or not do) in order to keep ourselves safe. These emotions make up an internal compass that can help us navigate relationships. This is as important as any of our other survival responses because human beings are fundamentally social animals. We need communities and close relationships in order to survive. Our internal compass teaches us how to do that.
Unfortunately, our culture is not the most emotionally healthy place to live, and many of us grew up in families that were not emotionally healthy. Individual and cultural traumas can mess with that internal compass, and we can learn the wrong lessons about what to do with our core emotions—including, for example, trying not to feel these vital feelings.
What the Core Emotions Can Teach Us
Depending on who you ask, there are between 7-10 core emotions. Hilary Jacobs Hendel, author of the book It’s Not Always Depression, names seven: anger, sadness, fear, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement. Some experts will add or subtract from this list, but the general idea is that emotions are built into our systems for a reason. When we shut down or avoid our emotions, we’re ignoring important information.
Hendel goes into depth about each of the emotions in her book, but in short, the messages are these:
Anger: Something’s not right. Change it.
Fear: Something is unsafe. Get away from it.
Sadness: A loss has occurred. Slow down and process it.
Joy: Goodness is present. Share it.
Disgust: Something in the environment is physically or emotionally toxic. Get away from it.
Excitement: Something is coming. Prepare for it.
Sexual excitement: Someone is attractive. Get closer to them.
Obviously there’s plenty to say about each of these, but let’s focus on sadness here. Sadness means a loss has occurred that must be processed. The loss could be a breakup, the death of a pet or loved one, moving to a new city, witnessing the sadness of another person, or any other change that must be considered. The experience of sadness is quiet and cold. It makes us want to slow down, curl up, sleep, and be held. Being in an acute experience of grief can be a bit like having the flu: The body wants to be wrapped in comforting warmth, held by someone safe and loving, and fed warm things that are easy to digest, like tea and broth. We’re a little more vulnerable when we’re grieving and significantly likelier to actually catch the flu, along with other colds and viruses.
How to Listen to Our Sadness
Our culture is not very good about encouraging us to slow down and process loss. We’re so focused on productivity that we don’t have space for the slowness of grief. Most of us don’t get enough time to feel our sadness even if we’re lucky enough to have some bereavement leave from work. While it may seem that nothing much is happening while we are grieving, curled up in a ball, our brains are actually very busy processing a world on the other side of the loss. We need to think and feel in order to understand ourselves after the loss.
This processing can be done through thinking, dreaming, journaling, talking to a friend or therapist, crying, yelling, resting, and many other forms. When we do this, we can come to the other side of our sadness to discover new ways of looking at the world. Our sadness has plenty to teach us. We must give it the time to listen.
Utilize this meditation to release sadness.