What It Means To Be Sad

Sadness is one of those ordinary, human, connecting, important emotions. Lately I’ve been reflecting on how sadness is expressed in families, what is communicated about sadness, and what happens when people can’t acknowledge sadness.

Sadness is related to loss, and every person at some point in their life goes through loss when change occurs. Graduating from school, having a baby, getting married, moving, and getting a new job are all examples of changes that could generate sadness. Even when better things might be coming along, there is generally a loss of familiarity, old routine, social environment, and schedule. The loss of predictability takes up energy and attention that can be unsettling and even overwhelming.

In many families and cultures sadness is considered something that is problematic, and is often talked about with disdain, contempt, or pity. Sadness has been equated with being pathetic, not having a backbone, being weak, or being worthy of ridicule. When is the last time you used the word sadness in your vocabulary, and how did you use it? Was sadness used in a way that enhanced a connection with another person, or was it a disguise or judgement about how another person should express themselves? Do you get embarrassed when others cry or express sadness? Do you try to shut down their feelings, fix the problem, or ignore the emotion? Or was your verbalizing sadness an open invitation for a person to share openly, feel deeply, express themselves better, or to be understood?

The lack of acknowledgement of sadness can result in disconnect, alienation, confusing about one’s emotions or feelings, or even anger. Expressing or experiencing distress related to loss is an expression of vulnerability; a need to band together with the people we care about, a way to bring community together. Ridiculing, berating, or scapegoating people because they struggle with grief only makes it worse.

Grief is one of those things that has its own timetable, and can show up at unexpected times. There is no right way to go about it, and everyone has their own process to work through. I can’t tell you how many people I talk to each week that are fearful of showing or expressing emotion in public, and avoid being in public because they might become anxious or upset. It seems unfortunate to me that so much of our culture is shaming those that express or identify sadness. So many people think that no one else feels the way they feel, and this often inhibits expression or discussion of what people are missing the most. People frequently start apologizing to me for crying, and some have suggested that if they cry they deserve be locked up in a psychiatric hospital or “the looney bin.” Others inform me they spend a great deal of energy suppressing, inhibiting, ignoring, or distracting themselves from how they feel.

In some cases, sadness can take up residence in a person’s life and become depression. The open expression of sadness is generally one of connection and deep support, whereas the behaviors of depression can reduce connection with others; such as irritability, low frustration tolerance, complaining, expressions of hopelessness, or threats to give up.

A normative expression of sadness is generally moving, touching, and connecting. Consider what movies or music you may have seen or heard that have moved you deeply, and if sadness was part of that process. Consider what brings about sadness in your life, and how/ in what ways are you able to share it? What losses have you endured or gone through? In what ways have you been inhibited from expressing or sharing the pain of what happened? In what ways can you honor or acknowledge your own sadness; even if no one else can do it for you?