Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free
Have you ever felt sad and, at the same time, felt that you “shouldn’t” be feeling that way?
Sadness is a critical human emotion triggered by events in our lives, such as when things have turned out badly, we don’t get what we want or need, we don’t get what we’ve worked for or we’ve lost or are separated from someone we love.
Feeling sadness can be painful, leaving us tired, run-down, feeling hollow or frequently tearful. But it also serves an important purpose. We will work hard not to feel sad. And because of that, we may value and care for what we do have, so that we don’t lose it. The idea of the pain of losing a child, for example, will motivate us to work quite hard and go to great lengths to keep that child safe and healthy. Sadness about the death of a loved one can motivate us to honor their memory and find ways to carry on important aspects of their life.
Sadness is vital to maintaining our relationships and, yet, it is also not a culturally desirable emotion. We’re surrounded by TV ads of happy people, enjoying life, while sad people are often portrayed as ill or in need of medication.
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Feeling sad about a loved one far away may motivate you to keep in touch and make efforts to visit and maintain the relationship. But acting lethargic, frowning and saying sad things is not socially valued behavior. “Smile” people often instruct, when you walk by looking gloomy, communicating their need for your smile as more important than allowing you to feel your sadness.
If you’re happy our social world loves you. Smiling, being courteous and friendly out of good feelings, expressing a positive outlook and generally being energetic is responded to positively and considered important for personal well-being.
If you feel sad for longer than the briefest of moments, people may become impatient. Rather than empathizing with us around a problem in our lives, they may begin to view us as having a mental problem.
When we feel bad about feeling sad, we often have internalized these social expectations to feel sad only briefly and to value and therefore be happy. A recent study in Emotion suggests that this social pressure not to feel bad can actually intensify sad feelings, increase levels of depression and reduce life satisfaction (February, 2012).
Studies on our judgments of social situations highlight that when we think about events in our lives, we rely heavily on the reactions of the people around us. How we believe others might respond to us has an impact on our emotions and how we feel about and express our emotions.
Believing that others expect us not to feel sad in any given situation sets us up for negative thinking and unhealthy responses that can intensify that bad feeling. For example, when we fail to meet others expectations, even in the way that we feel, we may tell ourselves that we are failures. These thoughts only intensify negative feelings.
So what can you do if you’re stuck in a cycle of feeling sad and feeling bad about feeling sad? There are a number of interventions that can be helpful, but you may want to start simply by recognizing your emotions. Understanding, naming and describing emotional experiences can reduce their intensity.
Untangling feelings of sadness that originate in negative life events from feeling bad about feeling sad can, in itself, begin to make you feel better. Beyond that, changing the messages that you tell yourself from “I shouldn’t feel this way” to “It hurts to feel this way, but sadness has a purpose” can help.
Emotions are social phenomena. If you believe that others expect you to always be happy and never sad, your sadness will only intensify. Feeling sad is painful, but its value in maintaining human relationships is just as important as happiness.
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