How do you let yourself be sad?

Sometimes it feels as though we measure success in life by happiness. When someone asks “how are you?” we feel obliged to say “fine!” for so many reasons. We don’t want to bring other people down with our own low moods. We don’t want to admit to complicated emotions out in public. Sometimes we don’t feel as though we have the right to feel the way we feel, so we’re afraid of being judged. And sometimes it’s just that saying anything other than “fine!” might lead to the horrendous embarrassment of tears in public.

Yesterday a casual “how are you going?” in the staffroom left me in tears. And rather than stay and talk with the very sympathetic colleague who had cruelly precipitated the tears by being nice to me (how could she??), I fled for the toilets and hid. This is a sure sign that I have been trying to hold too many pieces in too few hands.

Ironically on the weekend I knew that I would need to give myself permission to be sad for a while, due a death in my extended family and a lot of complicated emotions. I try to hold it together for my kids, for my students, for my colleagues, maybe even to save face. Sometimes it’s purely practical – you can’t teach a class effectively when you’re in tears, so there are times when I have to hold it together.  Somehow holding it together becomes a habit that’s hard to break, and I find myself unable to be openly sad.

I don’t mean continuously sad. Sometimes there are smiles, and even laughs on the darkest of days. But although intellectually I believe it should be possible to be authentically sad with your friends and colleagues without great drama, in a practical sense I find it hard to do. So I go around trying to be upbeat all the time, for my own sake and for the sake of those around me.

When our kids are sad, we say things like “it’s ok” and “don’t be sad” and “cheer up” when maybe what we should be doing is empathizing more. Agreeing that yes, they are sad, and yes,  being sad is ok. Giving them permission to feel the way they feel, rather than trying to change it. We’re not very good at giving ourselves permission to feel. We like to pretend the negative emotions don’t exist. But those emotions can be powerful drivers of change, and we can’t use them to learn if we pretend they don’t exist.

Interestingly my sad blog posts get far more traffic than my happy ones. This might be because I am more eloquent when I’m sad than when I’m happy, but I think it has a lot to do with people feeling less alone when they read of someone else’s trauma. One thing the human brain seems to do with alarming efficiency is persuade you that you are the only person ever to have suffered this. The only one to have felt sad, or scared, or lonely, or grieving. The only person to have fought, struggled, or lost. Intellectually you know that others suffer, but emotionally you feel like the only one who has ever felt this way.

I think this is one reason why sad books and films are so popular, and why we respond so strongly to poignant images. Because they remind us that we are not alone.

If only we could be authentically, publicly sad, and remind all the other sad people around us that it’s normal to be sad sometimes. That you can laugh and the world laughs with you, but you never really cry alone.

Bittersweet anniversary

 Di and me20 years ago tomorrow she woke with me at 5am so we could get our hair done. Laughing at the stories my sister told, we were at the hairdresser’s by 5:30, home again by 6:30, giggling over makeup, lingerie and flowers.

I vividly remember one photo in the back garden, under a huge deciduous tree, sunlight filtering in through the dense canopy. 3 bridesmaids in gorgeous purple dresses, two page boys with matching purple bow ties and cummerbunds, and one blissed out bride, surrounded with love and laughter.

Di spent much of the day rearranging my dress, making sure I was where I needed to be, taking care that I didn’t trip over myself or fall in the lake when the sunlight hit my veil and sparkled with blinding intensity. She was my stability, my sanity, and my laughter.

When we arrived at the zoo she was there to help me out of the car. She gave me everything she had that day, and though I was there to marry my fiance, I also felt intensely bonded to Di. She was integral to my wedding, and to my life.

Just over two years later, she was gone.

My mum wanted me to have one of my sisters as Maid of honour. “Friends come and go,” she said. “Your sisters will always be there for you.” And to be sure, Di and I had our ups and downs. When the flame burns with aching intensity, it’s bound to flare from time to time. But the hole left in my heart when she died makes it crystal clear that our friendship was built to last.

There is so much she should have done. So many things we should have shared. So much she should have been.

Her death left me broken, but perhaps also more empathic, more compassionate, and more vividly aware of the fragility of life. 20 years on, our wedding anniversary is bittersweet without her here to share it with us.

My oldest daughter’s middle name is Dianne. Recently a friend asked her who Dianne was, and it reminded me of the day Di died, when I stumbled over to my husband’s office, too distraught to see, speak, or think clearly. After I choked out the words “Di is dead,” his office mate said “Who’s Di?”

Who is Di? Di is my heart.


“Studies have shown that inducing fear about the way things are, without simultaneously giving people a sense of purpose, can actually suppress their immune system – it will make them unwell.”

John-Paul Flintoff in “How to Change the World

Climate Change is a perfect storm of this kind of fear – it feels too large for us to have any impact, so it is depressing and demoralising.  But imagine if you rode to work a few times a week, or started walking to the local shops rather than driving. And imagine if that small act inspired one or two other people to try the same. And they inspired others. Suddenly you could have exponential growth in people using feet rather than cars – huge change, not just in your own network, but spreading out into the world. All from the example you set by changing your habits in a public, visible way.

In “How to Change the World,” the School of Life‘s John-Paul Flintoff points out that our every action, or inaction, does change the world. He argues convincingly that those of us who are no Gandhi or Martin Luther King nonetheless have an impact with everything we do. Sometimes we make things seem possible by showing that they can be done. Sometimes we teach people things, whether we meant to or not. Sometimes we inadvertently show people what not to do.

Perhaps, rather than being pure threat, climate change is an opportunity. Perhaps some of those things we need to do to tackle climate change – use less fossil fuels, grow more of our own food, learn ways of living more sustainably – are actually opportunities to build local communities?

I have noticed that walking to the local shops leads to lots of small conversations with local people – those tending their gardens, or checking their mail, or even getting in and out of their cars. When you are speeding through a neighbourhood doing 50kph in a big metal box, not only are conversations with people on the footpath impossible, you are most unlikely even to catch someone’s eye. On my bike, I have got to know the runner near my kids’ school. The guy who spends a lot of time in his driveway, working on his car. The gardener around the corner. The girl with a skateboard down the road. A couple of teenage boys at the local high school who like the look of our box bike. And countless others.

I don’t necessarily know their names, but they are tangible connections in an increasingly disconnected world.

One of my long held gripes with my suburban lifestyle is the lack of community. So often we step from our houses directly into our garages and then into our cars, sacrificing any opportunity to feel connected to our neighbourhood. We pick up the kids from school by driving up to the gate (or as close as we can get) and honking the horn. We are too busy and too stressed to arrange playdates for our kids, and when we do we frequently drop the kids and run, taking the opportunity to be busy, busy, busy – terribly productive, and terribly disconnected.

Perhaps this, too, is an opportunity. Perhaps I’m not the only person seeking a local community. Perhaps I’m not the only person worried about climate change and trying to live more sustainably. Perhaps I can find ways to build my own local network. Perhaps you can, too.