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.

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