The thought of going to a funeral used to terrify me. Walking into a room filled with sadness and grief evoked an intense desire not to go. Anxiety was all I could feel as it masked the emotions I wanted to have, like sadness and compassion. I secretly felt ashamed that I didn’t have “the right feelings."
It was not death itself that bothered me, it was being in the presence of sadness and grief. Why did sadness make me so anxious? Why did it turn me into a vibrating, heart-pounding, emotional mess, uncomfortable in my own skin?
I later came to understand that I felt pressure to fix sadness: to say or do just the right thing. I thought I was supposed to cheer up the person suffering, as though they had a problem to be solved. Eventually, I figured out that I could not fix someone’s sadness. Yet, the visceral pressure to fix it didn’t go away and neither did my anxiety.
What We Need to Understand About Emotions
Sadness is a core emotion evoked when we experience loss. When a core emotion arises, it needs validation and to flow. If we push emotions down, the energy they hold gets blocked. Blocked emotions hurt us. Blocked emotions put stress on our mind and body, eventually causing symptoms like depression, anxiety, ruminations, high blood pressure, stomach problems and more.
To let emotions flow, we need to feel safe enough to experience them. Learning what to expect when experiencing an emotion helps make the experience more manageable, less scary and even less painful. Feeling connected to another person with whom we feel safe and comfortable is another important factor that helps make emotions bearable. I didn’t know any of these things when I was younger. And why would I? Our culture doesn't teach us what we need to know about emotions.
Lessons I’ve Learned in Supporting Others
On my way to becoming a trauma and emotion-centered psychotherapist, I learned to just be with sadness rather than trying to fix it. I learned my presence and willingness to offer support was all I could realistically do. Being there was enough. Some of the other things I learned include:
If someone is ashamed, self-conscious or feels you cannot deal with their emotions, they will likely hide their sadness. This impedes their ability to move through it and feel better. So, it’s important to avoid saying things like “You really shouldn't be so sad” or “Isn’t it time you moved past this?”
Problem-solving isn’t typically what people want. Remember your job is not to fix it. I sometimes ask, “Is there anything I can do for you, like make you a cup of tea?”
There is no normal time frame for grieving. Emotions resolve when they are ready. Many of my patients have said to me, “I should be over this loss by now.” I let them know that everyone and every loss is unique as is the time it takes to heal and recover.
An invitation to talk is helpful. “If you’d like to talk about your loss (or what's making you sad), I want to listen.”
Sometimes words don’t help. You can convey “I’m here” by just being around.
If you are comfortable, a willingness to offer physical affection can be helpful. For example, some people will accept a comforting hug, a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold, especially when you invite someone in with a gesture like your open arms or your extended hand.
Lessons I’ve Learned in Managing My Own Sadness
Helping others flow through their sadness also taught me how to manage my own.
When you are sad, try to communicate your needs.
Our loved ones cannot read our mind. And, many people feel the way I did: that they are supposed to solve or fix sadness. Your family and friends may seem awkward or defensive in the face of your sadness simply because they don’t know what to do and that makes them feel uncomfortable. Therefore, we need to communicate our needs to the people around us.
Take the time to teach your partner and family what you need. For example, let’s say you are feeling the loss from your adult child moving away. Your partner may notice your sadness and try to fix it by saying, “It’s not so bad.”
You might say in response, “I am sad. I just need you to let me feel this way. You can help by holding me when I cry and just listening when I need to talk. I don’t need you to say or do anything else. Would that be okay?” Most partners are relieved to get guidance.
We can comfort our own sadness to feel better.
If we are aware that we are sad, we can help ourselves. For example, be compassionate to your sadness. Don’t put pressure on yourself to feel any different than you actually feel. Sadness and grief are painful enough without adding a layer of judgment or pressure to “get over it.”
To help you move through your sadness, validate it. Take it day by day or even minute by minute. Ask yourself what you need for comfort, and give yourself permission to get it. Most importantly: treat your own sadness and grief the same way you would treat others you love and care about.
For me, it was a great relief to learn that sadness does not need fixing. Permission to feel our emotions by offering time, space and presence is a wonderful gift you can always give to others, and equally as important, to yourself.
Hilary is author of the award-winning book, It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self (Random House & Penguin UK, 2018). She received her BA in biochemistry from Wesleyan University and an MSW from Fordham University. She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. She has published articles in The New York Times, Time, Oprah, and her blog is read worldwide.
For more information and free resources for emotional health visit: https://www.hilaryjacobshendel.com/
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