What we need to do about sadness (a 3-step best practice)

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Sadness is the opposite of joy (see Plutchnik’s model). That should be reason enough to run as fast & far away from it, right? That’ll be the logical approach…but how ridiculous can we be to apply logic to emotions 🙂

How about advice and social pressure we’ve had since before we knew the word? As part of the normal childhood process of separation from the mother and becoming independent, in families where “sadness is not allowed”, every time the child separates a little more (having to cope with a small loss), if the mother cannot allow the minor distress involved, the child may never learn how to deal with sadness himself…just imagine how lucky you must be to have a mother who understands that her child has a right to this emotion! No wonder we develop addictions to any type of trick (food/drink/drugs/social media) to alleviate this emotional pain.

Bottom line: sadness is the emotion that results from loss…hence it’s  here to stay in us, humans. Every time we experience a loss, we need to put energy into either resisting it, or coping with it – this type of stress is actually what we’re trying to avoid. The truth thought is that we can run but we can’t hide from it…so why not learn to use it? Because it does serve a purpose (emotions are but power engines for behaviors) – and its purpose is incredibly important: it’s a sign we need help or comfort from community members (this is most probably the evolutionary basis for sadness), including the need to simply be allowed some time to recuperate from whatever we interpret as loss (which is a personal interpretation, heavily influenced by cultural norms!) – as there are so many types of things we can loose in this world – material possessions, health, companionship, affection, stature, safety…

Looks to me like we have two choices

  • we add something to sadness and create more complex emotions (leading to behaviors and results nobody really wants – if you blame someone for you loss you feel anger; if you blame yourself for the loss of stature  you feel shame; if you feel you have lost affection to another person you feel jealousy; if you have lost safety or security you feel fear or anxiety; loss of hope can lead to depression etc)
  • or we cope with it directly…we accept it and deal with it like mature human beings (I love Beaumont’s map, clearly stating the end of each path we can choose to take from sadness!)

Here’s a practice that works – you can use it in your journal, with a friend or a coach:

  1. What have I lost? Is the loss real? Is it my loss?
  2. What is it’s value to me? Why do I perceive this as important? Is it really important or I can simply ignore the issue?
  3. What impact will it have?  How can I recover? Can I just ignore the issue?

…these are sanity questions and the only adequate coping with this longer-lasting emotion which often cycles through periods of protest -> resignation -> helplessness. The key is to avoid generation of the more complex emotions sadness can lead to by stepping into “action” mode based on the learning resulting from this clarification process

Maybe you feel insulted by someone’s sneer? Why? The image of your competence was damaged in front of some people…maybe competence is an important value to you – so what are you going to do about it? Are you competent and want to demonstrate it? Figure out what you need to do…Are you indeed not competent enough? Figure out what you need to learn…Unless of course competence is important but damaged in its image as it now is, it’s good enough – and you’re not going to spend energy on the matter, you’ve got much more important things in life…

Maybe you feel powerless? Why? Your autonomy was lost due to someone’s decision? What’s your interpretation of that? Maybe it’s about you feeling betrayed – your relationship with that person would not have allowed this to happen…how could s/he do that to you!? Is that relationship important? Just go to the person and say how you think & feel about it…Is your autonomy a core value, more important to you than the relationship? Choose autonomy then…clarify the boundaries of your relationship and make it clear to that person that you’re not going to accept it again…

Or maybe you feel your safety is at stake?  Was a trust betrayed by someone in whose power it is to get you out of a job because s/he told the story of a mistake you’ve made (and already corrected) to your bosses – and you’re a single mom…So what’s the issue here, your financial safety or your trust in that person? If the relationship is not the issue (hence the trust), and what’s really making you sad is rumination over the risk you’re facing now, think how you can recover?…What do you need to do to alleviate the mistrust your cover-up might have generated in the decision-makers of your job security? Unless of course you know for a fact that nobody was ever fired from that company for such a thing (the company actually believes in problem-solving, which you did!), so you can just ignore the matter…

Closing with a bit of a caramelized carrot here to mobilize you into this process: there are some demonstrated benefits of proper dealing with sadness: improve attention to external details, reduced judgmental bias (happy people are more likely to make social misjudgments due to lower ability to correctly distinguish between true and false claims; sad moods reduce the fundamental attribution error, the halo efect, primary effects), increased perseverance and motivation to deal with a challenge in the environment, improved memory and more frequent display of generosity (which further generates positive social and emotional cycles).

So perhaps the next time your experience any color of the sadness spectrum, you’ll chose to use it!