Sadness, the Lowdown

I’ve been reading about emotions and how we express them I thought that over the next few weeks I’d explore Ekman’s six basic biologically encoded emotions. Paul Ekman (born February 15, 1934) is a psychologist who has been a pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions.  Ekman showed that contrary to the belief of some anthropologists, including Margaret Mead, the facial expressions of emotion are not culturally determined, but universal across human cultures and thus biological in origin.

Expressions he found to be universal include those indicating anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. Findings on contempt are less clear, though there is at least some preliminary evidence that this emotion and its expression are universally recognized.

Sadness is an emotion  characterized by feelings of disadvantage, loss, helplessness, sorrow, and rage. When sad, people often become outspoken, less energetic and emotional. Crying an indication of sadness.

Sadness can be viewed as a temporary lowering of mood, whereas depression is characterized by a persistent and intense lowered mood, as well as disruption to one’s ability to function in day to day matters.

‘The single mood people generally put most effort into shaking is sadness…Unfortunately, some of the strategies most often resorted to can backfire, leaving people feeling worse than before. Such strategies are simply staying alone, ruminating and drowning one’s sorrows, and may be counterproductive.

Two more positive alternatives have been recommended by cognitive therapy. ‘One is to learn to challenge the thoughts at the centre of rumination and think of more positive alternatives. The other is to purposely schedule pleasant, distracting events’.

Object relations theory  by contrast stresses the utility of staying with sadness: ‘it’s got to be conveyed to the person that it’s all right for him to have the sad feelings’ – easiest done perhaps where emotional support is offered to help them begin to feel the sadness’.  Such an approach is fuelled by the underlying belief that ‘the capacity to bear loss wholeheartedly, without pushing the experience away, emerges…as essential to being truly alive and engaged with the world’.

John Cleese said, ‘the idea that sadness was actually useful was probably the most important, and for me the most surprising single thing that I learnt’ in therapy. It seems clear that, ‘a main function for sadness is to help adjust to a significant loss, such as the death of someone close or a major disappointment. Sadness brings a drop in energy and enthusiasm….This introspective withdrawal creates the opportunity to mourn a loss or frustrated hope, grasp its consequences for one’s life, and, as energy returns, plan new beginnings’.

Thus ‘sadness can be a potent force for reflection, a call for down time, a retreat, a sign of transition, a force for change’, and represents ‘a healthy and appropriate response to experiences of loss and disappointment, whether personal or global’.

When viewed  this way sadness doesn’t seem so difficult.  Yet the difficulty begins with allowing sadness in the presence of others.  I think in this society we regard emotions , especially negative emotions as infectious and because you don’t like feeling sad in yourself, you think that others will reject you if you appear sad to them and to tell the truth that’s true. So no wonder when you are feeling sad you can isolate from people, especially if you are sensitive.  This can lead to a spiral downwards. Similarly friends of a sad person who may deal with their emotions by suppression can often be callous.

On one occasion someone I knew quite well asked how I was and rather than deflecting their question and either changing the subject or just outright lying and saying, ‘Fine thanks,’ I said, really as an experiment in telling the truth, ‘I’m sad, and in a lot of pain.’  Their reply, ’Ah well, I’ll give you a bell when you’re feeling better.’ I must admit I never did get back in contact with them and my relationship with them had been close.

Lately I have been sad. Romantic loss, the death of a dear friend, failed friendships and cultural isolation all contribute to a sense of helplessness and despondency.  This is not unfamiliar territory to me.  I personally have no compensating mechanisms such as addictions, alcohol or drugs to help me suppress or cope.  I’m also aware that emotions are contagious in my experience, so it is only with trusted confidents or trained therapists that I will communicate my sadness.  Personally I am mostly okay with sadness and have no difficulty self medicating with yoga, exercise, and herbs like St John’s Wort, and homoeopathics that help my energy to stabilise. I find it necessary to have an adventure planned, a theatre event, a musical experience, a night out with friends, an excursion perhaps.

I am very empathic which means I feel and experience very clearly what others are feeling.  I read feelings easily on faces and can find the emotions embedded in your biology easily in my own face, body and chemistry.  Sadness dilates my pupils and my field of vision decreases, the area behind my lower eye orbit and throat seems to fill with fluid or get tight and I experience a feeling as if I’m going to almost cry, no doubt sometimes I do. The problem with empathy is that it’s easy to get caught up in others states of being.

As a therapist it’s great to be able to feel into another person’s beingness and help them come to terms with and gradually balance their emotions.  So I’m comfortable with your emotions but if I’m personally sad and so is my client then it takes all my  resources to tease out and separate their feelings from mine .  This mix and mingling is why we don’t like being with sad people.  Even if you are not empathic, to any extreme, you will feel others emotions. We are all interconnected and interpenetrating, energies spill out of us and others, expressing themselves and touching, affecting those around them.

In my family of origin it was necessary to read emotions subtly expressed to avoid explosions of anger that were blamed on the children.  I got pretty good at diffusing emotional explosions.  Now I am comfortable with sadness in others I have no need to change it, like Mr Cleese, I discovered, sadness often evokes amazing poignant creative expression.

Sadness is not bad in and of itself, it cannot not be sometimes. If you’ve had a difficult life experience, it is inevitable that at some point you will be sad, it is inevitable that at some point you will be happy.  It is important not to get too caught up in thinking that something is wrong with yourself, if you are sad.  So if you get sad what will you do. What have you done in the past?

I have been listening to Sigur Ros, an Icelandic post-rock band who’s music is evocative of lonely landscapes and melancholy epic beauty.  Their music is so beautiful it transcends sadness and takes your emotions into the realm of a triumphant human consciousness.  Some people find that sad music matching their mood can enable them to feel and then move on from their sadness.  For others sad music can lead to morose ruminating.  The right music always lifts me out of sadness.

Asking for help is important but make sure the help you get to stop you ruminating, dwelling on your problems is useful and emotionally supportive to you. I have recently spoken with a friend who has had a very sad loss and I asked  her what she most wanted from her friends, ’A hug.’ She said, ’That’s what I miss, human contact.  I don’t really need people to feel sympathy but I crave a hug. ‘  So we had a good bear hug as we parted and you know I feel loved and supported.

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