Two Great Teachers: Sadness And Worry
Happiness is not the point.
It may sound radical, though many people may rely upon happiness as the ultimate end point and barometer of success. People pursue jobs, relationships, and epic life choices under the campaign of being happy and get terribly discouraged when they face sadness or worry. When those feelings emerge, they doubt their experiences, try to "put a smile on," or stuff the angst. From another view, unpleasant emotions may inform more befitting personal choices than imagined.
Why Unpleasant Emotions Are Useful
The point of this article is to offer a plea for listening to negative emotions (a psychological term), with a focus upon sadness and worry. The point is not to promote wallowing, but to offer guiding questions that may offer a way to listen and to work with unpleasant emotions. Reframed, attempting to grasp for happiness while denying sadness and worry (not to mention anger) seems flat, considering life transitions that summon sadness and worry, such as, heartbreak, moving, self-advocating, living with an intersectional identity, choosing a career, and coping with loss. And when people try to deny negative emotions, they get themselves into trouble. Sigmund Freud called these types of trouble defenses and they come in many flavors (and keep coming back to disrupt the peace since they are unconscious).
On the other side, negative emotions have adaptive value. If we did not have an impulse to avoid or the ability to feel sadness, we could put ourselves in danger, like attempting to cuddle with a grizzly bear or like trying to connect to someone who cannot offer sensitivity. Sadness and worry can guide.
A healthy dose of sadness and worry can encourage self-awareness around needs, limits, values, and passions. For example, if your current job leaves you feeling absolutely diminished due to a constellation of variables-a supervisor who assigns tasks last minute, a large-sized company, and a cubicle as a working space-then you get insight into some of your needs-work that grants time for you to collect your thoughts, a smaller work environment that values community, and a company that cares about how people work. If you did not prize organization, your spontaneous supervisor would not move you. If you did not hold authenticity as a core value, then your colleague who utters corporate clichés during meetings would not upset you. The point is not to prize one work environment over another. Rather, the aim is to call attention to unpleasant emotions; the things that stimulate you are the arrows that point to the things that you care-deeply.
If you did not prize organization, your spontaneous supervisor would not move you. If you did not hold authenticity as a core value, then your colleague who utters corporate clichés during meetings would not upset you. The point is not to prize one work environment over another. Rather, the aim is to call attention to unpleasant emotions; the things that stimulate you are the arrows that point to the things that you care-deeply.
The task is to learn how to read the arrow's path.
Guiding Questions: Working with Sadness and Worry
When initially upset, it is helpful to ask, "What do I need right now?" Do you crave reassurance-understanding-rest-more unstructured time-more play-a renewed connection to nature-space-more time with the activities and people you love-or something else that holds meaning for you?
Reflective Questions: Transforming Sadness
What does my sadness help me understand about what I need?
- A need to grant myself permission to make a choice that feels like me (versus who I think I should be)?
- A better fit with friends or romantic partners
- A call for appreciating what you offer and putting yourself in situations where you are valued
- A recognition of where you may not feel connected
- A need to search for an environment that is a better fit for your talents and sensitivities
Reflective Questions: Transforming Worry
If you find you get a little lost with worry, it might be helpful to consider the question, "What does it do for you?" Perhaps worry is:
- A way to rehearse how you will manage an upcoming loss
- A way to feel productive without taking a risk
- A way to metabolize fear
- A way to ease into your emotions
The focus of the work may involve learning how to tolerate uncertainty, how to be more self-compassionate, and how to work on listening to how you feel.
The Value of Sadness and Worry
Sometimes many of our wishes or needs are more deeply embedded and we need to dig them up, like excavating fossils (ultimately another Freudian idea). This is not to suggest every feeling is a fact but like a tiny camera that captures potentially good clues about whom and where you are in the moment. The value of every feeling is to support us to better align with our environment and ourselves. The value of sadness and worry signals it is time for an adjustment, highlighting a need for change. Welcoming all emotions may promote enduring joy. Doing so may support you to integrate all lived experiences into a more affirmative sense of self through happiness and strife-a great victory.
NOTE: If sadness develops to the point where you are thinking about harming yourself, seek immediate support. Or if worry takes center stage and keeps you from daily routines, such as completing your work or interacting with others, seek the therapeutic support you deserve.
LaFreniere, P.J.(2000). Emotional development: A biosocial perspective. Stamford, Connecticut: Wadsworth.
Western, D. (1998). The scientific legacy of Sigmund Freud: Toward a psychodynamically informed psychological science. Psychological Bulletin, 124(3), 333-371.
Page, K. (2015). Deeper dating: How to drop the games of seduction and discover the power of intimacy. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala.