Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Dreading Sadness

Even after all my years of doing therapy, I’m still impressed by the number of people who dread sadness, using whatever excuse and/or defense to avoid it. 

In the course of my eight to ten patient day, I suspect that half my patients tell me they don’t want to feel sad: It makes me feel weak; I’m afraid it will never stop; it interferes with what I have to get done; it makes my face blotchy; no one wants to be around someone who’s sad; it doesn’t accomplish anything; it feels too overwhelming; no one in my family ever cried; why would I want to be sad? 

I’m not suggesting that anyone should go out of their way to feel sad, but avoiding sadness can lead to many difficulties and believing that you can’t handle sadness is even worse. It is inevitable that we will face sadness during the course of our lives, and being able to feel the sadness without running away from it is essential for us to move on with our lives. 

“I keep telling you I don’t feel sad,” Daniel says to me angrily. “I don’t know why you’re so determined for me to be sad. Who the shit wants to walk around feeling depressed all the time?”

“Feeling depressed, Daniel, isn’t the same as feeling sad. Depression is like a blanket of numbness, a non-feeling, a deadness. Sadness is much sharper, more acute.”

“Great so now you want me to suffer! Just what I needed from my therapist!”

“And I think the reason you find yourself snapping at everyone, including me - which is definitely better than your boss or your ex-wife – is because you can’t allow yourself to feel your sadness. I’m not saying you don’t have things to be angry about because you obviously do. Your wife cheated on you…”


“Sorry, your ex-wife …” Suddenly I stop myself. “What’s going on here?” I wonder out loud. 

“You were telling me all the reasons I have to be angry including my ex-wife taking my kids, my money and my house!” Daniels says sarcastically.

“Yes, I was,” I say more softly with a puzzled frown. “But I realized I’d adopted the same tone as you. I was arguing with you, arguing with a snide tone. I don’t want to do that,” I say still confused.


“Daniel, what’s going on here? I’m not your enemy. I’m on your side, remember?”


A thought passes through my mind. I’m concerned I’m going to lose Daniel, afraid that he’ll leave treatment. And how would I feel if he left? I’d be sad, I’d miss him, I’d regret us not getting to work through his anger that seems like such a blatant defense against his sadness that lurks underneath. His sadness. My sadness. His snide tone. My snide tone. Sadness turned to anger.

“I think I just figured out why I adopted that tone, Daniel. And I think it’s the same reason you get angry. You don’t want to feel the sadness of all your losses. You don’t want to feel sad about not seeing your kids get ready for school in the morning, about not seeing the sun set through the trees in your backyard, not getting to walk Spotty around your neighborhood, not …”

“Stop!” Daniel practically screams as me, but he’s eyes fill with tears before he covers them with his hands.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to overwhelm you. You have had a lot of losses. But sadness can be borne, Daniel. You and I together can help you to learn to bear sadness, so that you don’t have to run from it, so that you don’t have to be so afraid of it.”    

Daniel looks up at me with pleading eyes, “I miss them all so much. I don’t know why she did it, why she took everything away from me.”

Daniel is allowing himself to feel his pain. He hurts, but from this place of genuine feeling he will, in time, be able to move forward. 


kitty literate said...

Linda, once again you've captured the essence of a process that so many people go through: sadness (often from loss) manifesting as anger and then, sometimes, anger turned inward to produce depression.

There's a wonderful David Byrne song called "Lie to Me" which says in part:

I wanna be happy/I can't stand the pain
I wanna believe/so tell me again...

In other words, please lie to me when I feel bad. That's something you as an excellent therapist are very careful not to do.

I think another reason people respond to the "threat" of sadness with anger is that anger is perceived as active in some sense, even motivating, whereas sadness is enveloping, dark, with a stillness at the center. Good old yang and yin again.

In my own experience, I've noticed that tears cried in sadness differ from those cried in both anger and depression. The tears of anger and depression are dense and literally bitter; the tears of sadness are clear and slightly salty. Interesting, don't you think?


Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Thanks so much for your insightful and lovely comment. I definitely agree with you that anger feels like a far more powerful emotion and therefore is more comfortable for many people than sadness.
I love the lyrics to the David Byrne song but, you're correct, it's not something I want to do as a therapist - I don't want to lie to my patients or to myself.
And I didn't know that there is a physical difference between the tears of anger/depression vs. sadness. That's really interesting. Thanks for the info.
And thanks for the comment.