Full confession, I’m a positivity junkie. I place a high value on being happy, upbeat, and affirmative, but sometimes I’m sad. Divorce, health challenges, and the natural hormonal fluctuations that accompany menopause weigh me down. Some mornings sorrow swathes me, a heavy blanket enveloping my body beckoning me to hide under the covers.
Rather than pushing sadness away, I sit with the discomfort knowing that painful emotions are temporary. The words of Rumi remind me that everyone experiences sorrow. The wise poet encourages me to welcome all my emotions:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The only way out is through. As long as I don’t prolong or strengthen sadness with resistance or avoidance, the difficult emotions will dissipate. Like a rainbow after a thunderstorm joy and happiness will appear again.
Most people take the opposite approach, sidestepping sadness. Depression, anxiety, and stress get all the attention, but sadness… She’s the ugly, exiled stepsister, banished to psyche’s basement.
Burying sorrow is counterproductive. It’s like playing Whack-a-Mole. No matter how much you try to keep uncomfortable emotions underground they resurface. You may eat or drink too much, binge watch Netflix or buying things you don’t need. After the ice cream or bottle of wine are gone and you’ve maxed out your credit cards you’re still sad, but now you have bigger problems to contend with like debt, weight gain, and addiction.
Not experiencing difficult emotions can also trigger depression, that deep feeling of helplessness and hopelessness that sticks like tar.
The inclination to circumvent sorrow is practically inborn. Children are conditioned to disengage with the blues. “Cheer up, you’re okay, don’t cry” parents say handing their kids a cookie, turning on cartoons or firing up the ipad. Is it any wonder that 80 percent of women have food guilt and millions are emotional eaters?
I remember when my beloved parakeet Rainbow died. She flew into a window and fell limp to the carpet floor. Sad and horrified, I held her motionless body willing time to reverse so I could stop the tragedy. Her neck and my heart were broken. I had to accept reality: Rainbow would never sit on my shoulder and nuzzle my ear again. Rather than helping me process sadness, my parents removed Rainbow and immediately replaced her with another bird. Yes, they meant well, but they unintentionally robbed me of the gift of honoring my love for my deceased pet, and I never bonded with the new bird.
For years, I pushed sadness away through dysfunctional behaviors. I was addicted to exercise and had eating disorders. I dumped difficult emotions onto my body equating feeling sad with feeling fat. When sadness appeared I exhausted running, biking, or lifting weights for hours. Rather than digesting sadness, I starved myself. On the outside my chiseled body looked great and attracted clients (I was a personal fitness trainer at the time.), but inside I was miserable.
I was diagnosed with depression and prescribed antidepressants. Celexa eased the blues, but the SSRI also decreased my libido and the amount of joy I experienced. As I downed the tiny white pills, I wondered: was the trade off worth it? Was there another way to feel better?
Fortunately, the Universe is loving and rights situations if you let it. I was finishing up my doctorate in psychology and looking for a dissertation topic. Karen, my dissertation chair and I were studying the covers of women’s magazines. Specifically how they sell magazines by offering “magic bullet” solutions for our pressing problems: Lose 19 lbs in 10 days, Heal Your Thyroid, Autoslim to Your Happy Weight, No More Tiredness, So Long Stress, Natural remedies for insomnia, GI problems, headaches, thinning hair, saggy bust, body aches, brain fog, depression, cellulite…
For my dissertation I wanted to offer women, a sustainable solution, something that would truly help them feel better about their bodies and themselves.
Why don’t you study meditation, Karen said.
My first thought was, no thank you. I didn’t go to grad school to teach meditation. Karen was persistent. Luckily through research and networking, I discovered self-compassion, the solutions that I was looking for. I connected with self-compassion pioneer Kristen Neff, who agreed to be on my dissertation committee. She also offered to help me publish my study on Body Dissatisfaction and Self-compassion in Women on one condition: You must take the Mindful Self-compassion training.
Mindful self-compassion transformed my life (You can read more about my experience HERE.). I learned how to be kind to myself rather and engage process difficult emotions including sadness. Self-compassion was a life raft, keeping me afloat through dark periods, and a parachute, enabling me to fly when faced with fear and challenges.
For example, in January when my husband served me with nasty divorce papers that painted me as a bizarre lunatic for leaving him, I was devastated. Instead of acting out, engaging in destructive behaviors, beating myself up, or seeking revenge; I treated myself like a good friend. I gave myself what I needed. I drew a hot bath and cried in my Beau’s arms for what felt like an eternity.
Over the last six months there have been dozens of dark days and moments. Ending a 25- year marriage was horribly painful. The divorce proceedings got uglier and uglier generating more grief and sadness than I thought I could bear. Simultaneously I lost sight in my right eye three times triggering additional fear, anxiety, and sadness.
The divorce decree was only a single step on my JOurneY to a new life with out my X. The real work to becoming confident, happy, and independent required exploring hurt and breaking free from the emotional mayhem that made me want to end my marriage in the first place.
Throughout it all self-compassion was my savior. It can be yours too. Don’t worry if you have no idea how to start. Self-compassion can be leaned. It’s like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets. No mater what you’re going through it can help you process difficult emotions, cope and grow stronger and more resilient. A self-compassion moment will change your day. Years of using it will transform your life inside and out.
How would I treat a friend who is going through the same thing?
What do I need right now?
Then treat yourself accordingly.
When you’re going through a rough patch, let yourself be sad. You don’t have to be upbeat and positive all the time. Dive into your emotional experience. It’s the only way you’ll learn how to swim in murky waters.
Next feel it to heal it. Gently scan your body in your mind from head to foot. Where is there tension and pain? In your jaw, throat, chest or stomach? Soften the tight places. Soothe them by rubbing gently. Then open to what arises. Let the physical sensations come and go like waves upon the ocean.
Sadness is a basic human emotion, a measure of how well and deeply you have loved. Expressing it will facilitate healing and carve a hole deep enough to hold your richest feelings. As the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When we know how to suffer, we suffer much, much less.”
In the depth of your sorrow lies your deepest wealth. Touch and face it, you won’t drown. Instead you’ll be present and available to life and happiness. Sadness, longing, a broken heart are gifts that make us stronger, more alive, more capable of love. Without mud there can be no lotus.
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