What I have learnt about being sad

watercolour byAbhilasha Singh

watercolour by
Abhilasha Singh

I was speaking to myself in my car today.

I usually process in written form, but I was driving and didn’t have my journal handy.

I was thinking about what I have learnt about being sad.

Now that I am 47, I have been reflecting quite a bit on what I have learnt in the journey so far and this question of what I have found about being sad feels important to me. I spent way too long as a girl being sad. I consider it one of my greatest achievements that I am not any where near as sad any more.

Here are the five things about being sad, or more specifically, what helps me not to be.

1. That the things I think I know about other people are so very often not true at all.

The brush off; the short reply; the lack of eye contact; the unanswered text; the forgetting of dates that matter to me; the far too hasty interaction in the street; the tone of a facebook comment; the strained trace of a smile when I try to be witty and light hearted in my repartee…

I used to think I was good at reading people and reading their intent. But I’m not. I’m sometimes emotionally illiterate in the non verbal language of others.

I get it wrong. Getting it wrong has made me sad many times in my life. Now that I have finally- FINALLY understood that my guesses are often the most pessimistic interpretations, I guess less often. I let myself expect the best rather than the worst when I try to imagine how others see or judge me.

It has been a daring step but it has made me happier.

2. Sadness is a feeling that I experience in my body and if I let myself feel it as a physical sensation, I can then watch it pass through and away.

I can wait for the peak of the pain and then I can watch the pain ebb away. Then I can experience the return of the lightness. Just like hitting my thumb with a hammer, or hitting my funny bone, or having one of those calf muscle cramps. It passes and there is very little that I have to do but let it.

If I don’t let myself experience sadness in my body, then I tend to look for it in my mind. Then I create stories and interpretations; conversations and replies. I begin fighting the other person and looking for allies and enemies.

I like to leave it to my body to process as much as I am able to. My body seems to process things more efficiently, without taking hostages.

I tend not to get so scared of emotional pain any more. I don’t fall for the fear in me that says that it will never pass. I tend to look for ways to open up the channels and let it go.

Image frompinestreetartworks.com

Image from
pinestreetartworks.com

3. My beautiful blue bowl.

I have a lovely blue bowl that my friend Forbes made for me and I decided to turn it into a worry bowl. So I have little cut up bits of paper at the ready and if I have a worry, I write it down and ask the bowl to hold the worry for me. That way, I can forget about the worry and let some other vessel carry it. I have often had a falling out with someone and written down the wish that one day the trouble between us would be resolved. Or I feel remorse for something and wish that one day I will feel forgiven.

All of the wishes I have put in that bowl have come true. Some sooner than others.

And when they have, I have simply taken that wish out of the bowl and made the bowl a little lighter.

Most of my problems get resolved sooner or later –  and that never ceases to amaze me. It is often really just a matter of time.

4. Asking for help can be a challenge.

I do feel the need to talk things over when my mind is overloaded with feelings and thoughts. I hate the idea of being alone in it sometimes.

However, I also know that when I am overwrought, I am impossible to deal with and usually inconsolable.

How often have I called someone to arrange to speak things through, only to feel frustrated that they could not possibly understand the intricacies of what I am feeling.

Or else, I will feel them pull away or try to change the subject or obviously feel burdened by what they see as negativity.

Nothing anyone ever says when I’m in that state seems to really hit the spot for me. I always wish I could just morph into two people and counsel myself.

This need to be comforted by others, coupled with a tendency to push the others away is the paradox of sadness for me.

I think the one who addresses this paradox better than any other therapist I have encountered so far is David Schnarch. You may have read his book ‘Passionate Marriage’, or if not, you may like to. It really is a wonderful book. What I love most about it is what Schnarch writes about leaning on other people. He says that in life, we tend to all lean on one another so much that the responsibility for holding ourselves up is almost always given to someone else. The someone else we entrust our care to also looks elsewhere to be held. He writes:

“The ability to self-soothe and to hold onto yourself, and the willingness to self-confront, are important to increasing your differentiation. These involve calming yourself down, not taking your partner’s behavior personally, maintaining a clear sense of yourself, and facing your own unresolved personal issues.” (Schnarch, 1998)

He teaches that if we could learn to hold ourselves emotionally first and then ask for help, then we have some chance of getting what we really need. We steady and ready ourselves to be able to receive the answers and inspiration we most need.

Learning to ‘hold myself’ is no longer something I do in loneliness or in a spirit of resignation, it has actually become a joy and an honour.

5. The inner child.

The inner child model of therapy is the one I keep looking back to. It’s the one that makes sense to me in my own life and experience.

So many therapists have used and developed this model of understanding: Jung; Berne; Bradshaw…

To explain this in my own words I would say that the child that we once were does not disappear. The girl that I was still exists in me in the form of what I would call ‘my heart’.

When I am sad, it is usually she who is feeling it and trying to communicate it to me. The adult part of me wants to soldier on and look brave, clever and sophisticated. She, like any child in the world is not good at faking things. She is too true for that.

All of the things that used to hurt me as a little 7 year old girl are still the same things that hurt me now: rejection, abandonment, insensitivity, confusion, change, loss, fear.

I can not travel back to the 1970s to protect the little one I was then, but I can care for my heart now. I can love myself, listen to myself, trust the things she is trying to communicate to me. I can be parent to her. I can say all the things to myself that I would want to say to my own daughter. Or that I wish had been said to me. I can stop calling myself a liar; I can stop taking the side of the other. I can tell her that all will be ok. I can even rock her to sleep if I want to.

That for me is my lesson in self love. The promise that I will never abandon her again. Never abandon myself again to fit in, to seem cool, to be tough, for whatever reason.

It’s not an end to sadness, but it is a taste of the kind of love that is its salve.

It may not be true in a scientific sense, but by taking the time to hold myself as I would a treasured little daughter, I have learned something about how to be kind to myself.

Image from: life.paperblog.com

Image from: life.paperblog.com

These are some of the things I have learnt. There are actually many more. Many of these tricks and understandings and sleights of hand I have learnt from others – including my clients.

I would love to hear what you have learnt.

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