As my husband and I were leaving my in-law’s home during our last visit, I witnessed a scene that has played out countless times during my 12 years in this family. While we are pulling out of the driveway, my mother-in-law began to stifle tears so we wouldn’t notice she was crying. My husband, noticing the tears, makes a funny face to distract her and get her to laugh. It works, and the last thing we see as we drive down her street is her laughing. Even when we only lived 3 hours away, it always made her cry a little whenever we left. I’m sure the tears resumed once we pulled away, but for the moment she was distracted from her sadness.
As I think about those times, I’m struck by their simplicity and what a perfect example they are of the purpose of sadness. It’s only within the past few years that I have understood why we have this emotion. It always seemed so counter-intuitive for species survival. This emotion that can cause us to slow down and become completely unproductive when crying, how has this been helpful?
The answer lies in our history as social creatures. We have always lived in groups and they have helped our survival. When we experience sadness and become tearful, it signals to the others in the group that we need help. Giving and receiving this help strengthens the bond within the group. Usually this consists of our family members, friends or whomever we have allowed into our inner circle. By crying as we left, my mother-in-law was expressing that she was sad because someone from her “group” was leaving. My husband saw this, and offered the best support he could at the time, which was to make her laugh.
We all have different comfort levels when it comes to sadness. Much of it comes from how we were raised and the culture we grew up in. We learn how to handle sadness (and other emotions) by watching how those around us deal with it. For many of us, watching someone cry can be extremely uncomfortable. Our primal selves know that this person needs something but most of the time we have no idea how to help. It elicits feelings of powerlessness and impotence. We rush to make them feel better, sometimes because we simply don’t know what else to do. Our society treats sadness as something to be as far away from as possible, whether it be in ourselves or in others. Of course, striving to be sad is not a productive way to live. But, acknowledging and feeling the emotion when it occurs is necessary. Allowing a friend, or ourselves, to be sad in some instances is much more healthy than pretending to be happy. So, how do we do this?
Just let them feel it! Sometimes simply handing them a tissue and sitting next to them is the best way to help. This takes a lot of self discipline, especially if our gut reaction is to cheer them up.
Although sadness and depression are often linked, they are not the same. Unfortunately, some people use the terms as if they’re interchangeable. Sadness is a natural emotion that everyone (with very rare exceptions) has felt at some point in their lives, usually due to loss. Depression is best described as the absence of emotion that can come on after periods of sadness or for (seemingly) no reason at all. With depression, life can seem hopeless and bleak. Things that used to bring us joy or make us happy no longer do-we’re often unmotivated and even simple things like taking a shower seem insurmountable. Even though we may feel similarly when we’re sad, it usually doesn’t last too long. With depression, it goes on for weeks or months-longer if not treated. If any of these symptoms sound familiar to you, there are many options to get help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common form of treatment for depression. Please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.