Because sometimes feeling sad is the right thing to feel

August 4, 2014

There is nothing to feel ashamed about when you still feel sad despite recognising the more rational and positive perspective in a situation- we all have times in which we do!

Ever feel frustrated because others are telling you not to worry about a situation or that you should focus on the positives and what you have when really you just want a few minutes to feel sad?

While challenging negative and irrational thoughts is one of the most successful techniques in managing depressed mood- it doesn’t take away all of your sadness. You can be rational and sad at the same time!

Many of my clients ask me when they are thought challenging whether it is ok if there level of emotion doesn’t change significantly shortly following a thought challenging activity. My response is YES- it’s healthy and appropriate. The goal of thought challenging is to adopt a more rational perspective and to help yourself to cope with situations from the most healthy headspace- it doesn’t however change the fact that the situation happened in the first place and that this situation has triggered sadness for you.

Whether your sadness is due to an argument with your partner, some negative feedback from an employer, not getting a grade you were working towards, losing control with your children or another month of falling to fall pregnant unsuccessfully, if you didn’t experience some negative emotion around these things (at some level) you would be abnormal and possibly unhealthy!

I caught up with a girlfriend of mine this week and when I mentioned to her that I was going to blog about this over the weekend she said to me “feeling sad is ok- but wallowing isn’t”.

It is so accurate! There is a difference between allowing yourself the space to experience emotion (including sadness) and “wallowing” in it. It is important that you are kind and compassionate to yourself and that you give yourself some space to experience emotion, even when it is upsetting. Allowing yourself to be preoccupied by it and to invest ongoing periods of time ruminating about what happened and refusing to engage in life as usual because of it isn’t healthy however.

As a psychologist I would recommend that you allow yourself time to experience the sadness and emotion but keep it contained enough that it doesn’t impact negatively on your mood or ability to function in the medium term. Crying all night and allowing yourself to be preoccupied with a situation for days doesn’t provide positive function. Contain the negative emotion where possible and focus on a positive way forward- but don’t forget to leave a little room for being sad if it is warranted!

The right amount of time differs between individuals and situations and may range from 5-10 minutes to 24 hours or so. More than a few consecutive days of preoccupation however is usually not helpful (other than in situations similar to below). That doesn’t mean that the sadness doesn’t return a few days later- rather it then provides yourself with an opportunity to once again rationalise the situation, allow a further short period of sadness and then to push forward again. The ‘sad’ expressions and times should become shorter however over time.

Please note: this post is written for people challenging day to day negative situations, not people who have experienced significant trauma. If you have experienced a trauma that has been life changing including the death of someone very close to you, a diagnosis of a chronic illness, etc, it is appropriate and healthy to experience more significant and longer amounts of sadness. While moving forward will likely involve a similar process to the above, this needs to happen at a time that is right for you.