Managing Sadness and Other Dark Emotions

Seattle-skyline-fall.jpgAs I look outside my window, I see trees that have dropped their leaves, ground plants turned brown and wilting under a skiff of snow and a sun that hangs low in the southern sky. It is fall, nearly winter, and all around us nature is taking a break. It’s getting ready to hibernate, to conserve resources, end one cycle and prepare for renewal and another chance to bloom. It’s a pervasive message that I can feel on my skin and sense in my bones. But as a member of human culture, I find that I am bombarded with a conflicting message that ask me to show up, smile, give, be merry, seize the day, think positively and be authentic(ally happy).

Culturally, we’re asked to be blooming everyday. To show up as shiny, smiling people. Everyday. To think our way to happiness, affirm away the grey and push our most colorful feathers forward. And then hold them there. Even if our arms get tired. Just keep smiling.

Nothing else in nature does this. Nothing in nature blooms year round. You might find a flower that blooms in a couple of seasons, but it always takes a break. All living things need time to withdraw, to hibernate, to gather energy, to drop roots and prepare for the next big bloom. Yet we are taught not to do this. We are encouraged to show up with a smile, to be 100% everyday, and sometimes shamed when we don’t. As a culture, we tend to be afraid of showing vulnerability, afraid of expressing or even naming the darker emotions of sadness, despair, depression and fear.

Every single client I’ve had in the last couple have weeks has expressed feelings of grief, sadness, anxiety and a fear that something is wrong. Admittedly, part of my job is helping people through darker emotions so this may not seem like a surprise, but it’s generally not the norm. Both myself and my clients have noticed feeling an extra layer of sadness. Most of my clients have been afraid of feeling sad, because it’s not pleasant. In Healing Through the Dark Emotions,” author Miriam Greenspan says,

We all want to sit at the happiness banquet and feast on the bread of contentment, the wine of joy. We’d rather skip the emotional food that doesn’t go down so well. In life’s many meals, not everything is equally palatable; but it all needs to be digested. We can’t laugh heartily unless we know how to cry. We can’t be fearless unless we know the taste of fear. We can’t be happy if we’re afraid to feel said. Our faith is not faith until it’s tested. To be at peace, we have to be at home with all of our emotions, to get comfortable with vulnerability.

Most of our darker emotions and associated psychological mental states of anxiety and depression are rooted in aborted grief, says Greenspan. Because we are a culture that is so afraid of the unpalatable darker emotions, we do our best to shove them down, deny they exist or distract ourselves from feeling the pain or discomfort. We often do this unconsciously. In 2010, Brene Brown’s TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability made significant rounds, as she described how we numb ourselves from darker emotions and explained the likely consequences or doing so (with humor and a good dose of humility, I might add).  And yet, have we changed? Have we learned?

Like anything, emotions are energy. And, as Greenspan says, “Like all energy, emotional energy doesn’t just disappear. It changes form.” What form it changes into is up to you. When emotional energy is mindfully tended to it can easily change to a more positive form – becoming joy, courage, compassion or gratitude. But when it is swept under the rug or otherwise shoved down into the body it can turn toxic, creating unwanted mental states and causing disease. Scientist Candace Pert showed us scientifically how our emotions change our cellular structure by latching onto receptor sites. When emotions are dealt with mindfully and allowed to flow, our cells stay healthy. If not, emotions stay buried in the cells and creating a state Greenspan calls emotional toxicity, and often leading to disease.

I see a lot of clients whose darker emotions were never allowed to flow – generally, they learned that it wasn’t safe or okay to be angry, that crying was for sissies, or that if they stayed sad for too long they’d be diagnosed. On some level they learned that their dark emotions were bad and that they needed to avoid or move quickly through these darker emotional states. But as they got older, their bodies got sick – repressed anger turned into liver problems, repressed grief created unwanted mental states plus heart and lung problems, unresolved fear created digestive system issues.

Emotions aren’t inherently good or bad. I’ve labeled the unsavory ones as “dark,” simply because they’re like the darker recesses of your unfinished basement – no one wants to go there. And that’s the truth, that emotions may feel nice or nasty, but they’re not good or bad. Greenspan says, “The Latin root of the word emotion is movere, meaning ‘to move.’ Emotions are energies that move us — to feel, to express our feelings, to act. Emotional energy is neither positive or negative. It is just energy. Only our attitude toward these emotions and what we do with the energy can be called ‘positive’ or ‘negative.'” Remember that the same energy that powers the feel-good emotions like joy and gratitude also powers the darker emotions. This energy, a basic flow of life force, is sacred. All of your emotions are sacred. They’re also ways that the body thinks aloud, sends out a signal and asks for attention.

Emotions can be overwhelming if we don’t know what to do with them. I don’t know about you, but in my 20 (!) years of schooling I never took a class called “Emotional Intelligence 101.” We’re supposed to learn all of our emotional management lessons from our parents and other influential adults, who learned it from their parents and so on. Call me Debbie Downer, but I don’t think this is a very good system. In my family, I learned that it’s not appropriate to talk about anything upsetting, to tip-toe around emotionally charged issues and to keep conversations light. I learned that grief often means anger, and that a day fishing, a pack of cigarets paired with a glass of scotch, and a ski day will are cures for most emotional pain. Guess what? They don’t work very well. They’re great distractions (especially the ski day), but they don’t help me run my darker emotions and transform the energy into something light that I can use positively.

Greenspan’s book is chock-a-block full of great suggestions for transforming dark emotions, and I highly suggest it. The root of her message and her teachings is very yogic. It’s that bringing mindfulness to dark emotions helps them transform. That by fully feeling whatever it is we’re feeling, by letting ourselves have the dark and the unpleasant we can build a smoothly flowing emotional energy system, turning our darkness into light. Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chodron explains a similar process of dealing with sadness; the art of breathing an emotion into your heart, increasing your capacity to feel, and eventually transforming it. You can try it here.

But again, part of the problem that I see is that we are not supposed to feel sad. In fact, if we are sad for certain amount of time, we may be diagnosed as “clinically depressed,” a scary diagnosis indeed. When I was 18, I had an eating disorder. It left me skinny, hungry, angry and cold, all the time. Oh, and also, I became depressed. Go figure. My psychiatrist talked to me for 30 minutes, prescribed me an anti-depressant, and told me I should take it for the rest of my life. Six months later, at a healthy weight and very much enjoying college, I was happy and stopped filling my prescription. I haven’t needed it since. I’m not at all saying that prescription medications aren’t necessary; they often are. But we are a culture obsessed with being happy all the live long day, through every season and every hardship. There are more tools for learning to work through difficult emotions than a once daily mood altering medication. I like a tool bag as much as the next gal, but I’m not going to only carry a screw driver. What if I need a hammer? Or a knife? Let’s create a bigger tool bag for dealing with emotions. Let’s create a tool bag based on gaining emotional intelligence.

We all experience suffering in our lives, so we are not alone. We all have friends and family who are sick or who have died. We’ve all experienced loss and pain. Culturally we experience more permission to be sad about these things (but only for a little while). However, there are a lot of worldly things to be sad about – environmental destruction, gender inequality, hunger, homelessness, racism, the giant trash Gyre, rainforest destruction, animal cruelty – the list goes on and on. It’s rarely addressed that we can feel sadness for these things. That we might grieve these things. Especially us HSP’s who are so wonderfully sensitive to everything else, why wouldn’t we grieve the killing of elephants in Africa? But again, we’re not supposed to. We’re supposed to share the story on Facebook and then move on with our lives. Heaven forbid we become emotional about something outside of our little world. So yes, HSP, you do feel that sadness; that worldly, atmospheric sadness and it’s okay to grieve that, too.

All of the tools Greenspan and Chodron mention will work for grief by any cause. Working through our emotions takes courage. It’s nearly a counter culture movement – being mindful rather than distracting. It takes courage, because it’s not comfortable. Give me choice between a pint of beer and a glass of grief, you know I’ll want to take the beer. But it’s not worth it in the long run. It’s not worth it for the body to have to store grief for me when it’s already doing so many other things, and when I’m fully capable of taking out the emotional gargabe. Working through your darkest emotions should be the most basic form of self care, and yet i seems the most radical.

I’ve felt some sadness this fall, some tiredness, some grief. For a variety of small reasons and for no reason at all.  I’m a bit worn out, a bit tired, a bit stressed about the holidays. I’m tired of showing up at 100% perky when I don’t feel perky. I notice that it gets worse when I punish myself for feeling this way, and so I’m working on giving myself more space, making room for the feelings. Just like nature is doing all around me, I can feel that it’s time to move within, to carve more time in the day for sitting with my journal, for breathing on my yoga mat, for reflecting on my feelings and my motivations. It’s time to allow myself the privilege of more self care, of a time of hibernation, where I too can reserve my resources, slow down and prepare for the next big bloom. If you’re feeling that way, too, I hope you’ll join me and try some of the tools listed above.

Be like a tree. Bloom and bear fruit, grow leaves, bring the cycle to a close and let it fall away. And then get some rest so you can do it again.


One Comment on “Managing Sadness and Other Dark Emotions”

  1. This is a wonderful article, Anna, thank you!! (I am reading it in my bathtub, after a full day, a job interview that went very well, but still cost a lot of energy, and the feeling of autumn truly setting in now).
    I love fall, and this one has been fantastic so far, but the darkness and wind and colder temperatures also mean that my energy level goes down quite a bit. I used to enjoy the melancholy (what happened to melancholy, by the way??? That used to be an accepted dark feeling once upon a time…) that comes with that, just slow down, digg myself in a bit more at home, with a cp of tea and a book and cry some tears for some reason or no reason at all. That was before I became a grown up caught in this perpetual loop of outside expectations. I am regaining this right to feel what I feel, and show it, now, but it required quitting what I once thought was my dream job, losing quite a few friends (and luckily gaining some others), getting acceptance from my husband and kids (the kids were easy, because it’s still natural for them. My husband struggles, in particular with the strong dark emotions like heavy grief…) and giving myself MUCH more space and time. This is extremely liberating and healing! And with allowing the dark emotions back into my life, the most profound happiness, love and joy also came back. So that’s why the prospect of a new job brings with it a bit of mixed feelings… And that’s also okay!

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