The Gifts of Sadness

March 31, 2010

Here’s a simple exercise to help relieve tension and stress.

Breathe in deeply until you feel a bit of tension in your chest and ribcage, and hold your breath for a count of three. (Don’t create too much tension. If you’re uncomfortable, let some air out before you hold your breath.)

As you breathe out, let your body go limp, relax your chest and shoulders, and feel the tension leaving your body. Let your arms hang loosely, relax your muscles, and let go.

Breathe in deeply again until you feel a slight tension, hold your breath for a count of three, and this time, sigh audibly as you exhale and relax your body. If you feel relaxed and a bit less tense, thank the emotion that helped you. Thank your sadness!

Sadness is a wonderful emotion that helps us let go of things that aren’t working for us … such as tension, muscle tightness, anxiety, and what I call “soldiering on” behaviors. I call sadness The Water Bearer because it brings a kind of fluidity to a tight, tense, and arid body. Sadness is a gorgeous emotion that bring us the irreplaceable gift of letting go.

Photo of water

However, sadness really isn’t welcome in our emotional or social worlds, so most of us tend to soldier on without the relief of sadness. We run our lives with our intensity, our tension, our plans and schemes, and our sheer willpower, but we tend to ignore the need for simple relaxation … letting go, releasing things that aren’t working, and then being able to re-set our priorities in more self-respecting ways.

I have been interested to see the ways that we’ve all socially created a sadness-free world. Relaxation has become compartmentalized, to the extent that we relax on weekends and during vacations, but very rarely during the workday, at school, or in front of other people. Relaxation and deep breathing have also become professionalized, such that we pay masseuses, yoga teachers, and alternative practitioners of all stripes to help us breathe deeply, relax, and let go.

Notice, too, the ways that we disrespect sad people: Gloomy Gus, Crybaby, Weakling, Boys don’t cry, Big girls don’t cry, There’s no use crying over spilled milk, Stop your sniveling, and so on. I know I’m not the only person who has felt that crying in public would be a very dangerous thing, because it can cause us to lose face in our emotionally-stunted world. The message is clear: Crying is not okay, and sadness is something to avoid.

Photo of sad bunny

And what a sad, tense world we’ve created because we refuse to honor the gifts of sadness. Without our sadness, we can’t relax, we can’t release our tension in healthy ways, we can’t cry and restore fluidity to our arid psyches, and we can’t let go of things that need to move on.

Without our sadness, tension piles up, unsaid words pile up, muscle tightness adds up, things we don’t need pile up, ideas we don’t believe any longer pile up, relationships that we no longer want or need pile up, and we find ourselves crowded out of our real lives by a bunch of unnecessary debris. When we don’t allow our sadness to do its proper work, we lose a great deal of our liveliness and flow.

So let’s welcome sadness to our lives by remembering to breathe deeply and let the tension go. The questions for sadness are What must be released? and What must be rejuvenated? Many of us, because we’ve had such poor socialization around sadness, think that sadness is only about loss. It’s not. Sadness is also about restoring flow, ease, and relaxation … because when you finally let go of things that just don’t work, you’ll suddenly have room for things that do.

Next time you feel sadness, see if you can breathe in deeply and let go of tension as you exhale. Let your body help you work with your sadness. And the next time you feel like crying (but you can’t because other people are around), observe your reaction. Most of us tense up and get very tight and arid when it’s actually time to cry (this tension makes our inner situation worse, not better!). If it’s not socially safe to cry, see if you can’t at least relax a bit, breathe deeply, and let your body have a felt sense of letting go. It won’t be as healing as a good cry, but it’s better than crushing your sadness under the weight of everything you’ve been holding on to.

Welcome your sadness, and if you have the chance, welcome sadness in other people as well. You have the power to change social rules about emotions, at least in your area of influence, so go you!


Simon March 31, 2010 at 8:01 pm


Karla March 31, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Oh yeah Simon! I thought you’d like the sadness post.

Isn’t it funny how people run from sadness? They’re totally missing out!

Karla April 2, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Simon, I posted the 24/25 video on my FB fan page. Thanks!

Simon April 3, 2010 at 10:53 am

Yep. Kings of Convenience’s music is Sadness itself. I’m glad you liked it.

I realize that people will do ANYTHING not to feel emotions like Sadness or Fear. It’s truly sad (no pun intended).

Also, when you reply or comment here, I don’t get a reply email or notification. Just letting you know. 😉

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[…] my post on the gifts of sadness, we learned to channel sadness and access the gifts of relaxation and revitalization it brings us. […]

Creating our emotional vocabulary « Karla McLaren September 18, 2010 at 3:02 am

[…] Sadness is the wonderful emotion that helps you let go of things that aren’t working anyway. Most of us avoid sadness as if it is the thing that created the loss in the first place.  It isn’t.  In its healthy sate, sadness is evoked by the fact that you need to let go of something.  Listening to sadness can help you let go of things that don’t work so that you can make room for things that do. […]

Lennie June 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Hi Karla,
As a newbie to your work I realize now that I don’t need to be ashamed because of the huge sadness that I’m feeling…just need to let go of tons of clutter. Thanks Karla!

Karla June 25, 2011 at 4:21 am

Yay Lennie! And from the other side of that, I’m moving this week and going through absolutely everything, and really seeing what I need and bagging up the stuff I don’t. Interestingly, I’m much more prone to crying about things this week! I think my emotions are trying to help me. Let it go!

Here’s a great song for you when you’re letting things go — it’s one of my favorites: Abbey Lincoln, Throw it Away

Jackie March 26, 2012 at 11:39 pm

I love sadness too, it really gives so much! After reading your post, I just made a connection about a few experiences and wanted to see if its true. While in a relationship or friendship, if sadness comes up, for no reason externally or no provocation, and then later or soon after the relationship comes to an end…..could it be that the sadness was signaling by way of intuition that the relationship was about the be let go of?

Karla March 27, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Hi Jackie, it can be that sadness is preparing you for a future loss, but sadness also comes up in situations of great intimacy, when the thing we have to let go of (because it doesn’t work anymore) is our sense of isolation and separateness. Sadness is an all-purpose emotion, and it may be clearing you out for new delights!

Jaime Koehler April 22, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Hi Karla,

I am going through a very painful divorce & I feel like most people I know are uncomfortable with my pain & it makes me feel very alone…a friend gave me the link to this article and it really helped so thank you!

Karla April 23, 2012 at 3:12 am

Welcome Jaime. Yes, people are not very awake to the gifts of sadness and grief, which makes the work of legitimately grieving people much harder than it needs to be.

Take care of yourself, breathe often and let your body relax, and know that you’re not alone!


SocraticGadfly April 30, 2012 at 2:33 am

Sometimes the sadness, even the tears, may come with out any “forcing”; I say, don’t resist, but listen after they’re done.

jackie October 14, 2012 at 11:38 am

how do we let go if there is a lot of fear, if holding on has become our greatest source of comfort?
i carry a deep sadness that is not seen or felt on the surface, but it pushes other people away, not wanting to be seen, heard or known….even though that is really what I want. I know it’s false, that it’s some habit or pattern, and that this act only causes more suffering, but it runs so deeply, so automatically. I have cried a lot, released a lot, but how do I let go completely, in my heart and surrender to life, instead of clinging to death?

Karla October 15, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Jackie, I wonder if you’re talking about grief, and not sadness? Sadness is the emotion that helps you let go of things that aren’t working anyway. Grief is the emotion that helps you mourn for something or someone that is lost irretrievably. With grief, you may need some sort of ritual or ceremony to fully let go of that which has been lost. I wrote about the process of a grief ritual in the book.

Jackie October 15, 2012 at 9:47 pm

Hi KArla,
Yes, you are right! It is grief…..I am wondering if one can feel grief towards a relationship because of realizing that we weren’t yet whole…and so our “performance” so to speak causes a sense of guilt (because of originally intending to be “good” or mature for the other) and grief for losing something (even if just a way of being or a once had closeness) or helping to create a loss based on that not yet being whole to begin with? if that makes sense….

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M January 14, 2017 at 10:53 am

Hello Karla what do you recommend for dealing with sadness from something that you are years away from being able to do again? There is an organic farmers market that I greatly miss visiting that I have not been to in more than three years and am strictly psychotically proscribed by my parents (with my mother considering it to be like visiting a crack house) from visiting and cannot visit until financial independence or upon having my drivers license and a car secretly defy my parents and visit there. Both options are (presumably in the case of my drivers license at least a year or more away) years away and I have deep repressed sadness about missing visiting there that has been triggered many times. What do you recommend doing to deal with this type of sadness caused by such an inexorable loss?

-Thanks, M

Karla January 21, 2017 at 2:40 pm

Hello M. In my understanding of the situation, you don’t have a choice about the loss, which means that sadness isn’t the emotion that’s required. When you lose something and you don’t have a choice, it’s like a death. It’s a more serious situation, and the emotion that’s needed is grief. The old way no longer exists, and things will have to change a great deal for the new situation to occur. It’s important to let go so that the new way can arise.

Here’s the grief page.

Take care!

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