Welcoming the gifts of sadness

SADNESS: The Water Bearer

ACTION REQUIRED: Sadness arises when it’s time to let go of something that isn’t working anyway. If you can truly let go, relaxation and rejuvenation will follow.

GIFTS: Release ~ Fluidity ~ Grounding ~ Relaxation ~ Rejuvenation

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: What must be released? What must be rejuvenated?

Sadness is a wonderful emotion that arises when something needs to be released. This thing might be an idea, an attitude, a possession, a stance, an ideology, a belief, a relationship, or a way of behaving in the world (etc.) that no longer works for you.

Sadness has a kind of alchemical magic to it, because if you can listen to it and honestly let go, you’ll find that you can relax and breathe again. Sadness is about letting go — and letting go means that you’ll be freer than you were before (when you were holding on tightly to something that was honestly not working). When you can listen to your sadness and work with it empathically, you’ll experience relaxation, spaciousness, and a sense of rejuvenation.

Many people have problems with sadness, and as I think about it, I sense what I call a fundamental correlation error. That’s a fancy way of saying that people often blame sadness for the way they’re feeling, instead of realizing that sadness arises in response to the fact that they’re holding on to something that isn’t working anyway.

Sadness doesn’t come to steal your stuff! Sadness arises when you’re holding on to stuff that doesn’t work anymore. This stuff — this thing, idea, relationship, or whatever — it might have worked in the past, but it doesn’t work now, and sadness arises to help you let go of it. When you can let go, you’ll be able to relax, reassess your current situation and your current needs, and become aware of who you are and what you need now, today.

Sadness helps you let go, relax, rejuvenate yourself, and come fully into the present moment — not because you’re chasing after happiness or any other allegedly positive emotions (there is no such thing as a positive emotion), but because you know how to let things go and rejuvenate yourself. And when you let go, your sadness will recede naturally (because you’ve attended to it skillfully), and other emotions will arise, depending on your situation and your needs.

Sadly, most of us haven’t been taught to approach sadness in this way, and when it arises, we tend to lose our way. Before we talk about the billions of ways that we’ve been socialized to distrust, repress, and squelch our natural sadness, let’s get comfortable.

A simple exercise to help you relieve tension

Breathe in until you feel a bit of tension in your chest and rib cage, 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 body, and let go.

Breathe in 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. Repeat one more time, and sigh out loud as you exhale and let go. If you feel relaxed and a bit less tense, thank the emotion that helped you. Thank your sadness!

I intentionally evoked your sadness by creating something that didn’t work or feel right — which is the tension you felt when you held your breath. And then, I intentionally had you perform the actions your sadness requires; the sadness-specific actions involve relaxing, releasing, and letting go. Simple.

Small waterfall in a green rock face

Sadness is a simply wonderful emotion that helps you let go of things that aren’t working for you … such as tension, muscle tightness, anxiety, and what I call “soldiering on” behaviors. In The Language of Emotions, 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 brings you the irreplaceable gift of letting go.

However, sadness really isn’t welcome in our emotional world or our social world, and 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 … we forget to let go, release things that aren’t working, and then re-set our priorities in present-focused and self-respecting ways.

I’ve been interested to see the ways that we’ve created a sadness-avoidant world. Relaxation has become severely 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 even breathing have also become professionalized, such that we pay masseuses, yoga teachers, and alternative practitioners of all stripes to help us breathe, 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 mean that we’ll lose face in our emotionally-stunted world. The message is clear: Crying is not okay, and sadness is something to avoid. Completely, if possible.

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 ourselves, and we can’t let go of things that aren’t working anyway.

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 no longer work pile up, and we find ourselves crowded out of our real lives by a bunch of unnecessary debris.

And then we can’t find the present moment with two hands and a flashlight, because we can’t find anything in all the clutter. When we don’t allow our sadness to do its proper work, we lose a great deal of our liveliness and flow; we lose ourselves, in a way.

So let’s welcome sadness to our lives by remembering to breathe in and let the tension go. Let’s listen to sadness instead of always swatting it away or soldiering through it. When sadness arises, let’s look for things that aren’t working anyway, and let them go.

The questions for sadness are What must be released? and What must be rejuvenated?

Many of us believe that sadness is only about loss, but it’s not. Sadness is also about restoring flow, ease, and relaxation — because when you can finally let go of things that just don’t work, you’ll suddenly have room for things that do work.

The next time you feel sadness, see if you can breathe in and let go of tension as you exhale. The breathing technique I just taught you is a sadness-based exercise, and it will help you learn how to access your sadness with ease. This practice will also help you learn how to work with your sadness internally — so that even when you’re in a situation where honestly expressing your sadness would be socially hazardous, you can still take good care of yourself.

The next time you feel like crying (but you can’t cry because the people around you can’t deal with sadness), observe your reaction. Most of us tense up and get very tight and rigid when it’s time to cry (this reaction often makes our inner situation worse, not better!). If it’s not safe to cry, see if you can’t at least relax a bit, breathe in gently, and let your body have a felt sense of letting go.

It’s not the same thing as a good cry, but it’s better than becoming rigid and inflexible, and crushing your sadness under the weight of everything you’ve been holding on to.

As you move into a closer relationship with your healing sadness, be aware of your habitual responses to hectic situations. Notice how often you distract yourself when your tears and sadness attempt to come forward, and watch for any movement toward the siren song of “fun.” If you’re like most people, you may respond to tension and your honest need to let go by trying to bring more joy to your life – which will never work, because flow, relaxation, and rejuvenation are the gifts of sadness; they’re not the gifts of joy!

Joy and its comrades (happiness and contentment) are lovely states, but they don’t work in the way sadness does. Manufacturing joy, chasing happiness, or courting contentment or exhilaration when it’s actually time to work with sadness – these are all distractions and avoidance behaviors that cannot and will not heal you.

When you require deep relaxation and deep release, you must move honorably and meaningfully into sadness. When you do, joy will naturally follow your sadness and fun will naturally return to your life. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s the emotional truth.

Welcome your sadness, breathe, and relax into yourself. Sadness doesn’t come to steal your stuff! Sadness arises when you’re holding on to something that doesn’t work anyway. Let go. Welcome your sadness, let go, relax, and then more forward with clearer eyes and a stronger vision of what works for you now.

And make more space for sadness in the world

What do most of us do when people around us are sad? The first thing most of us do when we’re confronted with sadness is to smile and put on a cheery attitude. This is often a response to the way people behave when they’re sad, which is to apologize and feel ashamed of themselves. So we try to make it better, and help the sad people repress their honest sadness. The more skilled among us might be able to listen supportively, but eventually, we’ll probably try to put a happy face on any sadness we encounter.

Very few people are ever given the time or permission to feel truly sad for as long as they need to. We dry their tears, hug them, make jokes, jolly them along, and try to slap happiness or joy on top of the situation. Unfortunately, this emotional bait-and-switch usually just lengthens people’s stay in the house of loss, and stops them from being able to receive the rejuvenation sadness brings. That’s not a truly empathic or supportive act, even though it may suppress the sadness for a while.

As you learn to work with your own sadness, see if you can find ways to welcome sadness in other people as well. If people around you need to cry, don’t stop them or turn away in embarrassment. Just breathe in, relax, and create a space for the real emotions of the people around you. Our culture is deeply emotion-challenged and deeply sadness-avoidant, but you have the power to change social rules about emotions, at least in your area of influence. Really!

Thank you for bringing more emotional awareness and more empathy to our waiting world.

In the next post: How sadness differs from grief

5 Responses

  1. Clay Reid
    | Reply

    We’re encouraged to divert ourselves from the emotion by engaging in physical activity, imagining pleasant and relaxing experiences, or looking for humor in a situation that makes us sad. Some people, who are naturally empathetic, have decided to protect themselves from sadness and other untoward emotions by not watching the news. I can understand why. There’s even a danger of becoming hardened and developing “ compassion fatigue ” in the face of overwhelming tragedy like the recent disasters in Japan.

  2. Patricia
    | Reply

    Karla, In your books you mention the idea of leading with sadness, or, using a set of survival skills as a personality. I think I may fall into this softened person catagory, although I have done an aweful lot of swashbuckling things, it has often felt just like that.Swashbuckling. Most people would describe me as nice. When I am with others, I am often out of my self and into “causing them feel good about everything” so that I may be ok. You say that this is a choice, and I have heard this for many many years in therapy, in self help books. My question, where is the choice made? When and how can I become aware of making this choice at the time of it? I identify with what you call run away healing…healing others so that I may be ok. Where is that choice made and how do I change it?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Patricia — I see your point, and your question about choice is a good one. The choice isn’t a logical one that you can change by thinking about it.

      This choice was usually made in early childhood, and sometimes before a child develops full use of language. So talking about this choice doesn’t often work either. Instead, the work is to focus on your emotions, use the Burning Contracts and Rejuvenation practices, and retrain your brain and your psyche to do things differently.

      It can take a while, but like any habit, it is amenable to change. One very important thing is to thank the sadness for doing such a good job instead of trying to slap it down or shame it. It’s been working hard! It needs to lie down on a lounge chair with a cool drink while anger and shame and everybody else arise again and learn to work together.

      A very good approach to learning to set effective boundaries is Sharon Ellison’s Powerful Non-Defensive Communication process. She’s got a lot of audio clips here, and I think you’ll like her work.

      Bringing anger back out to its rightful place and helping sadness step back a bit is a process that will have its ups and downs. It’s involved work to change ingrained behaviors, but it’s good work if you can get it!

  3. Adam G
    | Reply


    Thank you so much for your website as a resource.

    It is helping me through a pretty huge shift in how I relate to others and myself emotionally.


    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Welcome, Adam!

      I’m glad that this information is helpful for you!

      Emotions are so amazing, and also very powerful. The fact that we’ve been taught so little about them is a constant astonishment to me.


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