Every now and again, we all feel sadness. This may be because we’ve lost a friend, our sports team let us down, or our plans fell through. Sadness runs the gamut of intensity.
When we begin to feel really sad, it’s tempting to try to avoid those negative feelings. It’s not fun to feel sad or depressed, so if you can hide from those feelings through coping mechanisms, then you’re just improving your mental health, right? It’s bad to be depressed, right?
Actually, it can be really important to allow yourself time to feel sad. It’s especially important to accept your emotions, as this can become a healthy way of dealing with whatever is upsetting you. Today, we’re going to look deeper at why it’s OK to not feel OK sometimes and the dangers of emotional avoidance.
Dealing with Issues and Healing
First, we have to discuss the importance of emotional acceptance, and what that is exactly. Emotional acceptance is not beating yourself up with negative emotions. It’s also not allowing your emotions to consume you. Instead, emotional acceptance is recognizing you are feeling certain emotions without judgement. This judgement, sometimes called meta-emotions since they are emotions reflecting on other emotions, is where much of the shame and anxiety of these negative emotions comes from. If this strategy sounds familiar, it’s because emotional acceptance is a form emotional regulation that utilizes mindfulness, which explains why it helps you deal with the stress and anxiety of negative emotions.
Studies have even found that, by accepting your negative emotions, you experience them less and have better mental health in the long run.
By removing the meta-emotions, you’re able to deal with the emotions and their underlying causes in a more emotionally healthy way. Studies have even found that, by accepting your negative emotions — whether that’s anxiety, sadness, fear, or anger — you experience them less and have better mental health in the long run. So, by accepting your emotions in a healthy way, without judgement or anxiety, you can allow yourself to feel better, have a better mental health, and help yourself deal with the underlying causes of the sadness, instead of the meta-emotions that can get in the way of real emotional healing.
The Dangers of Avoidance
When we feel negative emotions, it’s not uncommon to feel the meta-emotions along with them. Sadness or fear can be seen as a weakness, especially in men. Often socially trained fear of emotional vulnerability and emotionality is weak and unmanly. This shame can lead to the emotionally unhealthy avoidant strategies, like substance abuse, rumination, or emotional suppression. Fear of emotions has also been linked to violent outbursts as a way to deal with the shame felt from these negative emotions.
It’s also important to note how trying to completely avoid negative emotions is usually futile. Just because we don’t acknowledge an emotion, it doesn’t just magically go away. It’ll usually just bubble back to the surface as soon as the avoidant action is over; the emotion will still be there. If the avoidant action is unhealthy, like substance abuse, this creates a dangerous loop where you have to indulge more to further avoid the emotion. Furthermore, avoiding with the emotion only elongates the period that you feel it. Instead of accepting the emotion and dealing with it in a healthy and timely way, you can struggle with it intermittently for a much longer period of time.
QUICK! Don’t think about pink elephants!
Then there’s also the chance that your avoidance fails, since telling yourself to stop thinking about something is really hard. QUICK! Don’t think about pink elephants! You just thought about pink elephants, didn’t you? Try to not think about pink elephants for the rest of the day, and see how that goes. Trying to make yourself not think about something is one way to almost guarantee you’ll think about it.
An Example of Accepting Negative Emotions
Let’s look at an example of accepting negative emotions. One of your old friends has passed away, someone that you have known for decades, but that you haven’t been able to see as much as you would have liked. They passed suddenly, so you were unable to say goodbye. At the funeral, you’re uncomfortable fully grieving because you don’t want to look foolish in public, publicly displaying a loss of control over your emotions. Over the next few days, you feel sad and guilty about your friend, but you don’t want to let that get you down so have a few drinks to forget and unwind a little. Instead of making you feel better, you feel worse, like you’re pretending your friend’s death didn’t matter to you.
This example also showcases meta-emotions that add emotional baggage to the situation and avoidant strategies.
See how quickly sadness can grow and the situation spirals? You’re sad, so instead of dealing with it, you push it down, which makes you feel worse. This example also showcases meta-emotions that add emotional baggage to the situation (the discomfort at the funeral) and avoidant strategies (self-medicating with alcohol). Instead, you should take time to feel and accept your grief. You may also have to face the guilt you’re feeling. It’s important that you accept both without judgement to remove the meta-emotions and begin to heal. When acknowledging your emotions, it may help you to plan your next step. For example, take your guilt as a lesson and plan to see your friends more often.
When You Should Get Help
While it’s important to allow yourself time to feel sad or even grieve, depending on the circumstances, it’s important not to wallow in your misery. You shouldn’t lose control of yourself or your life. Eventually, it’s time to move past the sadness. The problem is if you find yourself unable to move on. Then, it becomes important to seek out help. A good suggested time frame is around two weeks. If sadness is interfering with your life for that amount of time, it may be a good idea to find professional help. If you’re experiencing suicidal ideation or worse, you should seek out professional help immediately.
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At some point in our lives, we will experience sadness. That’s just life — you have to take the sweet with the sour. What’s more important than not feeling negative emotions is knowing how to react and cope with them when they do occur. By accepting your sadness when you feel it, you can develop a healthier way to process and live with your feelings. Ultimately, that’s the point — to feel your feelings but in a healthy way.