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Is Sadness Necessary? The Function of Sadness Explained

By: Dr. Janine Furdella

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Why be sad?

All of our emotions provide us with important information and data. Similar to how blood pressure numbers give data about the pressure in our arteries, emotions give information too. Unlike vital signs; however, emotions are much more difficult to identify and measure. And as humans, we often want to avoid those emotions because they’re not exactly fun to experience. 

What would happen if you ignored elevated blood pressure? This question is likely easy to answer. When we avoid our emotions; however, we miss out on important information, information that guides us, aligns us with our values, and assists us in making decisions. All of our emotions give us this important data, and for today, I’d like to focus on sadness.

Most people I’ve met tell me they don’t like to feel sad, and they really don’t like to cry (especially in front of others). They apologize for crying and feel like there’s something wrong with them for feeling sad. Many of us were told either through words or actions that it’s not okay to be sad, and it’s definitely not okay to cry. Perhaps you’ve received messages like “you have nothing to cry about” or “put a happy face on.”   

There's no crying in baseball

In our culture, sadness is often equated with weakness and vulnerability. That’s a problem, because sadness serves a valuable role. That is, if we pay attention, listen, don’t judge it, and allow ourselves to experience it.

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What are the benefits of sadness?

What might sadness be trying to tell us? If we think about our life experiences and the times we’ve felt sad, it is often related to a relationship, a loss, or a major change in our lives. For example, when I left my eldest daughter at college for the first time, I remember feeling tearful and a deep sadness as I returned home. 

What function did my sadness serve? 

The sadness I acknowledged, communicated to me how very important that relationship was and that it was another step towards letting go – that my role was changing.

Although there’s not really a right or wrong way to feel when going through a major life transition like the one I described above, it may seem odd if I were to feel a different emotion. Imagine if I felt indifferent. If I didn’t feel anything at all when dropping off my child at college, that might have communicated that I didn’t lose anything meaningful. Of course, that wasn’t the case and the sadness I felt served to remind me that a significant transition had just transpired. And the experience ultimately helped me recognize the changes in my role as a mother and it was actually a healthy transition!

When I think of experiences that elicit sadness, I think of major life changes like death, break ups, and illness. Often, sadness during experiences like these, serve to remind us of how much we value a relationship. It’s also an important signal to loved ones that we need support. The comfort our loved ones give us helps us cope because it provides the message of “you’re not alone.” When we lose someone we love, our sadness may provide a space to grieve and celebrate the life of a loved one, and to keep us from being isolated and alone. 

Acknowledging and experiencing sadness also helps us reach a place of acceptance to move forward and participate in a meaningful life despite our sadness. Our sadness may actually help us create a new or different version of our life!

What are the costs of sadness?

Experiencing sadness does not cost us anything. However, the behaviors that we use in an attempt to avoid sadness might cost us. Sadness may be uncomfortable and sometimes even extremely painful, but the emotion itself does not hurt us. Not allowing the emotion to exist will hurt us more. Besides, sadness is likely to come out in some form. Much like the law of conservation of energy and mass, sadness will not disappear but change form. For example, ignoring your sadness over time could potentially result in depression which can interfere with living a life full of purpose and meaning.

If we don’t allow ourselves to feel sadness, we often miss out on other emotions, like love and joy. We don’t get to pick and choose (although we’d often like to) which emotions to feel, we need to feel all of our emotions, pay attention to what they may be trying to tell us, and then we get to choose how we want to respond in a manner consistent with our values.

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The Function of Sadness Conclusion

In summary, sadness is an emotion that organizes our behavioral responses to losses of someone or something important, and/or to something not attained. Sadness reminds us of what matters to us. It can focus our attention on pursuing values, important goals, and communicating to others that we need support. Sadness connects us with others. It may even lead us to acceptance of life in the present moment, just as it is. 

If you’re struggling with understanding the purpose of your sadness, or if it seems the sadness feels paralyzing, I encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional. Whether you reach out to me or another professional in the community, please know that sadness is the result of pursuing a meaningful life!

Eating Disorder Therapist in Fort Lauderdale, FL - Dr. Janine Furdella
License: PY11170

Dr. Janine Furdella is a licensed psychologist and is an expert in Eating Disorder TherapyAnxiety TherapyDepression TherapyPTSD & Trauma Therapy, Family Therapy, Life Transitions, Grief Therapy and age groups from teens to older adults.

Call 954-488-2933 or email today to discuss how our services can help you.

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