Feeling Sad Is Not Bad

We automatically try to fight off “Bad” feelings, at great cost.

When we are sad, we often try our best not to feel what we are feeling.

We are hard-wired to try our best to avoid anything painful.

This tendency is so deeply encoded into our nervous systems, that if we touch a hot stove, we don’t even need our brains to cause our hands to move quickly back: the spinal cord takes care of that reflex!

We treat our feelings the same way.  The moment we start having a “Bad” feeling, we tend to begin fighting against it.  Popular psychology VERY frequently advises us to do various things to “Improve  Your Mood!” Our biology makes us try to avoid painful feelings if possible, whatever their source, and our culture sends us the message, again and again: only “Losers” feel bad or sad.

It reminds me of a song from the album The Wall by Pink Floyd in which the protagonist is brought to trial, with the charge of being “Caught red-handed showing feelings, showing feelings of an almost human nature!”

The facts are that most human emotions are unpleasant. Of the six emotions that anthropologists have found to be universal across cultures, the majority are negative (They are: Surprise, Fear, Happiness, Sadness, Anger and Disgust). So feeling unpleasant feelings is not abnormal; in fact, it is arguable that to feel pleasant feelings most of the time would be unusual for a human being.

There is nothing wrong with doing things to “cheer oneself up” when sad.  Usually, such efforts involve activities we would normally want to do anyway, activities that express our values such as time with friends, listening to or playing music, writing, exercising, and so forth.

It turns out, though, that to the extent to which we organize our lives around avoiding “Bad” feelings, to the extent to which our choice of activities is driven more by the desire to “Feel Good” than by the desire to do the specific activities for intrinsic reasons, that is exactly the extent to which our lives feel empty and meaningless.

Yes, I know, that was a difficult sentence to understand.  Please consider reading it a few times.

More simply put: Would you rather spend life running from “Bad” feelings, as if you were constantly being pursued by an enemy, or would you rather live your life doing things that you care about, regardless of how you feel at the moment?

We do not make that choice a single time.  We make it again and again, noticing how our mind wants us to behave, noticing our tendency to avoid anything the least bit emotionally uncomfortable, and choosing again and again to do what we truly want to do.

If we are free to be sad, angry, frightened, happy, surprised or disgusted, if we are free to feel however we feel in this very moment, then we are free indeed. We may pursue whatever is meaningful to us.



Filed under Sadness and Depression

4 responses to “Feeling Sad Is Not Bad

  1. This is an excellent post. One thing it’s easy to forget when you suffer from depression is that sadness is normal. Anxiety is something everyone feels. And that’s why recovery can be so difficult; you have to face those emotions all the time, regardless of where you are on the path. And they’re much more terrifying when you think they might send you back into the darkness.

  2. Awesome article…exactly how I feel about sadness. I love how you said, “Would you rather spend life running from “Bad” feelings, as if you were constantly being pursued by an enemy, or would you rather live your life doing things that you care about, regardless of how you feel at the moment?” Well said. I have been studying Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and this is the same philosophy. Committed action toward what’s most important to you, no matter how you feel. I have been using mindfulness strategies for years, not only with my clients but in order to get through difficult life events (cancer, for example) and just day to day. I just wrote a blog article called “The ‘Sad is Bad’ Myth” on my Coping With Cancer blog, and was Googling those words and came upon your post. Glad to have found you…I’m now following your blog and Twitter feed as well. Looking forward to reading your posts and Tweets! (I’m also in Portland…Portland, Maine, though!)

    • Thanks Dawn,

      I do indeed work from an ACT framework. Like you I did mindfulness-oriented therapy for years but ACT took it to a whole new level. Looking forward to reading your blog.

      Regards from the Other Portland!


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