On Sadness and Gratitude


About 8 months ago, I made the decision to start actively practicing gratitude. I started posting lists of things I was grateful for on social media — which got a range of responses, including people who loved it and thought it was inspiring all the way to people who thought I was presenting a very false self.

I did it because I’d read, again and again, that practicing gratitude (or self-affirmation, as I’ve also seen it called) could work to actually improve my overall happiness. I did it because I was sad and I wanted to focus on the things that made me happy / grateful in the world. In some ways, it was an act of survival. I remember one late spring night, I sat on my front porch and watched a lightning storm, and struggled not to cry. I texted a friend for a bit about nothing in particular because I needed something, anything, to pull me out of my own head. The world felt like too much.

I made the choice to post gratitude publicly to help hold myself accountable. I did it publicly because in my social media feeds, too often, there is a lot of negativity because sometimes the world is a pretty terrible place and my friends are wonderful, socially conscious and conscientious people — but that means that we’re all frequently posting the things that make our hearts ache.

I didn’t expect it to work.

But over those months, I’ve gotten happier. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t still had sad moments. Sad days. Sometimes it comes crashing down on me and I don’t even know what I’m sad about. Sometimes something in particular triggers those sad feelings. Today, I was making lunch and felt unexpectedly sad. I’d been fine an hour earlier: laughing with training partners and then with a friend. The weather is warm and sunny and I got to go on a bike ride. The sadness, this time, felt like loneliness despite the fact that I’ve had so many lovely and warm interactions with friends over the past week — and anticipate having more in the next couple of days. The sadness didn’t make sense, but it doesn’t have to. That’s not how sadness works.

Part of what I’ve learned in practicing gratitude is that if I’m honoring the good moments — the moments when I’m happy or grateful, then I can better honor the sad moments. I can sit with the sadness and know that it’s okay — that it doesn’t have to be crushing (even though maybe it will be).

~

The thing about sadness is that we often don’t honor it. We try to squelch it or turn away from it. We try to distract ourselves from the sadness, as though enough movies or drinks or sex or things or, or, or… will make us happy. And, we learn again and again that this is almost never true. We learned early that we shouldn’t be sad — we’re told not to cry, or called crybabies. We’re told that things aren’t “worth” being upset about. As children, most of us rarely saw the adults in our lives cry. We learned, implicitly if not explicitly, that adulting means not crying — and although we were almost certainly impacted by the sadness or full-blown depression of the adults around us, chances are good that for most of us, it was never stated so directly. We grew up and taught ourselves to stuff our feelings or to at least hide them until we could deal with them in private. We learn to fake smiles and to tell people, I’m fine, even when we’re not. These are the lessons we saw, the personas we mimicked.

At some point, most of us realize that something fucked us up — even if we’re usually happy, even if we had a good childhood (whatever that means), even if we aren’t living with depression or another form of neurodivergence, and we get therapy or we don’t and we fuck up other people, or we don’t (but let’s face it, probably we do, because we’re human. We’re social creatures. We make mistakes.), but at some point we have to take ownership of ourselves and our actions. We struggle. We stumble. We pick ourselves up.

~

I’m still not sure what it means for me to honor sadness. This afternoon, it meant sitting with the sadness for a bit, and then sitting down to write this blog post. In the past, it has meant acknowledging how sadness impacts my physical self and taking a nap. Sometimes it means having a good cry, even if I don’t know why I’m crying. Sometimes it has meant reaching out to a friend and saying something like “I don’t know why, but I’m struggling today.” Sometimes it has meant a walk without my iPod or my dog or anything else to distract me, so I can just move through my thoughts and emotions.

It has also meant making a particular point of posting things I’m grateful for — not every time, but more times than not — because while I want to honor my sadness, I’m not particularly interested in wallowing in it (and I can be a wallower). I’m not particularly interested in the downward spiral that can come with me sitting with my sadness for too long.

The thing is, I don’t have to know the right way for me to honor sadness. I don’t have to choose a right way. There can be a lot of right ways. There can be different right ways for you, Lovely Reader — just because this is what works for me doesn’t mean it works for everyone, or even that it works for anyone else.

We have to start talking about sadness, and what makes us sad, and how we feel when we’re sad. We have to see these as things that make us human. Maybe the things that make us sad are also the things that sometimes that cause us to think we’re broken. But we have to acknowledge that the ways we’re broken also make us whole and complex and that we can live in and with contradictions.

We have to also talk about the things that make us happy or grateful or curious or that help us engage with the world.

We should listen to the people we care about when they take the risk of talking about sad or happy things, because they’re showing us the parts of them they usually keep armored.We should honor this, when we ourselves have the emotional bandwidth, because the world would probably be a better place if we could all be more vulnerable.

We have to stop pretending that everything is alright when it isn’t. But we’ve also got to make the decision to do the things that genuinely help fill us up and bring light to our lives and to do that on our own, when we can or when we have to, because Lovely Reader, sometimes we’ll have no choice but to do it on our own — probably when we feel most fragile.

And those moments are hard as hell. It would be a lie to say anything else.

 

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