This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register

A screenwriter friend gave me an article discussing the salutary aspects of sadness and the ways in which our contemporary culture tends to quickly erase it or prematurely foreclose upon its gritty psychological usefulness in a quest for perennial cheery happiness.  As if happiness were a concrete object one could hold instead of a transitory state of being, one of many, that links specific inner notations of experience with external ones.

If difficult to sustain, happiness is even trickier to define.  Happiness is no more the absence of sadness than sadness the absolute absence of happiness.  Certainly it is erroneous to suppose that happiness can be permanently achieved by blithely avoiding sadness, anger or any other feeling.  Most often feelings occur as complex hybrids, combined subtly like ingredients in exquisite perfume.  The base note may linger long after the top note has dissipated.

Feelings are complex

Who hasn’t experienced the smoky admixture of sadness, longing, joy and loss we recognize as bittersweet?   The intimate sharing of personal reminiscences at a funeral banquet always elicits laughter and tears.  People enjoy sad movies because they are afforded a legitimate opportunity to feel and openly express their own sadness.  Kids like scary movies because they learn to master their own fears by participating in a limited and circumscribed fright.  The T. Rex will not actually jump off the screen and eat them.

Happiness is often associated with momentous but fleeting rites of passage like grand vacations, graduations, weddings and birthdays, and indeed, such festive events can be extremely pleasurable and rewarding.  But the hours wane quickly leaving celebrants to contend with wistful sadness and its cousin, mourning.  In those transitional moments, we are aware of death.

Red boat with blud sails

Red boat with blue sails

What we really have in perpetuity are memories of happy moments or happy memories of brief moments. A bridal cortege survives but an afternoon.  We are aware of mortality.  Bittersweet.  Just as blooming spring roses explode like popcorn, we instinctively know, though hold in abeyance, the awareness that they will inevitably fade, as we all will.  Another spring will vanish leaving us a year older.  Mirth and mourning.

Feelings facilitate growth and change

Happiness and sadness are twins heralding change and growth.  I recall how a young patient once revealed his anxiety about advancing from one grade to another.  Anticipating a new school and teachers, he was feeling justifiably uncertain.  As middle school and the heady excitement of puberty approached, childhood was trailing away behind him, deflating like a bathtub rubber duck.  Lily Tomlin once remarked, “Third grade isn’t cute…it’s life,” and I agree.

Instead of dispatching his sadness or feigning bravery, he spoke of intricate, confusing feelings.  Together we expanded and explored each sensation, permitting him to slowly adjust and make use of what each offered.  I reminded him that he probably felt the same way when he graduated from a crib into a twin bed, remarking that if he hadn’t taken a bold risk, he might still be sleeping in the crib.  We enjoyed a conspiratorial laugh and each recalled the sublime safety of protected infancy.  He was eleven years old and beginning to learn that happiness, sadness and mourning often occur simultaneously.

Earliest feelings

But what exactly are those evanescent sensations we call feelings?  All feeling states originate in infancy as neurological responses to physiologically arousing or dampening stimuli.  They are unprocessed bits of sensory data and can arise from within a baby’s own mind-body, such as distress from a gas bubble or hunger, or the stimulus may emanate from the external environment, like a loud noise or the sight of a pretty mobile.

Because a baby is unable to self-regulate, the mommy-baby unit functions as a regulating mechanism.  A fussy baby doesn’t know he’s fussy; he only knows he’s unpleasantly aroused and cannot soothe himself.  Mom or Dad adjusts the blankets, changes the diaper, hums a song.

The importance of attentive parents

An infant does not identify or label feelings until later, when language bridges isolated inner states with external ones.  Interpersonal relationships are the contextual medium.  Feelings signify the frontier between mind and body, awareness and unconsciousness.  We first learn to process feelings within the matrix of a primary relationship.  Though we eventually download sufficient methodology to manage on our own, we never outgrow the need for connection.  We require affiliation all our lives.

An observant mother asks her subdued toddler, “Do you feel sad when Papa goes home?”  As she acknowledges and receives his non-linguistic communication – the subdued demeanor – and returns it as useful information, he links feeling with language.  He learns to say, “I feel sad when Papa goes home.”  He now understands something important about himself.  His capacity to identify and claim his own feelings will increase with the supportive repetition of similar interpersonal interactions, and he will confidently seek out other people with whom he can share his feelings throughout his life.

Sadness acknowledges loss

All feelings arise and exist within a specific context, and sadness is a vital feeling often associated with loss.  It is a call to mindfulness and reflection.  If we do not attend to our feelings, conferring upon them the legitimacy they deserve, we disable our inner compass.

Closed Eyes

Closed Eyes

Analytic therapy provides a relational context in which to safely experience and explore feelings, particularly painful ones.  A favorite teacher once said that psychoanalysis helps people feel bad.  I think it permits them simply to feel.   Frozen emotional experiences from long ago begin to thaw.  When they are examined and understood, they can be returned to their rightful historic place as memories.  Life assumes new, creative dimensions as suffocating constrictions begin to dissolve.

Yet, at the mere mention of sadness, we are too quickly offered medication to eradicate it via neurological manipulation before considering what those sad feelings might mean.  Even when symptoms are artificially reduced, and sometimes it is imperative to do so, the inner landscape remains unaltered.

Grappling with powerful feelings

Medication does not and cannot replace contemplation.  Mindless distractions like relentless shopping or overeating are more insidious methods serving to distance us from our significant feelings.   Frenetic activity or manic busyness often replaces necessary reflection.  “Move on” or “get over it” have become common idiomatic prescriptions, admonishing us to disregard our inner world of feelings, often well before we are ready or able to do so.

Extreme sadness in the form of grieving can be an extremely alienating experience if overt expressions of sadness are too quickly countered with superficial “solutions.”  Instead of offering quick fix directives, you can facilitate the process by simply sitting with someone and listening to them.

The benefits of psychoanalysis

It is our capacity to be present with one another that is truly healing.  This is why psychoanalysts tend to be quiet.  We want to give our patients ample opportunity to speak and to be heard.   Like the toddler who misses his Papa, verbal and non-verbal offerings are received, organized and returned to patients in ways that are meaningful and useful.

I am reminded of an iconic 1960’s Twilight Zone episode set in the “future” wherein the protagonist, a thoughtful though somewhat plain adolescent girl valiantly struggling with salient existential dilemmas, has adamantly refused the culturally sanctioned surgical procedure that would magically transform her from an authentic and complex human being into a superficially happy, generically pretty girl who would look and feel just like everyone else.

Nude-Before-A-Mirror-FULLThis nullification of individuality and emotional intricacy was valued as the culture’s most desirable developmental rite of passage, auguring in a permanently placid and vacuous state of being.  Always happy.  Never sad.  More a comprehensive mind-body lobotomy than an aesthetic improvement, our heroine resisted having her unique “imperfections” obliterated, yet no one, including her mother, the model-actress Suzy Parker, could understand her resistance.

Feelings used in the service of healthy change

Attempting to understand and use feelings to promote a richer and more meaningful life, analytic therapy neither celebrates nor eradicates sadness or any other feeling.  It is imperative to distinguish between intractable depression, which suggests hopeless despair, from sadness, which can be very mobilizing.   Sadness can facilitate favorable life modifications, while chronic depression indicates emotional ossification, the perceived absence of possibilities.  Perhaps depression is aged sadness that has congealed.

Ironically, a culture that overvalues singular traits such as happiness is destined to be sad.  Artificial happiness confused with virtue promotes guilt.  If feelings are kept at bay because they are perceived as unwelcome or indicative of weakness, they are denied a direct, clarifying voice and eventually express themselves in more menacing ways, often finding vent in the body.

Denied feelings convert to illness

Disavowed feelings often convert to chronic ailments.  Recent statistics suggest that 60% of Americans are presently overweight while 30% are morbidly obese.  The body speaks what the mind cannot or will not.

In our culture, physiological illness is considered legitimate while emotional distress is not.   How can the physician successfully treat a physiological disturbance when its origin is the mind, when it serves as a necessary cloaking device for unwanted feelings?

If we don’t fully engage our experiences and all the feelings they generate, we don’t learn from them and are destined to repeat them or act them out.  A child whose age-appropriate anger is unwelcome and unprocessed will become a raging adult, terrorized by his own unmanageable feelings.  A beautiful sunset also represents the passing of another day.  You cannot enjoy one without sensing the other.  Complex feelings punctuate meaningful life experiences.

Do not eclipse the breadth and depth of your feelings by distracting yourself too quickly.  The ability to embrace and appreciate the impress of all feelings with equal vitality denotes the full expression of psychological maturity.

This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

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