Dr. Solley's Newsletter
Help With Relationships

Anatomy of Emotion - Sadness

        Fall 2014


In my last two Anatomy of Emotion newsletters I've talked about anger and fear respectively, and today I'm going to focus on sadness. Although I didn't originally plan it this way, perhaps this is appropriate for Fall, when the natural world dies a little in preparation for winter--not to mention 9/11, earthquakes, and other fall disasters.


Sadness--like its more intense sibling grief--is about loss.  We can feel sadness that something we once had is now lost, or that something we long for is missing.  For instance, I could be sad because my goldfish died, or I could be sad because I wanted a goldfish, but never had one.  Sadness is how our bodies let us know that we were or are attached to something; it is a signal of disconnection from something we care about.  In that way it is the painful shadow of love.


Several emotions that I've discussed in my previous articles contain sadness as part of their blend.   Disappointment is mostly an expression of sadness (the loss of an expectation or wish), but is often tinged to varying degrees with anger.  This is an interesting mix because while sadness acknowledges the loss, anger serves a self-protective function as it tries to control the loss, prevent it from happening again, or even deny that the loss happened.  So, in a sense, disappointment is an intermediate tension between holding on and letting go. 


As described in my Fall 2012 Newsletter, sadness is a key ingredient (along with anger and fear) of that emotional slurry we call hurt, which is so crucial in relationships. Hurt and disappointment frequently occur together since they both feature anger and sadness. Relationship disappointments often hurt. When disappointments are repeated over time they can become more and more painful like a bruise that gets worse when it is hit again and again. 


A key to addressing hurt and disappointment is the role of sadness in the combination of repair, mutual under-standing, and mutual acceptance.  Disappointments in relationships are as inevitable as differences in relationships because no two people are the same and there will invariably be times when partners are misattuned to each other.  


Mutual understanding involves knowing and taking seriously what is important to your partner even if your priorities are different.  Many times this involves developing insight and compassion into what the emotional underpinnings were for him or her as a child.  Our core values and responses are forged when we are very young. Acceptance is knowing that your partner doesn't think and experience the same way you do.  It is important to make peace with the fact that your partner will make mistakes that disappoint you!  


Repair involves a combination of things.  First, it's important that the hurt or disappointed partner be able to name those feelings in a collaborative (non-aggressive) way.  The other partner then has to be able to acknowledge and understand the significance of that hurt or disappointment, in a way that is relieving to the hurt partner.  An essential part of the repair process is being able to apologize fully, without being defensive.  


The more that the hurt or disappointed partner can be aware of and express his or her sadness, the more likely the partners will be able to reconnect and repair. This can all happen quite simply in the case of a small hurt or disappointment, but in the case of larger ones it will take more depth, reworking over time, and sincerity on the parts of both parties to heal.


Regret and remorse are two other emotions that contain a primary nucleus of sadness. Both imply a wish to reverse or eliminate a past action (or inaction), with a concomitant sense of loss. Remorse seems to be the more intense state, and to place extra emphasis on personal responsibility for the situation.  Both of these also refer to grief in slightly different ways.  Etymologically, regret comes from roots meaning to weep, wail, or groan, whereas remorse refers to being bitten.  The word grief is allied with the word grave, which is a burial place, but also relates to gravity by way of heaviness and seriousness.  All of these terms ultimately refer to the bodily sensations that we feel around loss, which can range from degrees of weight (e.g., "a heavy heart") to some of the most acute pain that we can feel as humans (as if we have received a severe bite).  In my mind sadness and grief are on a similar continuum, with grief being at the more painful end. 


I use the word grieving to refer to the process of metabolizing the pain of loss.  This usually involves a time element.  However, it often also requires feeling the full depth of the pain, accompanied by an energetic discharge in the form of crying. The more intense the loss, the more necessary that there be an energetic discharge in order to fully metabolize the pain.  Without being sufficiently metabolized, these painful feelings remain buried inside of us indefinitely.  These stored energies can persist even from childhood.  For severe or chronic losses, time alone is not enough.  Walled off grief can and will fuel other manifest feelings such as overwhelm, anxiety and rage --until the grief is felt and discharged adequately.


So sadness and grief represent a range of feelings that let us know we have suffered loss, and remind us of what is personally important.  Like fear, sadness is a pivotal "soft" emotion that often gets submerged in the tumult of feelings during tense or conflictual interactions. Unlike more hostile or aggressive feelings however--which distance people from each other--the vulnerable expression of sadness invites compassion, and can open channels for understanding and connection. 


Best wishes in your relationships!

Robert Solley, PhD

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[My usual disclaimers: Things are rarely as simple as my examples. Relationships are extraordinarily multidimensional and the written word can only present selected facets at a time.  However, these articles should guide you to essential themes for focusing your attention and practices.  As always, the more you think about improving your own responses (instead of trying to change your partner!) the more success you will have as a couple.]



About Dr. Solley

Dr. Robert Solley is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in couples therapy. Earning his PhD from the California School of Professional Psychology in Berkeley, Dr. Solley has been licensed for over 20 years. He has been a Staff Therapist with the Couples Institute in Menlo Park for over 6 years. Dr. Solley has taught doctoral students as an adjunct faculty member at CSPP, Golden Gate University, and at the Wright Institute. Currently he sees 15-20 couples a week in his private practice in Hayes Valley, San Francisco.
Robert Solley, PhD
Clinical Psychologist, with special expertise in Couples Therapy