Emotion Series: Sadness

Sadness can be a beautiful yet frustrating thing, depending on its form and utilization by an individual. It is associated with elevated physiological arousal, and activates the body to respond to loss, despair, disadvantage, sorrow, grief, or helplessness — physical or emotional influencers that impact a person’s experience in life. It can serve as a benefit, reminding us of what is truly important and pushing our minds to contemplate situations and examine them more closely. Like anger, there are three forms of sadness, and not all of them are helpful.


Primary Adaptive Sadness

This variation of sadness emerges from parting or separation, including feeling left out, not belonging, unable to communicate true feelings, or feeling neglected. It can also stem from a loss of attachment to an individual or a group that someone was previously closely associated with, which can also result in feelings of isolation and frustration. Primary adaptive sadness can also be the result of mourning the loss of a loved one, or from disappointments or shattered hopes, a failure to achieve goals or loss of self-esteem. Typical results of primary adaptive sadness include a passive withdrawal from involvement in life, a letting go of the need for an individual or lost object, and physical outbursts when emotions are too high (such as crying or looking downcast).


Secondary Sadness

This is a more volatile strand of sadness, and is typically expressed in response to other emotional experiences. Secondary sadness occurs when people collapse into hurt, victimization, or feel angry (which can expand into other more negative forms of emotions). Often, those affected by it feel generally hopeless, despondent, full of despair, and unable to come to a sufficiently acceptable resolution for whatever problems are negatively impacting their lives. The most common cognitive-affective experience associated with sadness is depression, which involves hopelessness, helplessness, feeling defeated, etc., rather than an authentic experience of loss.


Instrumental Sadness

Quite literally a tool for those with personally-directed intentions, instrumental sadness is utilized by individuals as a way of gaining control or personal satisfaction with a specific situation, desire, or relationship. Many cry because they feel helpless or dependent, and some may feel inclined to use it as a means to rectify a problem. For example, instrumental sadness can be used as an aspect of complaining — “whining” — when tears are a form of protest to force a situation into a desired direction, or to avoid the need for self-care and enable dependency upon others for personal gain. However, instrumental sadness can be utilized for less selfish intentions to evoke sympathy, support or understanding, or to get attention of others.


Ways to Manage Sadness

Sadness is a natural and instinctual aspect of the human condition, whether it’s sadness about missing a job promotion or life-shattering anguish about the loss of a loved one. Primary adaptive sadness is a healthy way to experience and process grief and a healthy alternative to emotional avoidance. Instead of bottling up the emotion, it is important to accept your grief, accept that a part of you is missing, and say “yes” to the pain and hurt. This is an essential step in the healing process.  

However when sadness is overwhelming, all-encompassing, or stands as a barrier between here and where you want to go (whether literally or emotionally), the issue may need to be addressed. Similarly, when sadness leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms, or sadness is used as tool to achieve another end, it may be beneficial to establish patterns of healthy response to triggering circumstances and events.