The Stages of Sad

Last week I was sad.

But I didn’t know it at first.

Sometimes it takes me several days to determine what I’m feeling. It’s something I’m actively trying to get better at, especially when negative emotions are involved. I’ve never believed negative emotions are conducive to my success — so I push them away.

In fact, for most of my life, I have been afraid of negative emotions like sadness, anger, resentment, judgment, and criticism. I resent crying and feel tired and drained after doing it. I know that if I could, I would welcome a life without sadness. Since that’s unrealistic and most importantly, unhealthy, I have made it my mission to find ways to identify, cope with, and embrace negative feelings.

I know that if I could, I would welcome a life without sadness.

Last week, I made plans to get together with some old friends. I felt slightly apprehensive about it because of our complicated history but forged ahead anyway. Looking back, I realize that my uneasiness going into it caused me to act in a way that felt inauthentic. After some processing, I noticed I went through a number of emotional stages until I finally accepted I was, indeed, sad.

It was not a neat or comfortable process.

Stage 1: Discomfort

During the social encounter I felt uneasy. I could tell I was scared and holding back in certain areas, and was not being fully in tune with my needs. I left feeling unsettled. I had said yes to something I didn’t intend to and extended my socializing when I had other plans. I grabbed the streetcar home and felt a bit empty. I was receiving messages from myself but I couldn’t hear them properly. I went home knowing that something was off.

Stage 2: Edginess

At home, I felt irritable. I noticed everything around me was annoying — the lighting in my apartment, the dirty dishes; even just thinking about the rest of my evening was making me tense. My breathing was shallow and my head was buzzing. I told myself to calm down, but instead, I decided I was in a bad mood. My pulse escalated. I felt really testy — like I could pick a fight with anyone. My boyfriend, unfortunately, was in the crosshairs.

Stage 3: Isolation

I felt myself wanting to go inward to avoid potential conflict. I wanted to shut the negative feelings off, so I escaped with a T.V. show, hoping that another story would get me out of my own head.

Stage 4: Processing

Information about what had set me off was starting to seep into my brain, uninvited. It came as flashes of the past events: what I had said versus what I had wanted to say, how I felt while certain things were happening. This was the processing phase for me. Realizations started to occur, but they were not yet fully formed.

I began to understand that I was upset with myself because I had not acted in line with what I wanted that day. I hadn’t asserted myself when I had needed to and instead fell into some old patterns. As I realized this, I felt small.

Once I understood it was my own decisions that led me to the uncomfortable feelings, I instantly started judging myself for both making the decisions and the thoughts I was having.

Stages 5: Self-judgement

Once I understood it was my own decisions that led me to the uncomfortable feelings, I instantly started judging myself for both making the decisions AND the thoughts I was having. Double whammy.

The voices inside my head, ever so kind, went something like this: “You knew you didn’t want to say yes, but you did it anyway. Why? Because you were afraid of confrontation? Because you need to be liked by others? I know while you were sitting at the table you wanted the courage to say: I actually need to get going. But instead you fell into silent mode. You let them lead and make the decisions. Why do these people have power over you? It’s so fucked up that you forget who you are and what you need around certain people. Disappointing.

“You’ve spent the last year doing hard work on yourself. You know you’re not supposed to overanalyze things and judge yourself for your emotions. You keep telling other people that. Are you even listening to your own advice? No. You got swept up in it and became irritable towards your boyfriend instead. This has nothing to do with him! And now you’re in this whole spiral — all because you didn’t listen to yourself. You could have just checked in with your feelings before going into the encounter. If you had done that — you wouldn’t even be in this position.”

Stage 6: Sadness

The voices were a lot to handle. Instead of stepping back from the thoughts to observe, I became caught up in their viciousness. I had let myself down and felt a sense of hopelessness. I wanted to curl into a ball and give up. I started to cry.

Stage 7: Guilt

Now that I acknowledged I was sad, I felt guilty for feeling it. In recent years, the concept of gratitude has exploded into our culture. The idea of having gratitude is so encouraged by society, that I feel I’m listening to this advice to my own detriment. Does having gratitude for the beauty in our lives mean we’re not allowed to experience negative emotions? Of course not, but my inner voice continued to punish: Your life is not that bad. You should not be sad, it said to me.

Does having gratitude for the beauty in our lives mean we’re not allowed to experience negative emotions?

Stage 8: Acceptance

As I continued to process and reflect on my emotions I concluded I was sad for two reasons.

First, I didn’t act in accordance with my wants and needs.

Second, I judged myself for the emotions I felt after the fact.

What really made me upset was how I neglected self-compassion. If I had said: “Okay, this reaction/feeling is information for me. What is this about, and what does it tell me about who I am and what I want?”, I may not have had to say those hurtful things to myself. I believe it was the judgment phase, not the sadness, that did the most damage.

Stage 9: Reflection

At the end of the day, I know that sadness is useful. As all emotions are useful. They communicate what we want and need and where our boundaries are. And when things are contrasting from my wants and needs, especially when I am the one in charge of what I do, it can feel very uncomfortable.

But before judging myself for feeling uncomfortable when I expect I shouldn’t, I want to step back and observe what’s going on, instead of getting swept up in the stages of sad. That way, I can learn to replace judgment with positive self-talk. That way, I can learn to heal.

Sadness is not my enemy.

It is my teacher.

I just have to keep listening.

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This post was originally published on The Sad Collective.