Sad Sack Era; or, Learning to Feel Your Feelings is Hard Work
Hello dear ones,
Happy Tuesday! I just got back from a long weekend on the west coast and am settling back into my routine — including getting this newsletter out.
I wanted to flag that I’ve removed the meme I made for this post after learning that the “two wolves” meme is racist, as it’s a made up Native proverb created by a white man and has been shared as an Indigenous story when it isn’t. I always appreciate folks that call me in so that I can keep learning.
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In the past month, every time someone has asked me how I’m doing, I respond one of two ways: “I’m a sad sack,” or “I’m okay” (code for “I’m sad but also my life is really great so it all balances out I guess?”). Sadness is one of my least fav emotions to be with. I know that I was a sad kid growing up — I have the journals to prove it. But I was so dissociated from my sadness. I could write poems about how depressed I was, but I couldn’t actually feel it in my body.
I understand why. After my mother’s death, anytime I cried — usually about a boy who had hurt me — I would turn to my father for comfort, and he would would shut down. I learnt that there was no place for me to express my sadness, let alone feel it. Not being sad came with rewards. People would always remark on how positive I was, given all that had happened to me and my family. I began to wear my positivity as a badge of honour. I learnt that if I was happy all the time, people would want to be around me, and that would lead to me receiving the attention I so desired.
Despite the deep repression of my sadness, I considered myself someone who was good at feeling their feelings. That was until I started somatic therapy. Turns out there’s a difference between intellectualizing your feelings and actually feeling them. I quickly learnt just how hard it was for me to access sadness. I’d sit in therapy, on the verge of tears, but there was some barrier, some force keeping the tears from spilling out. As we began to explore why, I learnt that my freeze response believed that sadness would open the door to grief, and once that door was open, we’d become overwhelmed. So we worked with that part, asking if it was okay to feel sad just for a few minutes, until, eventually, this part began to trust my adult self to hold the sadness — and the grief — when they arose.
Every time I sit with my sadness, I’m reminded of one of my favourite scenes from the Disney-Pixar film Inside Out, where Sadness sits beside Bing Bong after he watches his cherished rocket wagon get pushed into the dump.
Joy runs up to Bing Bong and exclaims: “Hey, it’s okay! We can fix this.” But Bing Bong sits there. Then Sadness comes over.
“I’m sorry they took your rocket.” Sadness says to Bing Bong. “They took something that you loved. It’s gone. Forever.”
“Sadness, don’t make him feel worse!” Joy exclaims.
As Bing Bong shares some of his memories with the wagon and begins to cry, Sadness touches his arm and says “Yeah, it’s sad.” Sadness holds Bing Bong for a few seconds and then Bing Bong feels okay and is ready to continue on their journey. Joy asks Sadness how they did that and Sadness responds: “He was sad, so I just listened.” This scene from Inside Out exemplifies how,
“In our saddest moments, we want to be held by or feel connected to someone who has known that same ache, even if what caused it is completely different. We don’t want our sadness overlooked or diminished by someone who can’t tolerate what we’re feeling because they’re unwilling or unable to own their own sadness.” - Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart.
Unfortunately, so so many of us do not know how to own their sadness. While we may love to watch a sad movie, we live in a culture that is, by and large, averse to this feeling. In her book, The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed explains how “Happiness is consistently described as the object of human desire, as being what we aim for, as being what gives purpose, meaning and order to human life.” Sadness, then becomes an enemy, a barrier to the promises attached to happiness. There are countless self-help books dedicated to helping us learn how to be happy (what Ahmed refers to as “the happiness turn”). But when I google “how to be sad,” the first book that comes up is How to Be Sad: Everything I've Learned About Getting Happier by Being Sad. Instead of a roadblock, sadness is instrumentalized as a means to being happy; sadness can be good, so long as the end result is greater happiness (thank you capitalism).
There is a politics to refusing the injunction to happiness, and choosing instead to be with our sadness. On her blog, Sara Ahmed quotes Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, where she writes: “looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo.” Ahmed continues: “To obscure or to take cover by looking on the bright side is to avoid what might threaten the world as it is.” Sadness, like any feeling, is a teacher. It points us to what is broken and what needs healing. I am sad because a human harmed me. They harmed me because of their own trauma. And their trauma, and the harm they caused me, cannot be separated from the traumas of living under systemic oppression. In being with my sadness, in letting my heart break, I choose to see the world as it is.
My capacity to be with sadness doesn’t mean that I like it. I’ve been sad for over two months now. My heart is bruised. I feel meh despite all of the good things in my life. While I’ve let go of the toxic positivity that I took on as a survival response, I still consider myself to be a happy, excitable, and positive person. I smile a lot — and I mean it. Being sad makes me feel deeply disconnected from my sense of self. Some days I long for the dissociation that kept me at arm’s length from sadness and so many other tough feelings. But more and more, I’m coming to accept that I’m in my Sad Sack Era. The less I fight this feeling, the more it softens.
I’ve been reading a lot lately, which has felt so nice. Here are some book recommendations (full disclosure, I haven’t finished all of these but I already know that I will):
Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between, Joseph Osmundson: “The problem wasn’t illness. The problem never is. Illness is a fact of life. The problem is our inability to provide care to all.” Queerness, care, quarantine, illness, intimacy: all of my favourite topics in one book, with poetic prose.
The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture, Gabor Maté and Daniel Maté: “chronic illness—mental or physical—is to a large extent a function or feature of the way things are and not a glitch; a consequence of how we live, not a mysterious aberration.” Maté is certainly not the first one to argue this, as QTBIPOC folks have been naming this since forever. But the fact that someone with as much acclaim as Maté holds is saying this makes me hopeful.
On the Inconvenience of Other People, Lauren Berlant: “We cannot know each other without being inconvenient to each other. We cannot be in any relation without being inconvenient to each other. This is to say: to know and be known requires experiencing and exerting pressure to be acknowledged and taken in. Acknowledgment requires a disturbance of attention and boundaries. Sustained acknowledgment requires self-reorganization.” There were so many quotes I could have selected from this book, and I’m only two chapters in.
Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice, Rupa Marya and Raj Patel: “The inflammatory diseases we are seeing today are not the cause of the body’s dysfunctional reactions. They are the body’s correct responses to a pathological world.” I am soooooooo excited to continue reading this book.
How to Get Laid Without Your Phone: A Meditation on Love in the Time of Inconvenience, Siri Agrell: “We engage today in ways we never would in person, our behaviours normalized through the habits we have formed from interacting while physically apart. There didn’t used to be the option to simply not respond. You couldn’t leave the conversation without actually walking away or hanging up. If your words were cruel, or cold, you had to watch the blow land on their cheek, hear it register in the tremor of their voice.” As someone who grew up in the late 90s/early 00s, I really appreciated Agrell’s reflections on how technology has changed how we show up in intimacy.
Outlawed, Anna North: “‘When someone believes in something,’ Mama said, ‘you can’t just take it away. You have to give them something to replace it. And since I don’t know what makes women barren, I’ve got nothing to give.’” Queer and trans cowboys + witches. What more could you possibly want?
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