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Giving Our Children (and Ourselves) Permission to Feel Sad

Psychotherapy isn’t about helping people to avoid feeling any negative emotions. Perhaps it’s surprising to hear that from a psychologist.

There is a wonderful children’s animated movie that was recently released: Inside Out. (Readers can find Amanda Leifer’s review of the movie in the June 25 edition of the Jewish Link.) As Ms. Leifer explains, the movie focuses on a young girl, Riley, who goes through the traumatic, life-changing experience of having to move with her family to a town (San Francisco) that is very different from the one in which she had been raised.

What I like most about the movie is the message it ultimately gives to the viewer: It’s okay to feel sad (or nervous, or upset etc.).

In a very unique way, the movie explores Riley’s emotional rollercoaster as she tries to acclimate herself to her new environment (e.g., new school, classmates, house and bedroom). A whole world is created within Riley’s mind where her emotions reside. These emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger) are personified by five little people who interact with one another as they decide how Riley should feel from one moment to the next.

As Riley struggles mightily to adjust to her new life, her parents are naturally concerned and try to brighten her mood. For example, Riley’s mother gives her a pep talk by encouraging her to be positive and to feel happy, not only for herself but for her father as well. The one thing her parents do not do is to simply acknowledge to Riley that she has good reason to feel sad and upset. They don’t let her know that it’s okay to feel this way and that she doesn’t have to “keep a stiff upper lip.”

It’s easy to relate to the parents’ approach. No parent wants their child to feel sad, hurt or upset. Don’t we want our children to always be happy? To achieve this, we try all sorts of strategies, everything from trying to distract them from what’s hurting their feelings (“Let’s get some ice cream. That’ll make you feel better.”), to coming up with something that’ll motivate them to feel happy (“It’ll make daddy feel good to know you’re happy”), to trying to convince them that feeling angry is bad (“Little Moishy, you’ll develop high blood pressure if you don’t calm down”).

Of course, it isn’t healthy to feel very angry, depressed or anxious. When we feel extreme negative emotions, we suffer in many ways (e.g., poor sleep, difficulty concentrating and dysfunctional relationships). On the other hand, it’s perfectly normal to feel milder negative emotions, such as feeling sad, worried or frustrated. The problem is, neither Joy (the little person representing happiness within Riley’s mind) nor Riley’s parents seem to understand this.

For most of the movie, Joy does everything she can to suppress Sadness (the little person in Riley’s mind who personifies sad feelings). Joy believes that the ideal emotional state is to always feel upbeat, so whenever Sadness tries to speak up (thereby causing Riley to actually feel sad), Joy intervenes so that Riley stays…well, joyful.

Eventually, it becomes clear that Riley is simply unable to stay happy. Try as she might, one frustration and hurt piles on top of the other and her only coping strategy (to just be happy) is no longer enough. As a result, Riley becomes emotionally overwhelmed and has a child-size emotional break-down.

Eventually, though, Sadness saves the day. Toward the end of the movie, Joy discovers that Sadness is far from an unwanted and destructive emotion. Rather, she realizes that Sadness is important and useful in ways that she isn’t.

This is a powerful message. The truth is, we do ourselves a great disservice when we deny ourselves the right to have negative emotions. In life, there are times when we naturally feel sad and to deny this experience is to deny part of what makes us human. When someone we love dies, it’s healthy to feel sad. When we move away from a close friend, it’s normal to feel blue.

The same is true for other negative emotions. It’s normal to feel worried when we lose our job. In fact, there is something rather constructive about worrying. It helps motivate us to find other employment. If someone was too placid and unbothered by being out of work, he probably wouldn’t be as compelled to fix the situation. Before long, he’d be penniless, his utilities would be shut off and he’d be knocking on his neighbor’s door in search of working plumbing. So, you can see that negative emotions, when not to the extreme, are not only normal, but can also be helpful.

Children, in particular, need to be allowed to feel negative emotions such as sadness and worry. The reality is, they’ll feel these things regardless. The way we respond to our children will make all the difference in how they make sense of their feelings.

If we always try to keep our children from feeling sad, for example, we send the implicit message that there is something wrong with sadness. Children will learn that they’re not allowed, or shouldn’t allow themselves, to feel sad or upset. But, since these feelings are inevitable, children may come to think of themselves as defective or inadequate.

Therefore, a key to healthy emotional development is learning to tolerate uncomfortable emotions rather than trying to suppress them. We help our children do this by giving them the space to feel what they feel, by sitting down with them and listening as they share their emotional hurts and pains. Because sometimes, in order to feel better, all we really need is permission to feel sad.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710 or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, Ph.D

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