We live in an era when sadness is avoided at great cost to our emotional psyches. Funerals are now celebrations of life. Even though death and loss breaks hearts, many people strive to stay positive and upbeat. “Must not cry” is the unconscious mantra of many grievers – and it’s harmful.
In “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage,” a TEDWomen 2017 talk by psychologist Susan David, she explains why it’s good to embrace so-called “negative” feelings, saying:
“In a survey I recently conducted with over 70,000 people, I found that a third of us – a third – either judge ourselves for having so-called “bad emotions,” like sadness, anger or even grief. Or we actively try to push aside these feelings….”
“Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” (Watch the entire 17-minute video here: https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_david_the_gift_and_power_of_emotional_courage)
The 2015 Disney Pixar film Inside Out introduces us to five key emotions that power our actions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. While we actually feel a wider range of emotions, the filmmakers had to limit the number of characters. This approach to our emotional makeup is based on the work of two University of California psychology professors, Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman.
These five emotions, embodied as colorful characters inside the mind of an 11-year old girl named Riley, work the psyche’s control panel inside Headquarters. At the very beginning of the film, we see the roles each emotion plays in her life’s developments. For example, Fear helps keep Riley safe. But when the little girl has crying tantrums, narrator Joy doesn’t know why Sadness is there.
Joy gets the greatest amount of control time, relentlessly keeping Riley happy and upbeat. She keeps Sadness away from influencing experiences, memories, and the key core memories that make up Riley’s personality.
A move from the family home in Minnesota to San Francisco prompts a crisis. Riley has a mental meltdown the first day in her new school. Joy and Sadness are swept out of Headquarters into the far reaches of her psyche and must find their way back. Fear, Disgust and Anger assume control of Riley’s interactions with her parents, who also have these emotional characters in their minds. Anger takes over and a split develops between parents and child.
Riley becomes apathetic without Joy and Sadness in Headquarters. She decides to run away back to Minnesota by bus. Joy and Sadness return to Headquarters in the nick of time. Riley gets off the bus and returns home to her worry-sick parents. Joy hands Riley’s emotional control panel over to Sadness.
Finally, Riley can express her sorrow. She cries over missing her friends and life in Minnesota. Responding to her tears, her parents show their sadness and tenderness. The moment becomes a new core memory, incorporating both Joy and Sadness, life in Minnesota and in San Francisco.
As Keltner and Ekman explain in “The Science of Inside Out,” a New York Times opinion column (July 5, 2015), “Inside Out offers a new approach to sadness. Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen’s emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike.”
Sadness and anger are not “bad” emotions. They are an integral part of who we are. Celebrations of life that circumvent sadness are parties without purpose. We need to allow grief to be expressed to move toward healing. Then we can establish new identities beyond our relationships with the deceased.
Gail Rubin, Certified Thanatologist and pioneering death educator, will present “Lessons on Grief and Mourning in Cartoons” at two upcoming national conventions: The International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association in Las Vegas, NV on April 21, 2018, and the Association for Death Education and Counseling on Friday, April 27 in Pittsburgh, PA. She is the author of three books on end-of-life issues and coordinator of the Before I Die ABQ Festival. Sign up for her bimonthly email newsletter at www.AGoodGoodbye.com.
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