ordinary sadness: how to be a compassionate witness

3rd November 2018

What brings you sadness?

I’m sad about Ash being in London three days every week, I’m sad every time I watch This Is Us, when I think about being so far away from my Dad, the lack of critical thinking in our media; I’m sad about how many women believe likability matters most. I just cried at Bohdi’s yelping after an injection from the vet. I’m sad that my beloved friend is undergoing chemo.

I’m sad a lot.

Mostly, its an ordinary kind of sadness. It’s not ‘phone a friend’ worthy, and I can’t do my way out of everyday sadness.

These days I give in early.

I try to let that feeling of sorrow, powerlessness and disappointment be present in me. To sigh, to open my heart, sometimes to let the tears come. I pay attention to my sadness. I indulge it. And then… it passes and I get to keep going.

Yep, sadness is never static. WHO KNEW?

Honestly, I feel this lesson would have been WAAAY more relevant than say… calculus. Because for a long time, I was excellent at being Not Sad.

There didn’t seem to be much point. It wouldn’t change anything, and I couldn’t be sad enough for things to be different, wasn’t it just a bit bloody self-indulgent? So I ignored it and soldiered on.

I swallowed my sadness (often with a large glass of pinot noir) and never slowed down.

Which explains why I didn’t get sad at anything. Instead, I got sarcastic and judgey. Sometimes I was just mean. Mostly to myself.

But sadness is a completely natural and healthy response to any kind of change or loss.

The purpose of sadness is to release emotion – to feel the sorrow, powerlessness and disappointment – so we can move forward. We feel it, then we take action. Most of us try to take action so we don’t have to feel it. But the energy of moving away from something – to avoid, deny or deflect – is so different from the energy of moving towards something with resilience and intention.

Feeling our sadness releases us, softens, revitalises and rejuvenates us; we get to connect deeply to our emotions, our sense of meaning, our humanity.

Because that’s what our sadness tell us: we are alive and we are paying attention.

I suspect most of us carry the unspoken grief that comes with being a human. And most of us feel alone in it. Because does my sadness even count when there are children in detention camps?

We can so easily deny our own sorrow, or rush to comfort our loved ones and deny them theirs. It takes everything in me to not do this.

Whenever I gather folks together in workshops or retreats, we talk about being a ‘compassionate witness’. This means we allow everyone their experience, without comforting or soothing. This can be excruciating when someone is visibly upset, and our natural response is to help. But often we are trying to fix something that is not ours to fix.

Witnessing with compassion is a tangible way of trusting the other person to be with their emotions.

How to be a Compassionate Witness
  • Don’t worry that you don’t know what to say. You might not need to say anything. Be honest: ‘I’m right here, I’m not sure what to say or do, but I’m here’. These are powerful, freeing words, they convey your willingness to be present in the face of sadness.
  • Presence is the purpose. Try to let go of fixing anything – making suggestions, offering solutions – there is plenty of time for that! The whole purpose right now is to witness their sadness. Just be with them, let them feel it. Sometimes we want to be the helper or the hero that comes up with the magical answer.
  • Notice all the feelings that come up in you. When you are with someone who’s hurting, what do you feel? Are you uncomfortable? Do you become frustrated when you cannot take away the person’s sadness, hurt or anger? Do you want to flee? Focus on your breath. Witness this person you care for and imagine them as courageous, resilient, capable.

We can do this for our kids, partners, friends and colleagues. And we can compassionately witness ourselves – wrapped up in a blanket, or sitting in a workplace loo.

It can be helpful to remember that sadness, like most emotions, passes after a few minutes. Within 90 seconds our magnificent bodies will bring us back to homeostasis where our heart rate begins to calm as adrenaline and cortisol are regulated.

Sadness is life.

What brings you sadness?




Hello, I'm Sas Petherick. I'm a self-doubt researcher, coach and podcaster who helps thinking humans transcend self-doubt. If you'd like to receive these posts in your inbox please subscribe here (with bonus info and first notice of opportunities to work with me). PS: I totallyInstagram - join me there?


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