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  • Deanne Duncombe

Understanding Sadness: Charting a Course to Emotional Literacy

By Deanne Duncombe


It is an emotion that pays most of us a visit from time to time. Lately, it feels like it has been knocking on my door a little too frequently.

From the passing of a friend to watching my daughter face an injury that is affecting her passion for dance, to witnessing my other daughter navigate difficult situations at school, sadness has been regularly popping by. Additionally, some other changes have altered the dynamics of my professional life, shifting some relationships that I respected and valued. And then there are other everyday life challenges that bring their own moments of sadness. 

Sadness is not wrong

The toxic positivity movement would say that the antidote for sadness is to “Think positively”, “Cheer up”, "Be happy”, or "Toughen up". But is that thinking useful? Do we benefit from being made to feel wrong about our sadness (or any other emotion)? Is suppressing our emotions useful? Do we even need an antidote for our emotions?

Society's understanding of emotions is based on many myths, such as which emotions might be good, bad, right or wrong, which emotions we should or should not be feeling, opinions about emotions being irrational, and so forth. These myths lead to people telling us not to be sad (or angry or scared), not to cry, and not to let people know how we feel. 

Well, here’s the thing: if we experience an emotion, we are experiencing it for a reason. 

The key, I think, is to understand the reason and use this understanding to inform the choices that we make. This tends to make emotions more of a messenger delivering a message to us than something for us to manage or suppress. It gives emotions a reason for existing and provides us with a mechanism for learning about how we are seeing the world.

Shifting our understanding of emotions

One of my favourite books about emotions is The Unopened Gift: A primer in emotional literacy by Dan Newby and Lucy Núñez. Dan & Lucy offer the interpretation that emotions are “the energy that moves us”. 

This interpretation suggests we experience emotions in every moment of life. We may not notice the emotions until they feel quite strong but, according to Dan & Lucy, emotions are always present. This implies that, even while sitting here and writing this article, there will be at least one emotion present – regardless of whether I am aware of its presence. 

Dan & Lucy go on to say that each emotion has three components:

  • The story we tell ourselves from the emotion

  • The action the emotion inclines us to take

  • The purpose of the emotion

This interpretation, I think, provides clarity about why we experience emotions in the first place: to show us how we are interpreting the world and what those interpretations mean for us.

An exploration of sadness

What does Dan & Lucy's interpretation mean in the case of an emotion such as sadness? In "The Unopened Gift", Dan & Lucy interpret the various components of sadness to be as follows:

  • Story: I have lost something I cared about.

  • Inclination for action: To withdraw and grieve. 

  • Purpose: To show us what we care about in life.

While Dan and Lucy suggest that the inclination for action is to withdraw and grieve, I have observed that, for me, it helps to translate this more specifically to an inclination to withdraw in our sorrow. This slightly altered view has helped me further understand my own emotional responses and the ways in which I process sadness, while also helping me not to confuse sadness with grief. 

When I started reflecting on my recent visits from sadness, the question I asked myself in each case was: "What is the loss that I am experiencing?". What I found was that there can be multiple layers to the feeling of loss and that the loss does not need to be physical.

In the case of my friend passing, the most obvious loss was my friend. However, there were other losses that were important to me also: My friend was a couple of years younger than me, so I felt as though I had loss my ignorance of my own mortality. My friend's children are similar ages to my daughters, so there was a feeling that I was watching my children lose their innocence regarding how long they could expect to have their own parents in their lives. I also lost the belief that I could protect my children from all of life's less positive moments. 

Becoming aware of the losses that were leading to my sadness enabled me to understand what I hold as important. It highlighted the people in my life who are important and how I want to show up in the lives of those people, the importance of protecting my children from as much of the craziness in the world as possible, the important of being there for my children and those I care about, and the importance of making a difference in this world while I have the opportunity to do so. 

With my new perspective, I could take solace in the knowledge that sadness was doing its job. It had allowed me to deepen my awareness of what was important to me, also opening me to choice. I didn't have to simply "be sad". I could understand what sadness was telling me, then use that information to choose my next action. Perhaps there were some conversations I could have with my daughters, or my partner, or work, or someone else. Perhaps there were some requests and offers I could make. Or, maybe, I could choose to operate from gratitude for some time and enjoy what I have rather than focusing on what I have lost. Whatever the choice, I was moving towards a world of possibility, rather than a world where sadness was building its home within me. 

Why does understanding our emotions even matter?

What does this exploration of sadness mean? Why does it even matter?

We experience emotions in each moment, often without realising. Sometimes those emotions serve us, and sometimes they do not. If we can notice the presence of emotions in our body, noticing how we are feeling, what stories we are telling ourselves, and the actions we feel like taking, we can start to give our emotions a name. This enables us to become more literate with regard to our emotions. And, with literacy comes understanding.

Just as being literate in a language helps us to be agile in our communication with others, emotional literacy helps us to become more agile in our interactions, allowing us to adjust and respond from our emotions in ways that are helpful. This helps us to create the possibility of choice in the actions we take when interacting with the world.

Closing thoughts: Embracing emotional literacy

As we journey through life, emotions accompany us every step of the way, shaping our experiences and influencing our decisions. Yet, we tend to overlook the wisdom they carry within them. By embracing emotions as messengers, we unlock the door to self-discovery and empowerment.

Each tear shed, each pang of sorrow felt, each "butterfly" in our stomach or feeling of tension throughout or body serves as a beacon, lighting the path to deeper understanding. Through introspection and reflection, we uncover the stories behind our emotions, the actions they prompt us to take, and the profound purpose they serve in our lives.

In the end, it is not the absence of emotions that defines our resilience, but our willingness to lean into their embrace and extract meaning, creating choice in how we interact with everyday life.

Time out to practise

Recall a time when you experienced a specific emotion during a conversation.

  • How did the emotion occur in your body?

  • What action feel like taking?

  • What action did you take?

  • Why did the emotion appear?

  • What purpose was the emotion serving?


Deanne Duncombe is a Customer Success Manager and qualified Ontological Coach who loves creating solid relationships and helping people navigate the challenges of everyday life.

If you enjoyed this article, you will enjoy Deanne's first book, "What if Life Came with a User Guide? How to overcome negative self-talk, deal with difficult people and adjust to challenging situations", available now on Amazon. You can contact Deanne at

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