The black dog

Sadness is one of the hardest emotions to deal with. Yet, if one knows how to process it, sadness can be one of the most positive drivers of inner strength and resilience.

As will have become clear from the earlier articles, emotions are the brain’s way of communicating a message. Humans must learn how to understand that message and act accordingly.

In the case of sadness, our brains are telling us that something has changed, that we are not happy with this change and now we must learn how to cope with the new reality.

HG Wells said of sadness: “Affliction comes to us, not to make us sad but sober; not to make us sorry but wise.” In other words, we can learn from sadness and it can make us stronger.

Learning from sadness

Clearly not all sadness is equal. There is the sadness one feels from disappointment right up to the overwhelming grief experienced when one loses a loved one.

What these have in common, however, is the need to process the feeling and to move forward from it appropriately.

This is particularly important in business since failure to manage sadness can prove detrimental both personally and professionally. 

This is because the most common response to sadness is a desire to withdraw from the world. One may stop eating – or eat too much. Sleep is often disrupted. The more severe the sadness, the more pronounced the symptoms. Perhaps the sufferer may not be ale to get out of bed or perform basic tasks, and this feeling could last for several days. All of which would be hugely damaging for a CEO who must be on top of their game.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, suddenly while on holiday. Mr Goldberg had been exercising on a treadmill in the hotel gym when he collapsed due to cardiac arrythmia at just 47 years old. 

In an interview with The Irish Times, Ms Sandberg described the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death as “a black hole that filled my heart and lungs, making it hard to think or even breathe”.

However, Ms Sandberg returned to work just ten days after her husband’s death. Her decision was met with shock at Facebook HQ, but Ms Sandberg sent a companywide email detailing her feelings. This began the start of a daily journal in which she documented her feelings, allowing them to have a substance from which should could move forward.

Ms Sandberg advises others who are feeling sadness: “Build resilience in yourselves. When tragedy or disappointment strike, know that you have the ability to get through absolutely anything. I promise you do. As the saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger than we ever imagined.”

What is important to take from this example is Ms Sandberg’s decision to recognise how she felt. She did not ignore the feelings of sadness; her return to work was not symbolic of ‘burying’ her grief, rather it was a way to acknowledge it.

A call to action

Clearly MS Sandberg’s example is at the most extreme end of sadness. She lost her partner and the father of her two small children unexpectedly. However, her response shows that it is possible for very senior people to use sadness to drive their performance at work and to become stronger personally.

I worked with a CEO, Andrew, who initially had been incredibly happy to have hired his best friend, Craig, as chief finance officer. The two had been close since university and the role appeared the perfect fit.

Within the space of six months, however, cracks began to show. Andrew was increasingly concerned with Craig’s performance. He seemed to have little affinity with the company culture, his financial decisions were occasionally reckless, and he often failed to attend critical meetings.

In my sessions with Andrew he became increasingly withdrawn. He seemed crestfallen that his best friend could be behaving in this way, but he knew that any action he took would bring him yet more sadness.

Eventually we agreed a plan that would see Craig leave the business and a new CFO appointed. Both Andrew and Craig were deeply affected, with Andrew having to take a day or so to recover. However, he recognised why he felt such sadness, he understood that this was a sign to let go of the disappointment about the ill-judged hire and to work at salvaging their friendship for the future.

Depression is different

It is important to distinguish between sadness and depression. Sadness should ultimately be a temporary feeling prompted by a clear event. When a more significant event happens – divorce, job loss – the sadness may last longer but it is still a rational response. A longer period of sadness – sometimes called the blues – may result in a period of absence from work but eventually the individual should recover.

Depression is different. This manifests as the inability to function on a day to day basis, usually with no obvious cause. There are levels of depression ranging from feeling joyless right through to being suicidal. 

It is extremely important to seek the help of a GP in cases where sadness is persistent and feels irrational.

Author JK Rowling eloquently describes the difference between sadness and depression as: “Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.

Clearly sadness is a difficult emotion to bear since it usually arises from loss. However, it is crucial to building – as Ms Sandberg says – resilience. If one pushes sadness away one may never let go and inevitably the feeling will come back at some stage, possibly stronger.

In talking to others, in allowing oneself to feel, sadness ultimately makes one stronger.


Sadness is the brain’s way of telling one to let go. It is usually in response to loss and is critical in helping us move on from a situation we cannot control. By allowing ourselves to feel sadness we can take affirmative action to move forward. By pushing sadness down, one may suffer more acutely at a later stage. Alternatively, by failing to process sadness effectively, one may get caught in inertia, losing control of day to day life and making the situation worse. Sadness is critical to making one stronger but only if one learns to process it effectively.

Get in touch to find out more about managing emotions in business.

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