Sadness as Self-Care

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I wrote this post as one of my responses to the readings for my Girls and Sex class and have begun to develop it for a conference paper that I’ll be giving in March. I wanted to share it here because these are ideas that I’m trying to work through. I’d love to hear your thoughts on sadness as self-care.

“She is right there; there she is, all teary, what a mess”
– Sara Ahmed, “Feminism and Fragility”

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Many have proclaimed 2015 to be the year of Sadness. Sad girls and sad boys were everywhere to be found. From Justin Bieber crying on stage – and all over the heads of fans – while performing “What Do You Mean” to Essena O’Neill’s infamous cry-fessional (as I like to call them) about the ways in which social media makes us lose sight of who we are.

A lot of my personal and academic life has been spent thinking about our relationship to “negative” feelings, or what affect theorist Sianne Ngai calls “ugly feelings.” A list of negative/ugly feelings would include: sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, disgust, melancholy, irritation, regret, despair, shame, self-hatred,and loneliness — to name a few. And yet, while there are a lot of people in pop-culture talking about sadness, this emotion is missing from academic conversations about affect, where the focus is always on the more intense and “pathological” forms of sadness, such as depression and melancholy. As someone who studies teen girls, I’ve become increasingly interested with the focus on sadness and the development of “Sad Girl Theory.” But my interest in sadness first started when I watched the movie Inside Out:

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In an earlier blog post, I talk about Sadness as being the queer subject of the film, as the feminist killjoy (to borrow Sara Ahmed’s term) that forces Joy (who represents the cultural imperative to always be happy) — and, I would argue, the viewer — to accept that it’s not always possible or even desirable to be the “happy girl.” One of my favourite moments from the film is when Sadness tells Joy that “Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.” This desire to obsess is not pathological, but rather it’s generative; it helps us recognize “the weight of life’s problems.”

This statement from Sadness resonates with another feminist killjoy, Audrey Wollen, and what Wollen has coined “Sad Girl Theory.” Audrey Wollen is an Instagram star that became famous for taking photos in which she poses as various sad girls in art. In her interview with Lucy Watson from Dazed Magazine, Wollen describes how she felt alienated from the “shade of feminism that’s chosen for media attention [which] is always palatable to the powers that be — unthreatening, positive, communal.”

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Instead of girls always being happy, Wollen is interested in tapping into sadness as a site for political resistance: “Sad Girl Theory is a permission slip: feminism doesn’t need to advocate for how awesome and fun being a girl is. Feminism needs to acknowledge that being a girl in the world right now is one of the hardest things there is — it is unimaginably painful — and that our pain doesn’t need to be discarded in the name of empowerment.” The unimaginable pain that Wollen describes is akin to the “weight of life’s problems” that Sadness wants to slow down and obsess over. What Wollen is drawing attention to is the ways in which neoliberalism has capitalized on “girl power.” I can’t help but wonder how sadness might get coopted and turned into a commodity. Like, what would that even look like? The “sadcore” music of Lana Del Rey? Movies by Nicholas Sparks that are destined to make you cry?

If we wanted to follow Sianne Ngai’s argument in Our Aesthetic Categories, that certain aesthetics – the cute, zany and interesting – are helpful for thinking about capitalism, then sadness as both aesthetic and affective category represents the surplus or excess that capitalism produces. But it’s not the surplus value that capitalism wants, but rather, the surplus that draws attention to the ways in which capitalism and neoliberalism – and I would add the heteronormative narratives that enable racism, misogyny and homophobia to thrive – breaks down the subject.

But this is why certain forms of crying are a little too pretty for me. While I love Lana Del Rey, her form of crying, her sad girl pouty faces, are very palatable. The same goes for Audrey Wollen. And when one enters the theatre to watch two kids with cancer fall in love, as they do in The Fault in Our Stars, it’s more than okay to cry. In fact, if you don’t cry, then maybe there’s something wrong with you. I’m more interested in the sobbing, red blotchy faced crying that many find “too much” to handle. The Essena O’Neill kind of crying. The kind of crying that has resulted in women being labeled “hysterics.”

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And here Essena O’Neill is the perfect example. In case you missed out on that moment in pop culture history last year, Essena O’Neill blew up twitter feeds everywhere when the Instagram star, age 18, began to rewrite the captions underneath her instagram posts in order to reveal just how fabricated the pictures were and the exhaustion she felt while trying to capture the perfect image.

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What I find so compelling about Wollen’s project is how it works to depathologize the affects that have long been attributed to women, and have led and continue to lead to women being labelled “hysterical.”

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What Wollen highlights in the last sentence of this Instagram post is how sadness is seen as a passive affect, hence the pathology: it’s not a choice, sadness is something that happens to you, and acts upon you. And sure, often (maybe always) the source of my sadness comes from forces outside of myself. But I could go ahead and repress my sadness, put on a smile, and say that “I’m great.” And in fact that is something that I used to do, until one day my therapist said to me: “You know I don’t need you to be great.” At that moment something shifted and I began to be, as I call it, “honest about my affect.” This meant responding in ways that I feared might make others uncomfortable (when someone asks you how you’re doing, they’re not usually excepting you to say “not great”). And so admitting to my anxiety, sadness, whatever, became a form of self-care.

Sadness as self-care. There are so many readings of self-care that I find problematic. The obviously negative one is that self-care is selfish or narcissistic. The ostensibly more positive narrative of self-care has been coopted by neoliberalism and reduced to taking a hot bath with candles (don’t get me wrong, I love a hot bath with candles). Self-care, within both of these narratives, is all about making yourself feel better; happiness, in other words, is the end goal.

But what happens when sadness is self-care? In what ways does that disrupt these troubling narratives of self-care that I just outlined? Sadness as self-care means, for me anyways, crying a lot, and doing so fairly regularly. Crying, we’re told, isn’t pretty; it’s “messy” to borrow the words of Sara Ahmed in her blog post “Feminism and Fragility.” Sadness as self-care doesn’t lead to me feeling happy after, but it makes me feel like I can get through the day; it feels cathartic but it also feels like I’ve been shattered. And, as Ahmed writes, “to be shattered can also mean to be exhausted.” After I cry I might feel exhausted (a result that feels antithetical to what self-care is supposedly all about) but I feel more exhausted when I have to perform happiness.

Maybe what the idea of sadness of self-care can do is open up the ways in which “feeling better” isn’t always the goal. As Audrey Lorde writes, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” If sadness is a form of caring for ourselves, one that is detached from the goal of “feeling better” because it’s all about survival, about self-preservation, then I believe that sadness does hold the power to disrupt the power of neoliberalism’s narratives about happiness and about the purpose of self-care. While neoliberalism says, “you worked hard today, you deserve a bath,” sadness as self-care says “you had to work so hard today just to survive, so cry because maybe it’s the only thing you can do right now.”

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten…would love to hear what you think about sadness as self-care. <3

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This post was written by Margeaux

1 Comment

  • Jillian says:

    Just when I think I can’t love your blog more… this post is great and is especially poignant for me during this season of my life. I have had depression for as long as I can remember. My childhood and adolescent years were spent hiding my intense sadness by overachieving and constantly being congenial. It wasn’t until I was 15 when everything came to a head and I became despondent. This lasted for about two and a half years with me being so anxious that I was constantly shaking and so sad that it felt like I would never be able to feel anything else again. Through finding the right antidepressant and therapy I was able to function again.

    Even though I have had all of this experience with depression, anxiety, therapy, etc… and I know that repressing your feelings is the absolute worst thing to do, I still find myself ‘fighting’ my innate sadness (largely how Joy spends Inside Out trying to repress Sadness). I am only coming to realize now at 25 years old that I just have the brain chemistry that no matter how well I am taking care of myself by taking medication, exercising, going to therapy, eating, and sleeping well, I will always carry sadness with me. After years of fighting off my sadness and treating it as a horrible defect my acceptance of it is a huge act of care for myself. By letting myself feel sad and “all the feelings” instead of fighting them and letting them make me feel anxious is an act of self-care for myself because it prevents the constant fatigue and eventual backfire of not honouring my feelings. It is when I allow myself to completely feel my depression, without judgement but as a valid way to feel, that I am actually at my most stable emotionally. Alternatively, when I try to fight it I usually end up so ashamed of my ‘feeling too much and not being able to handle the world’ that I shutdown. Much like how restricting your diet usually ends up in a binge.

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU for having such a relevant blog. I immensely enjoy every one of your posts and view reading your blog as an act of self-care, because I just love it so damn much.

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