How not to be sad

I’ve tried to write (what feels like) 15,000 versions of this essay. All of them ultimately cratered by the fact that it’s hard to write jocularly about deep emotional topics or emotionally about practical things. But I still (perhaps quixotically) think the below text should be useful to at least some sad people, so I’m posting this incomplete and imperfect version until I get time (probably never) to write the best version of this.

First off, I’ve been sad before, extremely sad, in probably a million different ways, and it’s embarrassing to admit that. So if you’re reading this and your reaction is ‘oh, well, that’s great but you don’t know how sad I’m really feeling right now, so this probably doesn’t apply to me’, well, here’s a list: 

  1. In college sophomore year, I used to go home to my dorm room and cry at night, every day, for a full year. Sometimes just to mix it up I’d lie catatonic on the upstairs attic coach staring at the ceiling, kind of vaguely hoping not to exist the next day. The weird thing is before that I was a totally joyous kid and I was in my dream place (MIT,  woohoo!) so I was also terribly confused as to why I was suddenly very unhappy, and felt like I really didn’t deserve to be sad about anything. In retrospect, I think this was actually what people call depression, but I was 15 and didn’t really have anyone to talk to so for a year (or more) it just felt like the world was ending, slowly and quietly. 

  2. Since moving to silicon valley, there have been years where I felt paralyzed by feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt, and as though I really didn’t deserve to be here or belong. As one example, I’ve had an enormously hard time at parties because I personally usually feel like a kind of dour lump incapable of doing anything other than talking about science. And when I turned 25 last year, I had an acute moment of crisis where I was absolutely convinced I had done nothing of value in the world and didn’t deserve to go on existing. 

Objectively, these are pretty nonsensical thoughts and feelings in general. For example, telling myself I had done nothing of value when I was 25 was just wrong. It’s hard for any human to make it to 25 without doing at least one objectively valuable thing, no matter how small that thing might be. Even if I hadn’t every done anything professionally, I’ve made valuable memories with friends and family and written small but well thought-through things. People have paid me for the work I’ve done in the past, so that must have had some objective value. But this voice, this catastrophizing extreme voice, just yells nonsensical things in an extreme and unforgiving way. A typical dialogue might sound something like the below: 

Voice: Hey there, how are you doing? Feeling pretty good about yourself huh? Well, have you solved aging yet? 

Me: Uhhh….no

Voice: Haha! You deserve to die! Like everyone else will! You are a terrible person! Go burn in your own version of moral hell. Useless 25 year old, haha! 

This has made it enormously hard to ever take compliments for any work I do professionally, because this exact monologue plays in my head every time I hear something nice.

So, why am I writing this? Because I don’t think those kinds of feelings are actually helpful, and I think there is a quick way to feel a lot less of them.

Here are (my quick, poorly written) steps to feeling not sad when you’re feeling miserable: 

1. Find a way to believe that you *should* be feeling better, and want to 

When I was a teenager and feeling extremely sad, it ended on a roadtrip with my Dad. At some point, I broke down in front of him crying and confessing all, and he looked me straight in the eyes and said ‘Sweetie, listen to me right now. This is probably one of the most important things you’ll ever hear. You don’t have to be sad. Listen to me listen to me. You. Don’t Have. To. Be. Sad. You have a voice in your head that is telling you things that aren’t right. Don’t let it do that. And these feelings will stop’

Of course, I didn’t believe him, not fully, right then. Obviously, he was happy. How could a happy person possibly understand sad, sorrowful me? But he gave me a book, Feeling Good by Dan Burns. Reading it helped me enormously. 

2. Notice when you are yelling at yourself, how incorrect some of those thoughts are

After I read the book, I started noticing that a lot of the things I’d mentally cycle through on a daily basis were just flat wrong. I started to feel puzzled - were these thoughts actually helpful? I had kind of assumed that beating yourself up internally was useful, like whipping a horse to get it to move faster (which, when I really thought about the analogy, didn’t seem like a nice thing to do either). But could I have been wrong about that? 

3. Find a way to correct catastrophic/incorrect thoughts every single time they come up

Lastly - and this will take time, and practice and is hard, and I'm not sure how to write this part in a compelling enough way that you will believe me - you have to find a way to correct whatever voice internally is telling you incorrect things. But you can’t just do it for a few thoughts - I think there’s something really important about doing it every single time you start to rant at yourself, so your baseline mental hygiene gets in a really good place. You can even go full self-help and write an explicit table to correct yourself every time you hear something wrong in your head. Here’s an example I ran through for this piece: 



I am a terrible writer, everyone will hate this.

I mean, maybe you’re a good writer, maybe you’re not, but everyone has free will and can choose whether or not to read this piece, right? You’re writing something you feel to be really true, so it will probably be helpful to at least a few people. You should feel good about that! 

God, how embarrassing is it to publish something so egocentric and self-centered? I’m a terrible person. 

Well, this is a pretty personal subject. What are you going to do, write in a detached way about something obviously personal? That sounds like it would actually make the essay less useful. 

What if people judge me for feeling sad? No one will ever want to talk to me if they think there’s a chance I can’t control my emotions. 

Some people might view it as weird to have been sad in the past - who knows? What they think is not something you can control. Maybe some people will appreciate this piece. Even if no one did, you had fun writing it. And if you are wrong about everything in it, and someone publicly corrects you - that could be even better, both you and everyone else could learn an interesting new way to not be sad! 

I’m not saying I really believed the thoughts in the left column as I was writing this, but they’re the kind of thoughts that used pop up automatically all of the time and would need to be dealt with. 

If this doesn’t work for you immediately, don’t panic. I keep forgetting how to do this effectively every 4 years are so, and then falling back into a funk. I might also be completely wrong - who knows! It probably took about a year to fully recover from being sad as a teenager. But I can honestly say that this has been personally really helpful, and if I had a kid and they were sad I’d really want them to know that it probably wasn’t as hopeless as they were feeling. So I wrote this in the hopes that if there’s a 15 year old feeling the way I was a decade ago, or sometimes do a daily basis, that this might help them a bit.
92 responses
Thanks a lot for sharing this. Part of what makes being sad terrible is the stigma around it so that people don't discuss it. This just adds loneliness on top. Posts like this help create an environment where people can be honest about their negative feelings. And that's very helpful. I'm Mark, and I used to be sad a lot too. And it's okay to admit it.
Thank you for writing this. It helps. Liana Finck’s graphic novel passing for human gave me similar feels.
Thanks for sharing this Laura, recognize hard to articulate these things but resonates and helpful to read!
Thanks for sharing this, Laura. This would not have been easy to share, but I thank you from the bottom of heart as this is relatable and offers a solution.
Thanks for writing this. I also really enjoyed your post on being an ambitious teenager (thanks to Trevor McKendrik's newsletter. Did I read correctly that you went to MIT at 15? That's an amazing achievement, but I almost feel like it's no wonder that you felt sad. College must have been pretty overwhelming for someone so young. I found it very difficult to adjust even at 18, which set off my own depression too.
I have similar thoughts, and have had them since childhood. I have tried versions of your strategy, on and off, but it does not tend to work for me. I find it more helpful to treat these "voices" as exaggerated formulations of some correct self-criticism I must excavate from their depths--which is just to say I try to figure out what is true about them. What am I, in fact, doing wrong? What are the problems with this piece I am writing? What are the bigger problems about my writing these days? What would other people rightly criticize in my current behavior? Often I can find something concrete to focus on and improve. Even if I cannot solve the problem, I can acknowledge it is there--here is something wrong with me, here is an imperfection of mine--and move on. I find that unless I see my sadness as an insight into a truth about myself, it spirals into a much deeper sadness about my own detachment from reality. (I can be ok with not feeling sad so long as it is a way of understanding something.)
(freudian?) typo: in the final parenthetical "not feeling sad" should be "feeling sad"
Thanks. Peter Drucker has claimed that "Some people are readers and some people are listeners...also Some people are talkers and some people are writers. " I wonder if there is a certain personality that is just highly proficient at reading and quickly gets a benefit from being handed a book like _Feeling good_. There are certain things (such as CBT) that I have gotten for my mental health that came out of a book, such as the one you mention. When I stumbled upon it I wondered why no one at university counseling had mentioned it in the first or second meeting. Finding useful information can be harder than you would expect.
Thank you, Laura. I'm going through the same thing lately, once again. I am researching for my thesis (on longevity-focused start-ups, ha!) now and I came across your post. Thanks, I don't feel as lonely anymore, just like one of the people going through the same stuff. We've got this
Mental Brakes to Avoid Mental Breaks | Steven Hayes | TEDxDavidsonAcademy - YouTube - How can we best deal with difficult or negative thoughts? Dr. Steven Hayes discusses language, cognition, and the science behind putting on the mental brakes. Amar Bose - Life Experiences: A Chat with MIT Acoustics Students, 1995 - YouTube - 33:20-40:50: Bose's PhD thesis on some theories by Wiener. - 34:10: "I read it twice a day for about six months. And it didn't make any sense at all." - 34:44: "'Don't worry, it'll come.' I did worry, and it wasn't coming!" - 36:01: "I kept reading this thing twice a day... twice a day... and I read it day and night. I tried to get my mind off of the fact that I couldn't understand it, because if you focus on something like that, you are dead! If you think you cannot do something, you will not do it! ... Get that kind of thinking out of your head! Because that is an absolute block to any kind of progress." - 40:00: "When I realized for the first time that, gee, you could come to a level in another field that you didn't know anything about a year ago -- with intense effort, to be sure; a lot of time spent -- whenever that happens, it gives you a confidence that you are now on another plateau. And you are ready to go up again. It takes away a lot of the fear that you would have had. I went through more fear in that year than you could ever imagine." - 54:05: "What happens in life is that you're dealt many cards which you don't expect." - 1:09:00-1:16:00: On Wiener saying that everyone has high abilities, "...we just don't believe it and don't develop it. Nobody develops it for us." Then an anecdote about a student slacker whose academic performance turned around after solving a problem better than a faculty member. - 1:11:45: "I used to give the quiz to the faculty -- I had my total pick of the faculty at that time. I picked the most senior ones whose reputation wasn't on the line. ..." - 1:15:15: "Nobody educated [the failing student] in those few moments. They only unlocked the key to make the fellow believe: "Jesus, I'm no dummy! I not only solved the problem that the professor admitted he couldn't solve, but he told me that I solved it in a more direct method than he would have even solved." He believed all of a sudden in himself. That was the key that took off for him. And I've seen that happen so many times in different ways." - 1:17:00: "Concentrate on getting your satisfaction in life from what you think about what you've done -- not from what others think. What others think is fickle: it goes up and down all the time. ... When you get your satisfaction from when you know you are doing something well: that is lasting. And it is the only form that will really help you." - 1:18:30: "If you think something is impossible, do not disturb the person who is doing it."
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