I saw my first client in 2017, toward the beginning of my time in graduate school. Before my cohort and I saw our cases, we practiced therapeutic basics with one another, such asking open-ended questions instead of closed-ended questions to encourage deeper exploration, or reflecting and paraphrasing statements to get to the gist and the heart of the matter. Though these techniques feel automatic to me now, I still remember how much my listening skills – and my self-awareness – improved when I started using them on a consistent basis.
“You don’t really go toward sadness,” my first therapy supervisor told me, way back in 2017. We had been talking about my use of the skill reflection of feelings. In essence, this skill involves simply reflecting a feeling back to a client. So, as an example (which I’m making up, not what a client or anyone has said to me, though it may be hard to believe), if someone says “My friend keeps reading this blog by this highly self-disclosing, rather weird, yet overall relatable blonde Gaysian named Thomas instead of listening to me. I’m really angry with him,” you might reflect “You’re angry with him,” or, more tentatively, “I’m hearing that you’re angry with him?” The goal: to get the client, or whoever, to open up more about their core feeling(s) about the situation and to show your attempt to understand their feelings.
When my supervisor told me that I tended not to reflect sadness, I first felt surprised because I hadn’t even noticed that pattern. Then, when I recognized the truth in what he said, I thought something like, well, whatever, I’d rather reflect anger anyway. At the time, I felt more comfortable focusing on anger because I perceived that as the most socially just emotion, the feminist emotion, the emotion that gets you out onto the streets protesting injustices of all kinds. I viewed sadness as the emotion you marinate in when you want to lie down in your bedroom and cry to a song with 0 BPM over a man who didn’t deserve you anyway.
Quite quickly though, I grew more comfortable with sadness, both in my clinical work and in my own life. I’ve reflected on sadness more recently because of how this upcoming Friday, I’ll receive the news about if I match for my final year of my PhD program, and if I match, where I’ll move to. There’s a pretty high chance I’ll move based on where I interviewed at. I’ve paused to let myself sit in the sadness of moving on several occasions over the past few weeks, such as when: roasting white women who weaponized their tears to perpetuate white supremacy around a bonfire with fellow Asian American friends and acquaintances, watching the Insecure: The End documentary with a good friend and processing our feelings about the show, and playing tennis and jogging around the nature near my apartment. Oh wow, I’ve thought to myself in these moments, I’m actually going to miss this.
At their best and their worst, emotions convey information. In this case, I think my sadness tells me that despite some of the ups and downs over the past five years, I’ve managed to make a home for myself in this little city somewhere in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. This sadness reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about grief, from Nami Mun’s Miles from Nowhere: “He had no idea that grief was a reward. That it only came to those who were loyal, to those who loved more than they were capable of.” In my own life, I’ve felt privileged to have several goodbyes that have felt sad and difficult, yet healthy as well: the passing of my grandmother in late 2017, when I parted with my first long-term therapist in undergrad, and now, as I’m about to maybe, probably move onward from a city with good friends, a beautiful nature trail less than a 10-minute walk from my apartment, and at least a few Asian restaurants that recognize my name and face and order pretty instantly.
During my childhood I didn’t have too much space to name or reflect on my feelings in a consistently safe way. I noticed a lot of unregulated anger from certain family members, especially my mom. Even though anger scares me at times, I also see its power to drive change and resistance and growth. Sadness, though, can tell us a lot about ourselves too: what or who has hurt us, what or who we’re missing or grieving. At one of my residency interviews, I got asked the question: “if you were a genre of music, what genre would you be?” Without blinking an eye, I said pop music, because I’m high-energy and generally a bubbly person. Then I added, “I like pop music, especially songs that start out kinda sad and then develop into a more fast-paced, upbeat, and hopeful feeling, because they remind me of our human potential to grow and heal from even the worst forms of suffering.” I named “Feel Special” by Twice aloud, though I also thought of “Lovesick Girls” by Blackpink and “No Tears Left to Cry” by Ariana Grande. Because the melodies and instrumentals of these songs start off a little slower and sadder, their eventual beat drops and climaxes feel even brighter.
How do you feel about sadness or other emotions? Has your relationship with your emotions changed over time? Omfg I’m screaming tomorrow I’m flying to Seattle to visit one of my best friends until Sunday and Friday is Match Day and I’m gonna get the email with my result literally sometime from 5am to 6am Seattle time SCREAMING! I’m actually feeling pretty calm about it I just like being dramatic sometimes. I may or may not write a post updating everyone on Friday or Saturday but if not then I definitely will sometime next week! Until next post.