June 2, 2005
When Sad Things Happen to Good Kids
"The Boy Who Didn't Want To Be Sad" by Dr. Rob Goldblatt (American Psychological Magination Press, 2004).
After taking his children to see a pleasant Disney cartoon, Dr. Rob Goldblatt thought there would some animated chatter about the film during the drive home.
Instead, there was silence, and tears.
"My kids started crying and said they never wanted to see the movie again," said Goldblatt, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist and father of three. "All they could remember about it was that the hero's father had died."
At that moment, Goldblatt, was torn. As a father, he wanted to protect his children from grief. As a psychologist, he realized that running away from unpleasant feelings only serves to inure you from pleasant ones to come.
Instead of dwelling on the lachrymose movie, Goldblatt started telling his children a story which he made up on the spot, about a boy who tried everything possible to never be sad, only to find that the best way to deal with sadness is to acknowledge it and live through it.
Inspired by the moment, Goldblatt turned the story into a children's book, "The Boy Who Didn't Want To Be Sad" (American Psychological Magination Press, 2004), which he illustrated as well.
In the book, the boy decides that he wants to rid his life of everything that makes him sad. So he goes away to his secret place in the shade of the trees, and is happy. But then he's struck by the thought that the trees will lose their leaves, and that makes him sad. He leaves the trees, and retreats to his room, where he watches videos and makes a huge tower with his blocks. "But every story has sad parts," Goldblatt writes. "Blocks fall, toys break, game pieces get lost. He'd had it with everything."
The boy continues to shut himself off from the world so that he never comes into contact with anything that could possibly make him unhappy. And, ironically, what he finds is that running away from sadness makes him terribly sad. The book ends with the boy embracing everything that he rejected, and riding the waves of emotion that are part and parcel of human existence.
Although the book is written for children, Goldblatt asserts that its message is crucial to healthy emotional development in adults as well.
"If we learn to be scared of feelings and run, we keep running because the feelings keep coming," Goldblatt said. "This is the very thing that causes or worsens every psychological and relationship problem I treat in my office. Feelings are brief, but the problems we develop to escape them last a lifetime."
Goldblatt, who in his practice treats everyone from "celebrities to soccer moms," said that the secret to happiness is not to feel disconnected from sadness. Society places too much emphasis on the material keys to happiness (i.e., getting good grades, going to a good college, having a lucrative profession) and not nearly enough on the emotional ones. And it is the emotional equilibrium, according to Goldblatt, that makes the difference between a satisfying life, and an unhappy one.
"Unfortunately, feelings come as a set. You don't get to choose to just have one," Goldblatt said. "What most of us learn to do as a kid is, when we feel bad, to just push those feelings away. Parents are often annoyed with displays of emotion, and [tell kids] to walk it off. Parents think they are teaching their kids to cope with it, but what they end up doing is teaching them how to push away their feelings. And in order to have happiness, you have to feel. You have to stay with the emotion [and realize] that feelings are temporary. They come and go like a wave. They grow in intensity and then they come down all by themselves."
For parents, helping children deal with their tears is a three-step process.
"First, you look at [the situation] and make sure there is no major damage," Goldblatt said. "Then you tell them that it must hurt, and then you kiss it and make it better. And then pat them on the butt and send them out to play. Staying with them when they are feeling something uncomfortable is a very powerful experience. They don't have to throw a tantrum because they have your sympathy, and what you teach them is courage."
But even if you didn't get that nurturing as a child, it's never too late to mend one's approach to processing emotions.
"It is less important what you feel than it is that you feel. Be as intensely engaged with life as you can," Goldblatt said. "The more you feel the richer your life is going to be."