Letting Go (Part 1)
This week is an exciting one for our family, as our oldest child graduates from high school in a few days. It's a joyful and exciting time - but there are some underlying feelings of sadness and loss which have caught me by surprise. I know that many of you are experiencing a similar transition in the life of your family, as graduation and wedding season begin. I thought I'd share my thoughts and feelings, and how I'm coping with the changes, in hopes that it will be helpful to you, too.
As I've been eagerly anticipating his graduation I've been very proud and excited for my child. My thoughts are that this is a wonderful milestone in his life. I'm so happy that he has successfully completed his high school career and that he plans to go to college in the Fall. I have high hopes for what this young man will accomplish as he matures. I am looking forward to seeing what he decides to do for his career after college. I know that this is a normal developmental process, in which my child will leave the nest to become a fully realized adult. Although it does not happen overnight with this event, this milestone is an extremely important rite of passage in our culture. I want him to move through this process, because it's what is right for him developmentally. But...he's my baby!
Then...there are the feelings. Feelings? What feelings?
I knew something was wrong when I noticed that I didn't seem to have any feelings about the graduation. I actually felt kind of numb. I knew intellectually that I felt happy and excited and maybe a little sad because he won't be living at home with us for most of the next four years. But I didn't feel it. In fact I was telling myself that it is not time to feel sad yet, because graduation is a happy time, and going away to college is something that will happen later this summer, so I can feel it then. Ha ha! Joke's on me!
I noticed that I was feeling a little detached, as if I've been going through each day - being in the moment, yes - but just crossing each passing day off the list like a countdown to the Big Day. Meanwhile, I had agreed to do something important for a friend and when the day came I completely forgot to do it, which is very much out of character for me. I know myself well enough to recognize this as a clue that something else was occupying my mind.
What's really going on here?
As a therapist I teach my clients to notice how they feel and connect the feelings to their present and past experiences. To be able to teach this, I have to know how to do it myself. It takes work! Therapists, just like everyone else, have difficult times in our lives that we have to work through.
Our defense mechanisms, the strategies we employ to help us avoid feeling uncomfortable or painful emotions, spring into action when feelings arise that we don't like. The defense which I was unconsciously using to deal with my feelings about this transition is called intellectualizing. Intellectualizing is when you try to understand something cognitively (using your thoughts and the logical part of your brain) as a way to avoid feeling it. Defenses are, by nature, mostly outside of our conscious awareness. It's helpful to know your go-to defenses, which makes it easier to notice when they kick in, and ask yourself what you need help with.
Examples of intellectualizing include thoughts like "I shouldn't feel upset about this, it happened a long time ago." Or in my case, "I shouldn't feel sad about my son's graduation, it is a happy occasion and he's not going away to school until August." As if I can't start feeling sad about something happening in August two months earlier! And anyway, my emotions are not following the rules that the logical part of my brain is trying to set about how I am supposed to feel and when. How I feel is how I feel, and it is real and valid, no matter whether I like it or not.
But I don't want to feel this way.
Since I don't like the feelings, because they're painful, maybe I can just "skip" feeling them and keep going through the motions. After all, this isn't about me. It's my son's big day, and I don't want to take away from his enjoyment of the celebration. That sounds very selfless, doesn't it? Those of us who are super great at taking care of others and lousy at taking care of ourselves feel most comfortable stuffing away our feelings and focusing on everyone else. You know who you are!
But that doesn't work for me, and it's not going to work for you, long term. In the moment it might seem like the best way to handle overwhelming feelings. But when you do this, the feelings are still there. You can't feel them, so you aren't aware of them - like me when I felt numb - but since you can't control them, they're controlling you. For example, me forgetting to do that important thing I promised my friend. And there are some other ways they were running the show that I wouldn't like to admit to myself - eating less healthfully, exercising less frequently, having trouble sleeping. I've told myself I'm just really busy. Insidious, isn't it?
So what do you do with these feelings you can't feel?
So if our defenses are blocking us from feeling our feelings, what can we do? The only way out is through, as they say. We have to break through the defenses and let the feelings out. How to do that? I will tell you what helped me. I've often recommended these strategies to clients, and they can be very powerful. Read more after the image below.
Knowing that I needed to get down to what was really going on, I started by taking the time to write in a journal. When you do this, one way to begin is to start writing whatever comes to mind. You can also use prompts such as "How am I feeling right now?" or "What is blocking me from feeling my emotions?" I asked myself how I felt about the graduation. As you write, pay attention to your body. Are you noticing any sensations? Write down what you notice and continue to examine the process while you write. Doing this regularly can help you understand emotionally, as well as intellectually, what is happening in your mind and body.
Art journaling is another option. If you feel inclined to create art in a journal, rather than writing narrative-style, you can try collaging or drawing your responses to the prompts. Or pick up your favorite medium - pencil, chalk, paint, marker, or something else - and see what happens when you try to connect with the feeling.
Meditation, whether self-directed or guided, can be helpful in getting you grounded. Being grounded means that you are fully in your body with awareness of your thoughts and feelings. You are not blocking out body sensations or emotions. There are three guided meditations I find very helpful and frequently recommend to clients who are attempting to process difficult emotions. All of them are available for free on the website of the wonderful Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher who focuses on Self Compassion.
The first one is called "Soften, Soothe, Allow" and it is great for helping you connect with the feeling in your body, allow yourself to feel it, and comfort yourself. The other two are a Loving Kindness meditation, and a Self Compassion/Loving Kindness meditation. She also offers exercises for Self Compassion on the site.
When you are mindfully present in the moment and aware of how you feel, you can lean into joy by practicing gratitude. This is a simple practice that anyone can do at any time. You can repeat the things you're grateful for in your head when feeling vulnerable. I keep in mind that no matter what is going on, I woke up today and I'm still here. That's a starting point and something I can always be grateful for - until I can't - which is exactly the point! You can also keep a gratitude journal. I have a wonderful daily planner I use to keep track of my schedule and it has a little box at the bottom of each page where I can write down what I am grateful for every day. During times like these, when my coping resources are stretched, it is more important than ever to be mindful of the many reasons I am grateful. Have you tried incorporating a daily gratitude practice into your meditation time? Some people enjoy using a special journal solely for practicing gratitude. Do whatever works best for you.
After following my own advice, I'm more aware of how I really feel about this transition in my family's life. It's possible to feel happy and sad at the same time, and knowing I feel this way I can be more compassionate toward myself - which allows me to be more mindfully present at home and at work. Consequently I'm more available to offer the support my son will need as he weathers this huge life transition. If I stayed checked out and numb, I wouldn't be as aware of his needs. So while my first instinct as a helper might be to try to ignore my own feelings and take care of his, it is the very act of taking care of how I feel that allows me to be there for him when he needs me. This is true all the time, not only when a family is experiencing a transition. We parents and caregivers must take care of ourselves in order to offer support to others. Remember that life transitions, even positive ones, include the loss of how things were before. Sometimes we have to take the time to grieve so we can move forward.
Stay tuned for Part 2!
In Part 2 I will talk about why it's so important for us as parents to let go and allow our children to grow up, even when we want to hold on to them and keep them safely in the nest. If you're finding it difficult to let go, or to take care of your own needs, get in touch with me. You can call me at (443) 510-1048, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit my website for more information and to schedule an appointment. We can talk about working together to help you find strategies to improve your self compassion skills. You can also read more by following me on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and by subscribing to my e-mail newsletter.
Neff, K. (n.d.). Self compassion guided meditations and exercises. Retrieved on May 22, 2015 from: http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#guided-meditations