Spoiler: Feel your feelings and then find a thought that is equally believable that feels better.
My son Scott is about to fly the coop. He is a circus performer, and he's got a great opportunity that we expect will last many years. When I'm all practical and logical, I know that everything is just as it should be. Kids are supposed to grow up and move out and find their way in the world. Our guy is able to pursue his passion and because he's awesome and dedicated, I fully expect he will have a wonderful life-fulfilling career in the field of his dreams.
And yet some days I am super sad that this transition is upon us. In a week's time, everything will be different. The day-to-day relationship will come to an end. So much of the last 10 years was filled with driving him to classes or training or attending performances. We've gotten a little taste of him not being home much since he got his drivers license, but still, he comes home every night and wakes up here every morning. In a week, it will be over. Sad, right?
What's to be done when we feel sad? In our culture, we've pretty much been taught that feeling bad is unacceptable. "It feels bad. Please make it stop," our brain cries. When we were little we were told to not be a cry baby, or were offered some ice cream to cheer us up. Or worse, our feelings weren't acknowledged and we had no idea if we were even visible to the people around us. In the face of serious illness or the death of a loved one, most people are at a total loss about what to do or say, so maybe they offer platitudes or just disappear because it is too painful for them to manage. An opiate addiction public health crisis has blanketed our society, with the option of artificially blotting out pain becoming a preferable choice over living with and through what hurts.
If we are talking about emotional pain, what is it really? When we peel it all the way back, it is just a vibration in our bodies. I'm not saying it doesn't feel like it might actually kill us. But since we are still on this planet, then surely we have all demonstrated to ourselves that we can make it through some unpleasant emotions. And the truth of it is that the more we resist and distract from feeling the feelings, the longer they fester and continue to hurt.
So take a beat to feel it. I feel sad that Scott is moving away. In my body, that feels like a tightness in my chest. It feels like there is something blocking my diaphram from being able to take a full breath. It feels like heaviness behind my eyes. My throat is tight. On a 1-10 scale of unpleasantness, I give it a 6.5. Even in just a few minutes of identifying what's going on in my body, the intensity has lessened.
The point isn't to feel the feeling so that I can feel better (though it's definitely a by-product). It's so that I don't get stuck there. When I allow myself to just acknowledge and experience it without trying to soothe myself with distractions or food or some other external thing, I actually have given myself the opportunity to to connect with myself, which in turn helps me to feel closer to Scott. And I have opened a window to let in equally believable thoughts that feel better.
Instead of "Life as I know it will change for the worse," I can easily get to "Things will be different," which feels better. Can I get to believing the thought "It's going to be great to have Scott gone!" Absolutely not. Not even close to that. Can I get to "Maybe Scott and I will find a great new way of connecting even when he's far away"? Maybe, maybe not. Can I get to "When Scott has gone away for months at a time in the past, I figured out how to manage my feelings then"? I can believe that, though admittedly it's not too far up in emotional vibration from the original thought.
I can also not try to hit it so head on. Thoughts that are easy for me to believe that feel better about the whole thing include "We did a great job parenting him," and "How great that we were able to support him so that he can fulfill his dreams," and "It will be fun to travel to see him and watch him at work dazzling his audiences," and "How many parents are able to just show up at their kids' workplace and see them in action like we will be able to?" and "He knows that we will always be his home when he needs us," and "This is part of the deal in parenting and apparently it's not fatal." And I can plug into the knowledge that I don't need to think about forever, I just need to be present right now.
And just like that, I feel a little better.
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