My son leaves for college tomorrow, gulp.

My son leaves for college tomorrow, hooray!

The fact my son is leaving for college has created both reactions for me. How can this be? Sure, I know life has highs and lows but how can I feel such a range of emotions over the same event? Interestingly, it happens quite a lot. Think of moving or renovating your house. You can feel excitement for what will be while also feeling nostalgia for what was. When your child begins middle school you can feel excitement for her/his new experiences yet sorrow that she’s leaving her innocent, elementary school days behind. How can this be? As a cognitive coach I know exactly how.

We feel the way we feel based on the thoughts we focus on –not because of what’s happening in our lives (our child going to college, our new house, etc…).  How do we know our thoughts create our feelings? Because the same event can make people feel very different things. Take this event: Say you get home today and your partner tells you s/he got a new cat. I’ll bet that for every ten of you reading, there would be ten different feelings or emotions. Why? Because of our thoughts about our partner getting a new cat. I might think “How kind, he knows I love cats”, or “How insensitive, he knows I’m allergic” or “What an ass, why didn’t s/he ask me what I thought”, etc…. It’s not the thing happening in our life that causes us to feel a certain way, it’s our thought about it. Same thing with our kid going off to college and since it’s such a momentous event, we will have lots of different thoughts about it (and thus, a variety of feelings).

Here’s the hard truth. You’re the adult. You get to decide how you feel as you move through this process and into a different stage in your life. The thoughts we focus on create the feelings we feel. Consider the following thoughts and how thinking them would generate different feelings: 

Life will never be the same. He’ll be lonely
I’ve been a great mom.
I’ve raised a great kid.
He’ll struggle.
He’ll have new experiences.

Do you think you’d feel differently if you focus on the thought: ‘He’ll be lonely’ versus ‘I’ve been a great mom?’ Great news: it’s up to you to decide what you want to focus on. You can not do anything about his loneliness. He or she needs to process that in the same way that you need to process your loneliness. No one can do it for you and no one can do it for him. You get to process your emotions and move forward.

Great but… if you’re anything like me, your family or school didn’t teach you how to feel your difficult emotions. Maybe you’ve spent your life eating, shopping, Netflixing, Facebooking, or yelling your emotions instead of processing them. Let’s change that…consider this your schooling: a crash course called Emotional Intelligence 101:

How do we process our emotions? I will give you three tools that work well for me but the most crucial piece is the first step, becoming what I call a “Compassionate Observer” or “Kind Watcher” of your life. Simply put, be kind to yourself by allowing yourself to feel whatever the heck you’re feeling without judgement or criticism. When you can step outside of your head to observe or watch what is going on you will be more in control of your emotions and thus, the results in your life. For example, when you can pause with your spoon poised over the 1/2 gallon of ice cream and think: “I’m sad and missing my child. I’m not hungry but I’m trying to shove those emotions down with food”, chances of you putting the spoon down are much greater. Here are three ways to process your emotions that don’t involve wine, food, shopping, Facebook, or yelling:

3 Tools to Process Emotions:

1) Move Some Energy: Put your sneakers on and go for a walk, a run, or a crawl. Emotions are energy in motion and when you’re moving you allow yourself to feel them without being paralyzed by them.

2) Get Still: Yes this seems in contrast to #1 but it’s equally effective. So seriously….Stop. Close your eyes. Sit. Feel. Yes, feel. Where do you feel sadness in your body? Where do you feel lonely? Get super descriptive. Emotions are energy and by describing how the actual emotion feels you allow it to move through you.

3) Start Writing: When we are in the state of busy and move move move, we don’t realize which thoughts we’re choosing to focus on. This is dangerous as the thoughts we focus on create the feelings we feel. Part of being an emotional adult is learning to manage your mind. How do you want to feel about this? Dump your thoughts out of your head on to the paper or computer screen and see which thoughts you’re focusing on. Those thoughts are creating the feelings you’re feeling. If you want to keep feeling the way you’re feeling, keep thinking the thoughts you’re thinking.

Does taking one or all of the above steps make the emotion go away forever? Not the big ones. But it does lessen it in that moment and allow you to feel, breathe, and move on in your day. I went through the first 30+ years of my life dulling and numbing my emotions: with food, exercise, busy-ness, you name it. There was a piece of me that was afraid to feel my feelings as I thought I’d end up on the bathroom floor sobbing and unable to get up; like you enter into some deep dark hole you can’t escape from. It’s actually the opposite. Depression is the suppression of emotions so landing in that dark hole or on the floor comes from pushing away or pushing past our emotions instead of feeling them. Please join me as I now choose to be awake and to experience the life that I’ve created. I no longer choose to bypass feeling my difficult emotions. I choose to live a full + vibrant life and because of that, I am going to feel a full and vibrant array of emotions. I embrace my tears as I embrace my laughs – both add a dimension and fullness to my life that are part of my experience here on earth

So hey parents, anything you’re feeling is fine. Depending on which thought I’m focusing on, I may be feeling sad, happy, lonely, heartbroken, worried, or full of pride. All of those are fine. What wouldn’t be fine is to not feel or to tell yourself to stop feeling what you’re feeling. It’s also not okay to sit and wallow. Do the work. Choose a tool and process these strong emotions in a kind and compassionate way. It’s not okay to be mean to your inner feeling being by trying to tell yourself to get over it or move on. That only leads you to drama and destructful behaviors. Feel. Cry. Laugh. Do what you need to do but mostly? Treat yourself kindly and with compassion….