Help, my daughter is leaving home
My husband has been fretting this day for many years. I have dismissed him with wise words like; “It is part of life, we will cope”. But as time is drawing near, I must admit that I am struggling too.
I have never been good at hiding my emotions. I remember dropping off my daughter for her first day in a nursery when she was 1 year old. I tried desperately not to cry but failed miserably. Since then, I have shed bucketloads of tears over my children. Not just sad ones. I have also embarrassed them with many happy and proud tears. At every parent-teacher conference we have been to, for instance. Now, in one week I am about to drop off my now 18-year-old daughter in a different country and I will not be seeing her for many months. I know I will probably, once again, embarrass her when it is time to say goodbye.
Sometimes, I wish I was better at controlling my tears. It is embarrassing to cry at the drop of a hat. Not only that, but it is also extremely unprofessional to be tearful in front of clients. But I must admit, it happens sometimes. I can´t help it. Right now, as a 51-year-old, I blame it on hormonal changes, but to be honest, I have always experienced other people's pain as if it were my own. I have come to see it as a both a challenge and a gift.
What is an emotion?
Dealing with difficult emotions are hard. They are finicky things. What we call emotions – or sometimes feelings – are not just emotions. Emotions are always bundled up with thoughts and physical sensations and all of these experiences are interacting in complex ways. If we stay with the emotion of sadness, there will always be some kind of cognition attached to it. It can be thoughts of “I am going to miss her”, or “It will be so lonely without her”. There will usually also be some memories attached like previous times when I have felt sad and lonely or maybe even happy memories that I know I will no longer experience. And then there are the physical sensations. An emotion will often be felt somewhere in the body. This varies from person to person, with some finding it easier to notice the thinking/cognitive elements of an emotion while others find it easier to notice the physical feelings/sensations/somatic elements.
According to Harvard brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, an emotion only takes ninety seconds to pass through our body:
“When a person has a reaction to something in their environment,” she says, “there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”
I personally find it easier to notice the physical sensations of an emotion, so when I feel sad it is the pressure in the chest and throat I notice first, followed by the thoughts. Others find it hard to connect with the body but have no difficulties identifying thoughts. According to ACT  expert, Dr. Russ Harris, at least 10% of the population finds it hard to ‘connect with’ the sensations they feel in their body. This is especially common for neurodivergent people, but there can be many other reasons for it. As a mindfulness teacher, I have often met people who at the beginning of a course have never paid attention to the emotional feelings in their body. A lot of us are so busy working and striving that we focus only on what is going on in the head and rarely allow ourselves to feel the messages our body is sending us. We might unconsciously avoid it, either because we fear the unpleasantness of it or because we know we would have to slow down or change things if we were to listen to it. But do we really have to connect with our emotions? Why feel something unpleasant, if we can avoid it?
The advantages of tuning into" our emotions
You don´t have to connect with your emotions if you don´t want to. There are plenty of ways to avoid it; drugs, alcohol, excessive exercise, food, shopping, Netflix to mention a few. But, firstly, I have found that the more you allow yourself to feel all aspects of your emotions – both the pleasant and the unpleasant, the richer your life becomes. The more you open up to the nuances of emotions, the more you will be able to immerse yourself in a fuller version of life.
Secondly, you will discover that emotions are not either negative or positive, but rather pleasant, unpleasant or just neutral. Some of the ones we usually characterise as negative emotions, such as anger, shame or sadness, might feel very unpleasant, but they are also very useful messengers to pay attention to. They can help us navigate life, by telling us what and who is important to us, and they can also help motivate us to change things for the better.
Thirdly, the practice of tuning onto the present moment experience of an emotion without judgment can actually help us get rid of it. When I for instance feel sad in a situation where I don´t want to show my sadness, my instinctive reaction is to fight it and think thoughts like “stop crying” or “don´t embarrassing yourself”. However, I have found that thoughts like that have the opposite effect. Instead of allowing me to stop, I keep my attention on the unwanted emotions and thoughts, which fuels them, and makes them stay for much longer than the 90 seconds Bolt says they would take if I could let go of them. If I on the other hand can tune into them, label them and accept their presence, I am much more likely to allow them to come and go without getting stuck with or in them.
Accepting the unpleasant feelings as a gift and a challenge
I compare living a life without access to our full spectrum of emotions to that of having online calls with your loved ones. You see them, talk to them and you can laugh and cry with them, but you don´t get the same close feelings as you do when you are in the same room. You can´t see all the details of their facial expressions nor feel the warm presence of their bodies. As we all experienced during COVID, when some of our sensory inputs are limited, life becomes rather dull.
To feel unpleasant human emotions can be – well unpleasant, but they are also a gift. They allow us to be fully human and to fully understand and connect with other humans, knowing that they are going through the same emotions as us. It allows us to understand ourselves much better and it helps us build better relationships. Difficult emotions are a challenge, but if we know the different aspects of them well and know how to respond to them, they lose their impact on us. They’re still there, but they no longer control us.
So, what do I do next week when I have to say goodbye to my daughter? I will cry of course. But I will be ok with it. I will plan accordingly and try to find a place to say my final goodbyes where I will not embarrass her too much in front of her new friends, and then I will go to my car and allow myself to fully feel the sadness. By the time I reach the Netherlands 9 hours later, I believe I will be ok. I will probably be exhausted, but hopefully also a little bit wiser and ready to start a new phase of life.
Ps. I would love to hear other parents experience with coping with their children leaving. While I still have a son at home, and therefore don’t have not an “empty nest” just yet, I am already feeling what a profound change in life. Please write in the comments, if you have any advice to me and other readers.
 Taylor, J. B. (2009) My stroke of insight: A brain scientist’s personal journey. Yellow Kite.
 ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is a mindfulness-based approach to therapy. I got the comment from Dr. Russ Harris from one of this many posts on his brilliant Facebook page “ACT Made Simple - Acceptance & Commitment Therapy for Practitioners”