Graduation Blues

How to cope with your feelings on this special day

Posted May 20, 2011

Amy* has been crying off and on all week. "I know it's stupid," she said. "And the truth is, I wouldn't want it any other way...and some part of me is also happy...but I can't seem to stop feeling so sad." What's got her so upset? Her youngest child is graduating from high school. "I'm not even really feeling sad about being an ‘empty-nester,'" she said. "I mean, she's hardly at home these days anyway. It just feels like the end of an era in my life; so even though I'm really happy for her, and I'm looking forward to having ‘me' time for the first time in years, I can't stop feeling sad."

Richard* had a little more difficulty talking about his mixed feelings about his son's college graduation. "I was so proud of him," he said with a huge grin. "He's got a great life lined up, and I'm confident that he's going to be happy and successful as an adult...but..." He hesitated. I waited. "It just feels kind of weird," he said. What was weird, it turned out, was that he was feeling something a little like sadness. "It doesn't make any sense," he said, echoing Amy. "I should just be happy!"

And then there was Mark*, a graduate student preparing for commencement. "I have a new job, a new life. I've got an apartment, a car (okay, pretty beat up, but still, it has four wheels and runs), and I can't wait. And yet I'm fighting with my girlfriend, my parents, my best buddy. I'm grumpy and miserable half the time and excited and silly the other half of the time. Maybe I've suddenly become bipolar?"

Neither Mark, nor Amy nor Richard was bipolar. They were, however, struggling to manage powerful, confusing and often totally opposite feelings that are a natural part of the graduation process.

I am, as some of you have probably figured out, not a person who loves transitions. Every new step in my own life has always been met with a mixture of eager anticipation and reluctant loss. I am always aware that every beginning, exciting as it may be, is also an ending, and endings make me sad. I have felt the same bittersweet mix with every transition in my child's life. When he started to walk, I cheered him on, celebrated the beginning of "toddlerhood," and simultaneously felt sad that babyhood was on the way out. From elementary school to college, I packed tissues for every graduation ceremony. Pride mixed with anxiety, pleasure with sadness.

To me, these are normal accompaniments to any life change. Although clients and friends often comment that they feel stupid for being sad or anxious or nervous or whatever, there is no reason to be ashamed of these emotions. Far from being stupid, these feelings are both normal and important. They serve some important functions, even if we're not always aware of what those functions might be.

The trick to getting through these times of change - and it is not an easy one to accomplish - is to allow yourself to have the full range of emotions, while managing to stay on track with an appreciation of the moment. Whether you are a graduate or a parent, celebration is key. Happiness is, of course, good. But remember: sadness, confusion, and anxiety are not bad! They are all important emotions. And they are part of the process.

What does this mean?

Research has shown that we are programmed - actually hard-wired - to experience a variety of emotions. These feelings provide important signals from our psyches to our conscious selves. When we are enjoying ourselves, for example, we try to find ways to repeat that pleasant experience; and when we don't like a particular sensation, we seek ways to change the situation that is causing the unpleasant feeling. These signals are key to growth and development. Watch a toddler practice walking by pulling herself upright and holding onto anything that will help her stay in that position - a chair, a sofa, an adult, another child. She will very likely have a huge grin on her face; but even if she looks serious or as though she's concentrating hard, she is learning to do something because she is enjoying the process.

Unfortunately, along the way to adulthood we begin to avoid feelings that make us uncomfortable. If we stayed away from all of these feelings, we would stop learning and growing. But often, without meaning to, we put ourselves in new situations where we will automatically (although perhaps painfully) be encouraged to grow, to develop new abilities and new skills.

This is the surprise we have when a child we so happily brought into our lives graduates from school and begins the process of moving out; or when, a short four years after we started college, we "suddenly" find ourselves about to leave! It is also what happens when, after accepting a job that we really want, or deciding to marry someone we really love, or taking the step to move to a town where we think we'll really be happy, we realize that although we are looking forward eagerly to what is ahead, we are also a little nervous! And on top of that, we are a little (or maybe even a lot) sad about what we are leaving behind.

So, to make the transition easier, I have these suggestions:

1. Remember, all of these feelings - and others you might be experiencing, even if I haven't described them, are a normal part of the transition process. Expect to feel confusing, conflicting and even distressing emotions. Try to sort them out. Pay attention to what you are saying to yourself. If you are the graduate, ask yourself if you really are not happy about a decision you've made? (It is, by the way, probably not too late to change your mind if that's what you genuinely believe!) But maybe you're just frightened of the unknown and sad about leaving the comfort of where you've been - even if you were desperate to get away. If you're not sure, you can always try something out for a little while. If it doesn't get better, you can change your plans. But maybe it will end up being just what you were hoping for - and perhaps something else that you didn't expect.

If you are a parent, try to remember that your feelings are also completely normal; and that your job is not to ignore them, but to process them. What does this mean?

2. Process your feelings: This means allow yourself to think about what you are feeling. Neuroscientists tell us that putting our feelings into words helps us manage them; and putting them into words to someone else helps us manage them even better. It isn't fair to ask your graduate to listen to your conflicting feelings - she's working plenty hard to process her own. But talk to friends. You may be surprised to find that a number of them are struggling with similar emotions. And then, when you've got more of a sense of comfort with your conflicting feelings, you can share with your child that his feelings are not so completely different from your own!

If you're the child, the same thing goes for you! Your parents may or may not be great at helping you put your conflicting feelings into words - but there are plenty of other people who will know exactly what you're struggling with, because they either are feeling the same things now or have felt them in the past. Talk to an older sibling, a friend (lots of friends), an aunt or uncle, professor or teacher - and if none of that helps, talk to a therapist (this goes for parents, too, of course).

3. And finally, knowing what you're feeling and talking about what you're feeling will most likely help a lot; but you also need to find more ways to soothe yourself. Here's a short list of soothing things, but feel free to use your own tried and true techniques:

• Being with friends and being alone are both soothing at different times.
• Listen to music
• Go for a walk
• Take a yoga class
• Get some other exercise
• Go to a concert, a play, a movie
• Read
• Watch tv (yes, it can be soothing!)
• Surf the internet, text friends, talk on the phone, tweet, etc - as long as it makes you feel better, not sluggish or miserable!
• Take a bubble bath or a long, warm shower (not too hot)
• Get a professional massage or do a trade with a friend - you each massage the other for 15-20 minutes
• Write about what you're thinking and feeling - in a journal, on a loose page of paper - not, however, in a blog, since you're going to be writing very personal information that you might not want everyone in the world to be able to see.

The main thing to remember is that your feelings have a reason for existing; and that once you've paid attention to them, they will gradually diminish. The soothing things I've suggested are ways to help them diminish more quickly.

And then you'll be ready to celebrate (even if you feel sad at the same time!)

*Names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy