Have you ever been told to ‘let it go’?
The parents who are reading this will cringe internally, and I’m sorry for not putting a trigger warning at the top of this post about blonde Disney heroines and their infuriating solos.
But I’m talking about letting go in the sense of not caring about something anymore. Being told that’s the best way to feel better about that bad feeling, that bad memory, that injustice or slight or argument you had with a friend.
This seems to be the cornerstone of a lot of advice we receive from well-meaning people in our lives when we appear preoccupied with emotion about something.
Let it go.
It’s the simplest of phrases, but it is also one of the most confusing and infuriating ones. It’s right up there with ‘Get over it’ and ‘Just relax’ and ‘Calm down’. And I’m pretty sure none of those have ever worked for me either. They might have even had the opposite effect.
Why? Because they can easily translate to ‘Hide your emotions from me, because they make me uncomfortable’, or ‘You’re overreacting, and your feelings aren’t valid’.
This might be the farthest thing from what that person is actually trying to tell you. They might be trying to help. They might be attempting to guide you to a place of serenity, of acceptance. But when faced with being told to do the exact opposite of what feels natural to us in the moment (ie going from feeling hurt to feeling immediately calm), it comes across as being brushed off and silenced.
I try to avoid these words desperately in my line of work because they can have such a triggering effect for so many people. I can relate; it definitely makes me clench my jaw when someone turns it on me. In my experience, it’s too simple of a phrase to encapsulate everything these words really mean and are trying to portray, so the sentiment gets lost for the sake of being succinct.
That’s not to say it’s a bad concept.
Letting go is necessary for almost everyone! It’s healthy! Letting go doesn’t mean agreeing that something felt OK, that it should have happened that way, that you’re fine with it. It’s not giving in, allowing, or letting someone off the hook. What it actually means, is no longer fighting its reality – that it happened whether you wanted it to or not, and making a conscious choice to decide how and when that event, thought or feeling influences your life. Whether it deserves your attention anymore. Whether you will let it use up your precious energy.
To paraphrase, I once heard that we need to learn to let go, purely because things are heavy and it would weigh us down too much to carry on if we didn’t release things from our past. My point is that the way we talk about letting go may be affecting how we perceive this advice and how we can apply it to our real lives.
I’ve had to really embrace the idea of letting go recently, and all that it entails. The good, the bad, the painful and the freeing. I’ve made some difficult choices in the last month through no short amount of tears and indecision. There was even some fairly loud yelling going on too as I went through all the stages of grief and loss from denial, and anger, straight through to bargaining and depression. I agonized and berated myself, ashamed for my perceived selfishness, for feeling I was letting others down in my life by making a change I’d been pondering for a long time. I was feeling guilty, but reflecting that I knew I wasn’t happy either. And I couldn’t continue holding onto something that wasn’t serving me, because it was only going to worsen my state of mind and I’d be taking everyone down with me.
The life I wanted was on the other side of a sense of duty to keep going that I couldn’t seem to let go of, a sense of ‘If I was good enough, I could handle this’, and because I obviously wasn’t handling it, I was doing something wrong. So I kept trying and trying and feeling myself fail, which only reinforced that ‘not good enough’ mentality.
I was holding onto quite a lot when I took a step back from it all. I was holding onto a lifestyle that didn’t suit me, but I convinced myself I had to continue with, because anyone else would be happy to be in my shoes. Just not me. I was holding onto a sense that I was the problem, and that if I just worked harder, worked longer, did more self care, more therapy, more medication, that eventually I’d finally make it work. I was holding onto anger, shame, guilt and fear of the unknown. I was holding onto the narrative that I was broken, failing, wrong, weak. I was holding onto a sense that I lived to serve others; my family, my colleagues, my clients. That thinking of anything but them was selfish, and I had to make it work, no matter what cost.
Because you see, letting go isn’t just about no longer caring about something.
It’s about recognizing and acknowledging when something no longer serves you.
When something no longer benefits you. And then making the conscious decision to release yourself from that expectation, or to allow yourself to no longer believe that that situation has to stay important.
Letting go starts with acknowledging this habit we have of diving head first into old thoughts, feelings, memories and sensations and swimming around in them. Then we have to ask ourselves these questions:
Is this helpful? Is this serving me? Can I live without this? Have I learned all I can from this, and if so, then why am I still holding this?
Not all memories are to be avoided. Some things we will never get over, never forget, and we shouldn’t. The loss of a loved one. A severe trauma. Even embarrassing moments, or times we’ve been hurt. Sometimes it’s not safe to forgive someone, and we need those negative memories to remind us about boundaries. Mistakes can teach us something, and memories can remind us about those lessons. But once the lesson is learned, it’s time to forget the mistake and focus on the future.
If you can say with certainty that the thought, the event, the situation is no longer helpful, but may be hindering you instead, the next step of letting go is releasing our grip.
Imagine it as though every time you find yourself drawn back to a thought, that you physically hold it in your hand. You need to hold it to inspect it, reflect on it, and understand it. So you do that. You pick up this thought, turn it side to side and try to gleam every bit of information you can. You note how it makes you feel, what thoughts it brings to mind, your observations and connections with it. You pour over every facet of it with a fine-toothed comb, and by the end of your moment of reflection, you pretty much know everything there is to know about it. Or at least as much as you can grasp today. What should you do with that thought once you’re done that?
The simplest idea is you drop it.
You nod to yourself, set it on the ground, and carry on. You walk away from it, and likely you don’t cross paths with it again. I mean, you squeezed everything out of that thought that you reasonably could, so it doesn’t really serve a purpose anymore. You took what you needed from it, safe with the knowledge tucked in your head, so you don’t need the actual thought now.
But imagine you felt that maybe you weren’t sure if you really did learn everything you could. Maybe you worried you’d need that thought again. Maybe it felt too big to look over it all in one sitting. Maybe it’s too scary, or hurtful, or you’re rushing so it’s not the right time to look over that thought. It makes sense to carry it with you for a time. But how many times could you do that? How many thoughts could you reasonably carry with two hands, maybe a few pockets, and a backpack if you’re lucky?
Eventually you’d be carrying a lot of extra weight, dragged down by these thoughts you can’t deal with right now, or you worry you need to hold onto because they feel too important to set down. Your shoulders ache from the weight of this bulging carry-all of feelings and memories. Your hands are constantly juggling one thought for another, and they tumble out of your grasp, sometimes clattering to the floor right in front of other people in your life, sometimes forcing you to collapse in a big disorganized pile when you finally can rest on your own. You feel like you’re constantly jumbling, never fully at rest, always bothered and pre-occupied with these thoughts and feelings and memories that keep squirming out of your arms and poking you uncomfortably whenever you move.
You’re exhausted, harried, overwhelmed and drowning in all this extra baggage.
This is the time to stop and ask yourself if you wouldn’t be better taking a critical look at everything you’re carrying. Do you really need it? Is it really that important? Is it helping you? OR do you need to leave some of these things on the side of the path, not because they didn’t matter at the time, but because you simply can’t be expected to carry it all and we might need to prioritize.
Sure, it does mean a stop for a while. Taking a seat in our busy life and up-ending our backpacks, spilling our pockets, opening our clenched fists and letting everything onto the floor in front of it. You might need to call a friend, or a professional who is used to organizing and prioritizing thoughts. They might help you to notice that this thought is hurtful, and not serving your purpose anymore (or you’ve learned all you can from it) and remind you how to keep the lesson, but let go of the event.
Some stuff might still have to come with you.
You can’t stop your whole life to sort things out all the time; that’s not reasonable. But maybe you can pack it a little nicer. Trim off some edges, combine it with another thought so they fit a little easier in your bag. Take it in pieces, not the whole thing.
But you need to know you can’t keep it all. You can’t carry that all without falling. Something’s gotta be left behind. And it’s a hard choice. You might find yourself letting something go, and then stopping and rushing back to pick it up again. You might forget about your decision to let that thing go, and then only realize you’ve picked it back up again because you notice your hands are full once more.
Heck, you might even notice your hands ache and it’s actually painful to let go; I mean, you’ve been holding that for so long, your muscles are used to it! They ache now that you can flex those cramped digits. Or maybe your hands feel empty now and it’s an uncomfortable feeling! Like you’re forgetting something that’s been so important for you, that you can’t stop dwelling on that sensation. Or they sting and burn with a harsh red bruise across the fingers like carrying too many grocery bags and feeling the circulation rush back through your veins. Letting go comes with pain. It’s not always relieving at first, or easy.
But then you notice it’s easier to sort out the necessary from the unnecessary later on. You don’t have as hard a time with picking up a thought, and making a more critical and conscious choice about if it deserves to come with you. You might still waffle about some things, but others will feel easier to set back down.
And I do mean set down, as in doing it gently. I mean, you’ve carried it for so long, it must matter to you. Even if they don’t help you anymore, it once was important and that deserves a little respect. It deserves you acknowledging that pain, and how long you carried it for. You’re not just throwing out a piece of trash. You’re saying goodbye to something you know quite intimately. It might even have been a little comforting. You’ve got history with it. So you’ve got to treat it with some sort of reverence, just to validate why you’ve carried it so long. You wouldn’t have carried it with you all these miles if it didn’t matter at least once in your life. But it’s OK if you’ve outgrown it. It’s OK that it once mattered, but it’s not quite as needed anymore.
And these thoughts are fragile at times, spun from glass and delicate in our palms or coarse like iron and deceptively heavy. Heck, some even seem like rubber and bounce back with just as much velocity as you throw them. Tossing them willy-nilly is a sure way to hurt yourself or others, so a slow, conscious effort to set them down gently, kindly, compassionately will make that effort stick. And you won’t get clocked in the nose for your troubles.
Letting go is not tossing something over your shoulder like it didn’t affect you. It is the slow, practiced effort to acknowledge, examine and release things that we cannot carry with us on our journeys anymore. You might need to release your grasp one pain-staking finger at a time, tears in your eyes about the difficulty of this choice or the pain of loosening your grip, but knowing that you are opening yourself for something bigger and better is the ultimate goal.
If you feel heavy, it is OK to lighten your load. If you feel weighed down, ask for help in unpacking.
It is OK to say that an event was traumatic, horrific, unacceptable, and scarred you deeply. It is also OK to allow yourself to stop looking at it quite so frequently, to remind yourself that you always have the choice put it away for today and to pick it up again when you need to. It is OK to have someone help you adjust the way you carry that, and to let go even small pieces of it without negating the impact it had on you. Letting go is not saying it never happened, or it didn’t matter. It is choosing what you want your hands free to hold in the future, instead of that memory.
It is OK to admit something was once a vital, important and meaningful part of your life and you can appreciate it for all it taught you, and it is equally OK to notice when it no longer fills that role for you. When you’ve outgrown it. When you need to move on.
That’s what letting go is. It’s opening ourselves up for what matters to us today, by finally setting down what mattered to us yesterday.