Updated: May 26, 2021
Let it go
Sounds simple right? These three words lay at the heart of common advice, inner dialogue, & even spiritual teachings.
Heck, I just opened an email from a writer I follow who wrote - It’s time to let go of that extra baggage & say yes to what’s next!
It sounds like a great idea. Who doesn't want to just let go of their baggage & move on?
But what does this really mean?
Recently I was working with a client, who reminded me a lot of my younger self. She’s smart, spiritual, conscientious & struggles with daily anxiety. She was stuck in this vortex (one I know so well) of seeing her anxiety as ego, as something she should simply be able to release. Her inability to simply 'let go being anxious' felt like failing on her part. This, in turn created more anxiety & the cycle perpetuated.
This women is not alone. I have talked to dozens if not hundreds of individuals who felt that their inability to 'release' some aspect of their experience ~ be it anxiety, heart ache, attachment to another person ~ was a failing on their part. I've definitely slipped down this rabbit hole ~ berating myself for not being able to release my own attachments to people, incomplete situations, or even my personal dreams for the future.
You probably know it well yourself ~ it sounds something like...
~ I should be over __________
~ __________ shouldn't bother me, it was no big deal
~ I know I just need to get over myself.
~ I should be able to just let it ______ go.
~ It happened years ago I should be over it by now.
Now here's my questions for you. Does telling yourself to 'let it go' ever work?
Personally, for the small things it might ~ but when it comes to the harder stuff pushing myself to 'let it go' has almost always created more anxiety or pain.
The Myth of Letting Go.
When I hear the phrase ‘let it go’ part of me cringes. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment ~ there is profound power in healing & resolving our past. What I struggle with is the simplistic way this idea can be presented ~ sometimes even to the detriment of one’s actual healing & mental health.
The myth of letting go is that it’s something we do ~ a conscious choice where (if we do it right) we can remove the undesirable aspect of our experience ~ ‘let go’ of our anxiety, worry, or pain. From this perspective our inability to ‘let go’ (&/or the continuation of our undesirable experience) feels like a personal failing ~ coated in the shame of believing we 'should' be able to do it differently.
Let me say this right now.
If you aren’t able to let something go (it still bothers you, you still get anxious, you still feel upset) you are not a failure.
If that hit home please read it again.
The Spiritual Component
In the yogic world & spiritual communities we are often taught about 'ego' & how our practice is to transcend ego in order to reach a higher state of consciousness. The teaching & experiences of these practices are quite nuanced & can absolutely provide support for self realization. However, these teachings are often interpreted as the myth of letting go - that we can simply choose release our undesirable states ( i.e., fear, anxiety, desperation, clinging, envy, etc) such that they no longer effect us.
When approached in this way the spiritual aspirant may view their depression/anxiety as a personal failing, repress emotions in order to fit some ‘equanimous’ ideal, or even cultivate a state dissociation & become less connected with their lived experience.
I've felt this in my own life. For years I denied emotions like anger & resentment. Instead of setting boundaries or speaking up for myself I would forgive before acknowledging my needs & seek to ‘let go’ before really sensing into what that meant. This was avoidance ~ not surrender. It was also polarizing ~ I'd feel euphoric in the spiritual feeling of letting go & then crash hard when my anxiety returned. Looking back I can see how this over spiritualizing actually took me out of my life instead of into it.
Ego. Surrender. Equanimity. ‘Letting go’. These are layered concepts that are less about attainment & more a reflection of our self understanding. When we rush ourselves to ‘let something go’ because we believe we should ~ we are ironically acting out of attachment ~ the attachment for things to be different then what they are.
Let it Be. Let it Through. Let it Go.
It’s not surprising that this idea of ‘letting go’ has been marketed as a quick fix solution to all our problems. It’s natural to want an easy fix, to bypass the hard shit & just feel good. However, if you keep ending up in the same mental spiral, the same parallel situation, or are regularly interrupted by a trigger or pain from years ago ~ it might be because there is something within that experience that wants your attention. In other words ~ it might not be time to let it go, it might be time to let it be.
Years ago I was in this on again off again (mostly off again) relationship with a man who I felt wildly connected to. The connection was euphoric when we were together but the reality was that after a few weeks of connection he would again disappear for months without any communication. This went on for years. I kept telling myself to 'let him go' but at the same time it felt so painfully incomplete. I tried everything. I tried to push him from my mind, engaged in ‘letting go’ rituals & fire ceremonies. I even imagined cutting the energetic chords of our connection. However, the more I tried to ‘let him go’ the more forcibly my anxiety would push back ~ trying desperately to figure out what had happened, what I'd done, what I could do.
Then one day I let go of trying to let him go. Instead I gave myself permission to be exactly as I was ~ there in my hurt & desperation. I felt the pain of unrequited love, the grief of something that felt so powerful yet so unfinished, the hurt of rejection... all of it. I told myself I could take as long as I needed to move through this, that I would be there for myself not matter what anyone else thought I 'should' do. I cried for days & wrote dozens of unsent letters expressing my love, my pain, my hurt. Then, after 5 years of trying to 'let him go' my attachment & anxiety slowly began to dissolve. It wasn't a forced 'letting go' but a natural release that came through the process.
Grief is hard. Acknowledging our emotions, especially ones like desperation or pain, is hard. And, honouring our emotions & allowing them to move through is a deeply self respecting practice.
Letting Go Doesn’t Necessarily Mean We’re Done.
I want to close this blog with a story offered by the Dalia Lama ( I believe it's in a Pema Chodran audiobook) that exemplifies how some aspects of our life may never fully resolve & that this is okay. His holiness shares a story of a student he once had. After the Dalia Lama denied this older student into more intense buddhist practices the man committed suicide hoping to reincarnate & engage these practices in his next life. His holiness goes on to say that he still feels the pain of regret when he thinks of this student. He adds that it is not about letting these pieces of ourself go but about allowing them to have space within us. That these unresolved aspects of our experience (grief, regret, hurt) are gifts that offer us strength of character, empathy, & greater understanding of this human experience.
Letting go doesn’t necessarily mean that you are done with something. Our bodies & psyches hold imprints of the past, particularly in those places that are left unresolved. They may take minutes, days, or years to unfold & some may never resolve. The grief of a loved one, the pain of abuse, the regret of a profound mistake ~ may continue to create ripples through the experience of our lives. Yet, when these places are met with respect, understanding, even friendship they offer us an anchor of into the wisdom & truth of this shared humanity & a reminder of the delicate intricate nature of this human life.
About the Author
Amy Thiessen is an international teacher, coach, & musician who focuses on helping individuals connect to their confidence, purpose, & self esteem through voice & communication. Offering a holistic approach Amy helps individuals uncover & overcome their unique blocks around voice & communication, connect to their self esteem & purpose, & ultimately express themselves in a way that is empowered & impactful.
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