Letting go is a practice. As much as we like to say that the things that happen to us are “water under a bridge” and that we “rise above” things that bother us, a lot of us do not truly know how to let things go. Sometimes, we equate letting go with “denying” or “pretending as though” a situation never happened. To me, letting go is something very different. From my perspective, letting go involves you ACKNOWLEDGING the situation that happened, VALIDATING the impact the situation had on you, RECOGNIZING that staying with those emotions/thoughts will not continue to serve you, and thus PRACTICING a shift out of that state.
SITUATION OCCURS ---> ACKNOWLEDGE SITUATION ---> VALIDATE IMPACT OF SITUATION ---> RECOGNIZE WHAT WILL SERVE YOU BEST ---> PRACTICE LETTING GO
Of course, we will get into some strategies to practice letting go, but before we go there, I’d like to articulate why the heck it’s a useful thing to practice!
Why Let go?
(There are likely more reasons, but these are the top ones that I identified.)
Even though there are good reasons to practice this, letting go can be really difficult! Trust me, I’ve had the experience where I go venting to a friend about something that has gotten me all riled up, and she responds with “Just let it go. It’s not worth your energy.” I can feel my head want to explode at the same time as wanting to grab her and shake her and scream “WHAT DO YOU MEAN JUST LET IT GO?!?!? DID YOU NOT HEAR ANYTHING I JUST SAID?!” Even with the understanding of how difficult it can be to let go, I still advocate that it is easier to practice letting go than it is to keep carrying stuff around that leads to suffering. Just like anything else, the more you practice, the easier it becomes, and then… eventually… it feels more like a choice in the moment, and less effortful. That being said, it does start as a practice, so…
How do you practice letting go?
Practice One: Exhale what you are letting go/Inhale new truth
In a situation in which you are experiencing a reaction that you’d like to let go:
Practice Two: Shake it out
This practice is pretty literal. With becoming mindful of when you are holding onto an experience, you will very likely notice that your body becomes tense. Your body literally “holds on” through tightening. Typically from a body level, this would be preparation for some sort of action, but if you don’t do anything with the impact of a situation other than hold onto it, then your body just remains tense. Therefore, part of the practice of letting go is releasing tension from your body. Here are my suggestions for tension release:
Practice Three: Let nature take it away.
From the shamanic perspective, nature works in such a way that what is toxic to one being is absolutely essential to another being (i.e. we exhale carbon dioxide which plants need and plants exhale oxygen which we need). Therefore, we are actually doing a service to the world when we let go of what does not serve us because it will inevitably be nourishment/fuel to something else. Whether engaging with this idea from a literal or metaphorical place, we can harness this perspective as a practice by intending for different elements of nature to take away whatever it is we are trying to let go and being assured that it will be utilized in a productive way by something else out there in the universe. Let’s say that you are feeling angry about something that just happened, and after acknowledging and validating your anger, you realize it is best to let it go. Here are some ways to invite nature to help with this:
If you do opt to start practicing letting go, there are some particularly powerful blockages that can hinder being able to shift into a more neutral state. It is very likely that you will run into at least one of these blockages, so here is a heads up about them:
Blockage One: If I am not impacted, was what happened okay/justified?
There is a misconception that the reaction to an event is what defines the nature of that event. In other words, if someone were to insult me, sometimes it feels as though it is the reaction of me getting offended that defines that situation as being insulting. The question being, if I don’t get offended, then was what the person said still not okay? From my perspective, my reaction does not define the situation. Whether or not I get offended, the person was acting from a perceived place of malice. That doesn’t change. Perhaps I feel the sting of the insult, and notice I do feel a bit hurt. From here, I could move through the steps and practice letting go, or I could let that hurt spin out into feeling full blown offended/victimized. I might feel compelled to be offended in order to highlight the rudeness of the person. This is exactly my point. We sometimes have the misguided idea that our reaction alone defines the nature of a situation, when in reality, our reaction to an event can be a completely separate thing that does not embellish nor diminish the original event.
For another example, in the recent superhero show Luke Cage, one of the antagonists named Bushwacker is set on seeking revenge for his mother’s brutal murder (among other atrocities). From the moment this tragedy occurred, his whole life has been focused on seeking vengeance, and he perceives that this is the only way he can find peace and resolution. His life is generally full of rage and hurt. In his pursuit of revenge, many more loved ones die. Now, if we rewind back, and pretend that when his mother died Bushwacker was able to miserably grieve, acknowledge what happened as an unjust tragedy, but then eventually somehow make peace with what happened to his mother, does this lessen the brutality of that heinous event? NO! It is STILL AWFUL. But, dedicating your life to keeping that event alive only brings suffering to the person still reacting to the event. It does NOT bring more validity to the nature of the event itself. People feel like they “should” be angry or hurt, and if they don’t remain so, then whatever happened must not have been so bad. Like, not remaining affected is the equivalent of never having been impacted. However, remember, letting go is NOT about being completely unaffected. Letting go involves the acknowledgement of impact, and then working towards shifting out of that state that will not serve you.
Blockage Two: Do I need to stay wounded?
This may seem like a weird question, but believe it or not, sometimes there are compelling reasons to stay wounded. This is a more neutral way of explaining the cringeworthy idea of “playing the victim.” Let’s try to remove judgement from this concept, because the reality is that we have all partaken in this dynamic, and for good reason! For example, if you are still in recovery from something that happened to you, often times loved ones have lower expectations of you, and/or put less pressure on you to perform or succeed. As much as I hate being sick, when I am ill, the only thing my husband asks of me is that I stay put on the couch. It is kind of nice! As I get better, all of my normal life responsibilities come back and more is expected of me. It is a tempting thought to prolong my recovery and delay that entry back into my normal life! This process happens with all sorts of things from physical illness, to other life experiences that have been intense or traumatic.
Also, being wounded can be a “good” reason to not try something new. For example, if you were on a very scary plane flight wherein you were terrified that you were going to crash, that can become a “reasonable” factor in not wanting to try other things where you feel out of control, such as going on a speedboat. It could even translate into fear of taking a “leap” with going for a new job because of potential perceived risk associated with that move. Now, PLEASE understand that being fearful after something intense such as a terrifying plane ride is completely normal, and that something like this will likely understandably impact your life. My point is that sometimes we unconsciously keep ourselves from moving through that final phase of challenging beliefs that may have been formed, which leads us to remain wounded. AND, that the reason we may not go through that final phase of healing is because there is a benefit to us in that we have a “reason” not to fully go for things that are risky and save us from the potential devastation of failing.
Blockage Three: Don’t I need to carry other people’s crap?
You may have been taught to take on other people’s struggles. If this is the case, there is usually some sort of belief underneath along the lines of “if I take on this for them, then they will be available to show up for me.” Not so much. It is a hard lesson, one that people usually experience over and over and over, but typically, if you take on other people’s problems for them, they usually just let you keep doing it with little or no reciprocity. Taking on other people’s problems is NOT the way to remain cared for and connected. I promise. Also, taking on other people’s crap can be a lovely distraction and way to avoid things that need your attention. For example, if your time and attention is absorbed in tending to your friend’s every need after he experienced a breakup, you “don’t have time” to deal with the growing distance happening with your own partner. Because there are fears (conscious or unconscious) associated with what would happen if you do confront this reality, there is benefit to avoiding this through becoming over involved in your friend’s struggle. In this case, letting go of carrying other people’s struggle does mean having to face your own reality. Not everyone is up for that!
Blockage Four: What if I automatically latch on to things?
If you’ve gotten into the habit of holding onto things, then your brain and body have been taught to do so, making it a habit or a pattern. It will simply take time for your brain and body to learn a new way of processing life experiences, thus requiring practice.
Don’t get discouraged!
If you really want to let something go, it’ll go. Nothing stays with you unless part of you wants it to stick around. You are empowered in this way. If you are finding that things are lingering no matter how hard you practice letting them go, ask yourself, what do I fear will happen if I let this go? This is a profound question taught to me by Richard Schwartz as part of Internal Family Systems therapy, and I find that it always leads me to more understanding of why things are the way they are. With all that being said, again, this takes practice! Please have patience and compassion for yourself. Stick with it. Once letting go becomes your habit, an ease and freedom of choice in your life will be worth the hard work!