In spiritual and new age circles, we are often advised to ‘just let go” as an ultimate solution: in pictures on social media, in conversations, in workshops and all kinds of therapy sessions.
But is it really the end-all it’s cracked up to be? And is ‘just letting go’ really all there is to it?
More than once I have had clients in my therapy room exclaim in despair: “they tell me to just let go, but they can’t tell me how to do it!”
Telling someone to “just let go”, sometimes is not helpful.
In situations of deep loss or disappointment it can even be callous.
Inappropriately telling someone to let go shows a lack of empathy and understanding of pain and loss.
Sometimes even, when people tell you to “just let go” they really mean: “I don’t know how to deal with your emotions, so please stop expressing them in my presence.”
Understanding why letting go can be difficult and what we need to be able to do it, is important to our own wellbeing as well as to our ability to be compassionate towards others.
Here are some truths about letting go:
1. Not everything is equally easy to let go of.
There is a scale to the psychological impact of things that can happen to us. Some things are easier to let go of than others.
For instance, when you drop your ice-cream cone on the floor, you can probably easily let go of your disappointment or chagrin in seconds. When you lose a job, it’s a whole different story. When something traumatic happens to you at the hands of another, it’s even more difficult to let go of the resulting complex feelings of pain, fear, and anger. The loss of a loved one of course, is one of the most difficult things to deal with.
2. People can have different reasons why they find it difficult to let go.
Situations and things hold different meanings for different people.
To go back to the example of the ice-cream cone: when an adult drops his ice-cream on the floor, it is usually easy to not hold on to the feeling of disappointment and move on. For a very young child this might need a little more: expression of sadness or anger through tears, a cuddle, and the promise of a new ice-cream cone!
3. With the situations that have greater psychological impact, usually something is needed before we can truly and healthily let go.
For instance, we often need to fully understand what has happened to us and why it has the impact it has.
Usually we need to acknowledge, feel and express our true emotions about it, like anger, sadness, or pain.
Often we need some kind of acknowledgment for our feelings from our loved ones, and ultimately ourselves.
Sometimes we need to find some kind of meaning in what has happened to us, and put it in a greater context of personal or spiritual growth and learning. When you can see the growth that has resulted from an unwanted situation, it can help greatly to become at peace with it.
When someone else is involved, sometimes we need to be able to understand why the other did what they did in order to be able to let go of anger and pain.
Forgiveness, which is of course a supreme form of letting go, is often only possible when people get an understanding why the offending party did what they did. A beautiful example is of a mother who lost her teenage son when he was shot by a convenience store robber, another young man. Only when she visited him in prison, and got to know him and his story, was she able to forgive him – and she fully forgave him, not just in words alone. Her act of true forgiveness and letting go was impressive and utterly touching to all who witnessed her tell her story.
Another example is sexual violence: when someone is assaulted or abused, they will often take on guilt for the perpetrator’s act, especially when they are children. To understand that what happened was not their fault and to release the guilt is often needed to be able to release the pain and let go of the past, before they can truly move on.
Understanding why you or someone else are having trouble letting go is the key to understanding what is needed to truly let go. What is needed will differ across people and situations.
4. Letting go of something before we are ready can actually serve as a defense strategy to avoid the underlying emotions and their origins.
In that case, the emotions will not go away, but simply keep tugging at you for attention. They will snap back as if on a rubber band. It’s actually a good indicator of true letting go: when you let go of an emotion but it keeps coming back, chances are you need to do a little more work on the issue to be able to really let go.
5. Letting go is a process that takes time, and everybody does it at their own pace.
It can’t be forced. It can, however be facilitated by compassionate assistance from yourself or others. Allow yourself or another the time to feel, to cry, to shout, to be silent, to hold a ritual, to journal, to go on a healing journey, to do whatever is needed.
6. Taking the time and investing the energy to find out what you or the other really need to be able to let go, is a great gift to give to yourself or another person.
It speaks of patience, unconditional love, the ability to be authentically present with the other or yourself and witness emotional pain without judgment.
Really, it is one of the greatest gifts you can give!