“Letting go” is the gold ring of positive change, releasing us from the chains of the past. Intuitively, to let go means immediate relief, being unburdened, relaxing into and passing through suffering into peace and possibility. It seems ever-elusive, until it’s not.
Mental action is modeled on physical behavior. Evolution, it is thought, borrows from basic brain systems in constructing sophisticated psychic life. Being close to someone physically equates with emotional intimacy, growing apart from someone means the relationship is changing, sitting with a thought or feeling rather than running away, moving through distress, basking in joy as one would light, and so on… there are countless examples, so basic as to often be invisible.
1. Letting go of trauma?
Holding onto trauma means holding onto old identities. Letting go is so important, and so elusive when people are inside of restrictive narratives of victimization.
Letting go implies we are holding on to something painful which we wish to but can’t easily relinquish. Cherished but unwanted, there is a paradoxical sense of terror at losing it.
Holding on is involuntary, not a conscious decision. Maybe at some point in the past it was purposeful, necessary, but no longer. Self-deception is adaptive, maintaining a sense of self-continuity, wholeness, a view of the world and people which however imperfect nevertheless works when reality is too disruptive to accept. Survival is the first priority. There is time later to thrive.
2. Letting go of pathological narcissism
Letting go is threatening because — even if we’ve lived with the growing awareness that whatever we are holding on to is atavistic, out-grown — it feels as if letting go means reliving the original injury. When we are ready, letting go is cathartic, often sad but beautiful, and painful. Until then, time is partly frozen.
Because we don’t have a clear, integrated sense of what or why we are holding on, letting go is mystifying, impossible eve. When it is better to hold on to an inflated, brittle sense of self than to run the risk of having no self at all?
There is a way where letting go is simply part of grieving. If that grief is traumatic, then letting go will seem more abrupt and dangerous until our perspective has expanded. The frantic question of how to let go is supplanted by calmer acceptance.
3. Breaking isn’t (usually) the way to go
Rather than “breaking the pattern”, the pattern gradually softens and re-shapes itself. Letting go is more gentle, generous and self-compassionate than coercively ripping away something dear. Self-accord places letting go and holding on together. Rather than panicking and looking for an escape route, slow down and see what’s what. It’s useful to be less neurotic here. From time to time, there are “ripping off the band-aid” moments, inevitably. When they arrive, lean in and seek support.
The key moment of letting go is slippery at first, becoming more concrete with practice. Rather than holding onto something, later on letting go means that familiar temptations don’t hook on in the same way. They don’t look so life-and-death, and in retrospect we may see ourselves with compassion, even gentle humor — though not dismissively or invalidating — for thinking things meant so much.
4. What actually is the act of letting go?
There are many ways to contemplate the act of letting go. A key element of letting go is recognizing the presence of what might be called a pathological need. Many times pathological needs stem from traumatic experiences, efforts to negate or undo childhood maltreatment or deprivation.
In many cases, pathological needs stem from unhealthy narcissistic adaptations to unresolved developmental experiences with caregivers who did not meet basic needs required to develop a secure sense of self. Neurotic worry, emotionally hoarding every grievance and injury, reflects unhealthy attachment to the past, and often to hurt parts of oneself which require healing rather than obsessive picking at scabs.
These needs seem necessary for self-protection, and may feel life-and-death. The details vary but there is a common quality of alarm that typically feels normal, narrowing our view of situations without us even realizing it because it is so familiar.
We tend to misinterpret what others mean, twisting their words to confirm the mistrust we feel. We need enemies to make us strong. Rather than considering different angles, we only see things one way. We listen in order to build arguments rather than to connect, leading to isolation and further strife. On an unconscious mission to bolster a fragile sense of self and reality, we are present with neither self nor others.
Letting go is a practice, requiring discipline, focus and embracing open vulnerability as a path to strength rather than shame. It takes time to get good at it, and there is no room for perfectionism. Letting go requires learning how first to self-soothe emotionally — finding a place in between emotional storms and totally checking-out — to get perspective on the often misleading beliefs and viewpoints people repeat as if they were facts of life.
High anxiety leaves no room for thinking. Grabbing onto the first idea which comes along in order to alleviate anxiety is exactly what leads to holding on in the first place. Being curious and calm allows us to try out other ideas first. In that window of relative calm, we have more options. Letting go means recognizing what needs are most important and which are exaggerated or suffused with false importance.
In order to let go, we may find that we forgive ourselves for not having done so sooner. In many cases, letting do also means being clear about where the boundaries are between oneself and others. Confusing who I am, what my needs are, with someone else’s identity and needs leads to trying to control things which we cannot control. Moreover, holding on to trying to change or fix others does a disservice to all involved as much as our sense of fairness or definition of caring may compel us to try to do so against better judgment.
What do we really need in that moment of suffering? Is it to keep fighting, to maintain old views or deal with injury with potentially self-defeating behaviors? Or to find peace and possibly improve relations with others?
Once we let go and enter a compassionate personal space, the other person’s actions are recontextualized. There are more relationship possibilities, and better odds of mutual deescalation, soothing, and attention to needs. Letting go interrupts the emotional feedback loop, like turning down the volume or clicking mute stops feedback on a video call.
Letting go is a choice which happens at that instant. It is at first easier said than done, slipping by again and again until, if in a state of relative calm, we see the pathological need — and where it will lead — for what it is.