- People effortlessly “let go” of many, many things all the time.
- It can be useful to explore reasons for holding on to things.
- When things are difficult to “let go” it is because some aspect of it is still important.
Working clinically with other people is something I consider to be a tremendous privilege. Having others share aspects of their life journey is a cherished honour and always an opportunity to learn and marvel yet again at human nature. One of the things I’ve learned is that people’s turmoil and distress are often based on events from the past of which they have not let go.
The “letting go” phenomenon is something I continue to be fascinated by. If you think of all the troubles and mishaps a person experiences throughout their life, clearly they’re able to let go of almost all of them. Many, many things, both good and bad, are woven into the tapestry of our lives without constantly screaming out for attention. Some things, though, are not put to bed so easily.
I became so curious about this aspect of our meandering through life that I decided to find out more about it. My investigation didn’t involve a large program of scientific research or anything like that. Instead, I started to ask the people with whom I was working. I went to the source.
Whenever someone would tell me that they just couldn’t let go of X or Y, I asked them “Do you want to let go of X or Y?”. To be honest, at first, I was nervous about asking that question. It seemed such an obvious, even dumb, thing to ask that I thought the other person might think I wasn’t paying attention or wasn’t taking them seriously. What happened, though, surprised me. It continues to surprise me.
Almost without exception, when I ask someone who says they can’t let go of something if they want to let go of it, they say “no” or “not really” or other words to that effect. Often they seem just as surprised by their response as I am. Usually, they then go on to say why they’re not ready to loosen their grasp just yet. Sometimes the wording changes a little but the dynamic being described is the same.
I vividly remember a woman telling me she couldn’t get the image of her abuser out of her head. When I asked her if she wanted to get the abuser’s image out of her head, she paused, thought for a little while, and then said “Not really. If I forget about him that would be like I’d forgiven him and what he did was unforgivable.” With that explanation on the table, we could now understand that the source of the problem was that this woman both wanted to get rid of the image, but also wanted to keep it at the same time.
When there is no reason to hold on to something, it slips away and has no more direct or visible impact on our lives. But if you find that you’re having trouble letting go, it might help to explore the reasons for holding on. There is always a reason. It might not seem practical or rational to you but, in some way, it is still personally important and significant.
Sometimes people can even be embarrassed about the reason but it’s only by visiting it and examining it that a reason that was perhaps relevant and useful in the past can be updated.
You’ll let go when you no longer need to hold on. In fact, the vast majority of life’s events and episodes we let go of without even realising we have.
Can you recall a time when you caught up with an old friend and, while you were reminiscing, you were reminded of past goof-ups or misadventures that horrified you at the time but now, as you’re bringing back the memories, it occurs to you that you haven’t thought about them in years. Remembering them all this time later might even make you smile.
Letting go is not the problem. You’re already a champion at letting go of the things that don’t matter. Becoming aware of something you’d like to let go of but haven’t yet, is a signal that, in some way, for some part of you, that particular something still matters. If you let your mind roam free in that place you’d rather not think of, the discoveries might surprise you. When you’re ready to let go it will go. It will slip away so quietly you might not even immediately notice that it’s gone.