Not too many days go by in which we don’t hear someone saying, “Let it go, man, just let it go!” Or, “S/he’s not worth it; let it go!” Or, “Man, you gotta quit holdin’ on to this stuff, it’s killin’ you! Let it go!” It’s a regular mantra for the American public.
Unfortunately, most of the people saying it haven’t a clue as to how to do it. They’re just tired of hearing you bellyache. If you ask the majority of people what they think it means to let something go, generally you’ll hear something like, “You just gotta stop thinkin’ about it.” And people will go to all kinds of extremes, from drinking and drugging, to popping themselves with a rubber-band to stop themselves from thinking about it. But it’s not really working, because it’s still there, in the pit of your stomach or swirling around in your brain 24/7 making it impossible for you to eat, sleep or work. And just how much drinking and drugging will we do before that becomes the problem. Or how many rubber-band whacks can we give ourselves before the wrist gets blistered. We can't make ourselves stop thinking things. We can only repress and thereby make the problem worse.
The next bad news is that there is not a handy-dandy, easy-peasy, five-step program for letting go. Furthermore, you can’t get on a scale to find out how many things you have let go today. Letting go is a process. The good news, however, is that the process has everything to do with something you and I already have in spades: reality.
Letting go is all about facing and dealing with reality. Holding on is all about bargaining. Bargaining, as you may have seen in other articles in this blog, is a way of magical thinking in which we tell ourselves all manner of things that are not true, in order to keep holding on. There are many examples, but here are just a few.
1) My alcoholic husband will quit drinking and treat me better if I just am kinder, gentler and stop nagging him about drinking and treating me better.
2) I hate my job, but if I just hang on, one day I’m going to get a promotion and then I’ll be the manager and I won’t have to do all of these things I hate.
3) If I can just get my wife to be more loving, then not only will I feel loved, finally, but she’ll make up for all the damage my mother did by being cold and indifferent to me.
Those are bargains. Letting go works just the opposite:
1) My husband is an alcoholic. He’s not doing anything about it and doesn’t act like he has any plans to do so. Rather than staying here trying to get him to change, I’m going to leave and let him figure out and deal with the problem that only he can deal with anyway.
2) I hate my job. I think I’ll start looking for another, or perhaps I’ll go to a career counselor who can help me figure out what I really want to do.
3) My mother was a cold, indifferent woman, and now I’ve married another cold, indifferent woman. I think I better go to therapy and figure out what that’s all about so that I can stop being attracted to people who can’t love me.
Letting go is all about reality. Rather than deluding ourselves by making ourselves believe we have all kinds of powers we don’t have, letting go is about facing the facts. We don’t have the power to change other people. We don’t have the power to fix other people. We can’t influence them to change—we have no power to do that. If they change and later tell us that something we said or did impacted them, it was because they chose to allow the impact to make a difference. They could have dismissed it, just like they have dismissed the million other attempts we have made to make them change.
We don’t make others do anything. Let's say that again: We have no power to make others do anything. That’s the most important and specific truth that we can work with if we are going to let go of difficult and troubling relationships—which are, in fact, one of the most difficult things for us to let go. For those who wish to continue to hold on, that statement might create anger, angst, or just outright denial. Someone will pull out the old “What if they have a gun and they want to make you get in their car—they sure can make you then, huh!” Well, actually, no. The poor victim of such a difficult situation still has several choices—they can scream, they can refuse to get in the car and say, “You are going to have to shoot me here then, because I’m not getting in the car.” They could push an alert button on their key fob. They could fight, they could run, they could shoot them in the face with Mace. There are still options—regardless of the situation. The options we typically choose are those which seem to have the greatest chance of keeping us alive given the person, place, and situation we are in.
In every day life, letting go means looking realistically at whatever the situation, taking personal responsibility for what one is going to do to protect, or take care of oneself, and then doing it. Beyond that, it is allowing oneself to grieve, learn from what just happened and begin again.
Often, however, we respond to such knowledge with "You don't understand, it's so hard!" My response to that is always, "It is never as hard or as long as what we are putting ourselves through now, by continuing to hold on."