The Insidious Work of "Let It Go"
It's time for a new metaphor.
Posted September 5, 2019
Over Labor Day Weekend, I had the privilege of participating in the Decatur Book Festival, one of the largest independent book festivals in the United States. In a conversation about metaphors, author James Geary and I agreed that metaphors are everywhere and that they shape, underlie, and enable human thinking. Geary’s recent book, I Is an Other, points out the ubiquity and persuasiveness of metaphors; my new book, Banned Emotions, examines metaphors for unloved emotions such as self-pity, grudge-bearing, and spite. As observers of the ways that metaphors can guide thought, Geary and I relied on linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson’s finding that many metaphors draw on human bodies and their movements in space (Lakoff and Johnson).
One such metaphor is the common call to “let it go.” As Geary points out, many metaphors do their work without being recognized as metaphors, and not everyone told to “let it go” may think consciously that forgiving an offense is being compared to releasing an object grasped in the hands. “Metaphor” derives from the Greek words, “meta” (across) and “phero” (to carry or transfer), together denoting the transfer or “carrying across” of meaning from one concept to another (Concise Oxford Dictionary 636; Geary 9). Today in Greece, moving trucks such as the one depicted here may say “metaphoriki” on the sides. In terminology that is itself metaphorical, cognitive scientists refer to a metaphor’s “source” of meaning; and literary scholars, to its “vehicle.” Often, though not always, the source or vehicle involves a more concrete, better-known concept such as grasping. The “target” (for scientists) or “tenor” (for literary scholars) of a metaphor tends to be less familiar and more abstract: in “let it go,” the feeling of actively forgetting a grievance (Geary 20). A strong metaphor can create meaning so forcefully that it can transform people’s understandings of the source (grasping) and the target (continuing to feel emotion).
Still, no metaphor is a perfect match; if it were, paradoxically, it would lose its power to make meaning. As Lakoff and Johnson have indicated, a metaphor works by enhancing the similarities of the source and target while hiding their differences (Lakoff and Johnson 10). No matter how apt, no metaphor can represent a concept fully. Widespread cultural metaphors emphasize some aspects of human experiences while occluding others--sometimes the experiences of people who hold the least power in a society.
Usually, the “let it go” metaphor is spread with good intentions, and in some instances, it can do helpful work. A person may be brooding over a trivial offense--someone has accidentally stepped on her foot or insulted a movie she likes. In this case, advice from a friend to “let it go” may jolt her out of her brooding and help her to save a relationship. But only the offended person can judge what is trivial and what is not. “Let it go” is a command to forgive grievances, to forget anger, and to resume life, having learned from one’s pain. But what if the offense is physical, sexual, or psychological abuse? What if it is rape, beating, bullying, or years of belittling sarcasm and contempt? What if--metaphorically--it forms part of a pattern, and someone has been “accidentally” stepping on your feet for years? In situations like these, the abuser should be called to account, but all too often, the demand to “let it go” works as a command to shut up.
In cases where the offense has done grievous harm, a call to “let it go” can increase the damage. This metaphor intended to help an abused person by urging her to get on with life shames her for the rage she rightly feels. Sianne Ngai has suggested in her study, Ugly Feelings, that those suffering from “ugly” emotions tend to be society’s least powerful (Ngai 3). Some women refrain from expressing their long-term anger because revealing it could cause them to be fired from their jobs or beaten by their partners. In these cases, the call to “let it go” works hegemonically, as vulnerable people serve the interest of those more privileged by urging each other to relinquish their rage. A metaphor that commands an abused person to forgive her grievances serves the interest of her abuser. The more ashamed people feel of their anger, the less likely they are to call their abusers to account. Rather than releasing their rage, they are likely to hide it, since refusal to forgive carries a social stigma and release may require psychotherapy they can’t afford.
We can’t ban metaphors we don’t like, and attempts to police language tend to fail in tragicomic ways. Concerning “let it go,” I stand with Susan Sontag, who called for “an elucidation . . . and a liberation” from metaphors that can cause psychological harm (Sontag 4). In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag pointed out how metaphors that associate cancer with repression, war, or evil can affect people living with cancer. Like Sontag, I want to promote critical awareness of metaphors and the ways they can influence thought. In our discussion of metaphors, Geary and I agreed that the less aware one is of metaphors and the ways they work, the more likely one is to be manipulated by them. Awareness begins with recognizing that commands such as “let it go” are metaphorical alignments of concepts that don’t fit everyone’s experiences and that serve some people’s interests better than others.’
It is easier to criticize than to create, and if “let it go” isn’t the best way to think about pain and anger, how should people think of them instead? “Let it go” relies on a model of emotions in which a self (represented by the grasping hand) is separate from the object it grasps (the offense and ensuing emotion) (Kövecses 199). According to this model, the hand will not release the object simply because it does not want to. This is not the way everyone’s inner life works, and this understanding of emotions as discrete things separate from the person experiencing them comes more from cultural assumptions than from scientific studies.
No recent, evidence-backed theory of emotion (including the basic emotions, appraisal, and constructed emotion theories) supports the notion of a controlling self fully separate from the emotions it experiences. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s constructed emotion theory, in particular, challenges the idea that emotions are discrete entities. For decades, Barrett’s group has been finding evidence that emotions are learned categories, varying from person to person and open to cultural influences. Emotions are an inherent part of one’s consciousness, emerging as one moves through the world and being interpreted through categories shaped by prior experiences (Barrett xii). If one uses this model, rather than the emotion-as-separate folk model, as the point of departure, “letting go” of emotion makes as little sense as letting go of one’s liver. Metaphors for the relationship between a person and her emotions would need to convey relationships within an organic system, such as altered growth or unusual activity and restored balance.
Wounded people have to heal in their ways, according to their time courses. If they have not asked for advice, ordering them to feel some emotions and not others may do them more harm than good. In her book, Anger and Forgiveness, philosopher Martha Nussbaum offers a valuable picture of what healing might look like. Nussbaum questions whether maintaining and expressing anger has ever done any personal or social good (Nussbaum 6). She describes a “Transition,” however, in which injured people learn to use their emotions to promote justice extending beyond their own situations (Nussbaum 31-33). Refusing to “let go” of one’s anger or one’s memory of being wronged is not necessarily a selfish move. It is questionable whether a call to “let it go” helps a person achieve a Transition that could help others besides herself. Metaphors of systems, relationships, and negotiations could better convey the damage and healing in people’s inner lives.
Barrett, L. F. (2017). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English. (1982). Edited by J. B. Sykes. 7th ed. Oxford University Press.
Geary, J. (2011). I Is an Other. Harper Perennial.
Kövecses, Z. (2000). Metaphor and Emotion: Language, Culture, and Body in Human Feeling. Cambridge University Press.
Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.
Ngai, S. (2005). Ugly Feelings. Harvard University Press.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2016). Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. Oxford University Press.
Otis, L. (2019). Banned Emotions: How Metaphors Can Shape What People Feel. Oxford University Press.
Sontag, S. (1996). Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. Picador.