"Just Let it Go" But What Does It Mean and How Do You Do It?

Unpacking the most overused advice of our time.

Posted Dec 12, 2018

What does let it go mean? I’ve always wondered. I’ve also always had a slight aversion to anyone telling me or anyone else to do it. Truth is, I don’t completely understand what letting it go actually is or what it entails. 

I spent some time with a couple of friends this weekend and one was sharing something deeply upsetting to him about the current political climate. The other friend told him that at some point (the implication being now) he needed to just let it go.  More specifically, she said that it was almost the end of 2018 and therefore the perfect time to let go of whatever didn't serve him anymore so he could enter the new year fresh and free of baggage.  This friend is a kind and wise woman and not someone inclined to speak with malice or impatience. I know she meant for her advice to be helpful. I’m not sure it was; the man to whom she made the suggestion did not appear to be helped. Later, when I asked my friend what she meant by let it go, she explained that it was about his moving on inside himself from the argument happening in his head, and simultaneously, choosing to accept what reality is right now. 

When she said the second part, about choosing to accept reality, I realized that I also don’t really know what it means when we say acceptance in this context. I was in a real pickle now. I didn’t understand the first concept, let it go, nor did I understand the concept used to define it.  And so I decided to try and discover and maybe create my own meaning for let it go and, depending on how far I got with that, maybe, for acceptance as well. 

What I know about the advice let it go is that when I hear it, whether spoken to me or another, it feels like a demand and a judgment all rolled into one lovely suggestion. It’s a demand because we know we’re supposed to do it and if we don’t we’re failing to make ourselves happy and thus responsible for our own upset. It’s a judgment because we’re choosing to hold onto something painful that we could simply release. That said, if we continue to suffer, it’s essentially our fault. I often want to respond to let it go (or what’s usually "just" let it go) with, Yeah but how do you do that? 

Depending on the topic, let it go can also feel like a kind of impatience with what’s being expressed, an “enough now” or “I’m tired of listening to you.”  Let it go, therefore, has the potential to arrive as a kind of abandonment, a way of saying I don’t want to be with you in this pain anymore. 

Now that I’ve entirely trashed let it go, I will say that I do believe that there’s something profoundly important and helpful about the idea of letting go of what no longer serves us. But once again, what does that really mean and how do you do it?

To understand what something means I like to begin by understanding what it doesn’t mean, which is sometimes an easier place to start. Letting it go does not mean using our will power to annihilate what we’ve decided needs to go. It’s not forcefully efforting to block something out of our consciousness. Letting go is not an act of doing so much as it is one of undoing.

Furthermore, the suggestion that we need to let something go also suggests that we’re holding onto, grasping, or clinging to it too tightly, which begs the question, what does it mean to hold onto something, particularly a thought or feeling?  Alas... always more questions than answers.

Holding onto a thought or feeling can mean many things. But one way that we hold on is by continuing to re-think, re-tell, and ruminate over painful thoughts and experiences. We mentally rehash the source of our suffering even when it’s not organically present in our now. We bring it into our now by talking about it, engaging with our thoughts about it, and actively invoking the difficult feelings or whatever else is stuck to it.  It can feel as if the pain itself is compelling us to feed it.  And we are, paradoxically and strangely loyal to our pain, and driven to keep it alive. 

Another way we cling to thoughts and feelings is by constructing narratives around them. We make our suffering sticky when we supplement our experience with a mental storyline about the experience. Let’s say we become aware of a tightness in the belly. Very quickly, before feeling the sensation for more than a moment, we name that tightness fear. Within seconds we have written a story about why we’re afraid, who’s to blame, what we need to do about it, and what’s wrong with us that leads us to feel and be this way. And that’s just the beginning of the narrative.  Our initial belly constriction is usually manageable. Even the naming it with language is tolerable. But by the time we’ve added on all the toppings, we’re pretty cooked and the direct experience of belly constriction is no longer manageable, because of what we’ve determined it means. Using our experience as a launching pad for narrative, the rope with which we hang ourselves, is clinging.

Letting go then is the practice of restraint, refraining, of less not more. It’s breaking the habit of continually re-introducing thoughts and feelings that cause us pain—declining the mind’s seduction to replay our grievances in the hopes of figuring out a better outcome or solution. So too, letting go is resisting the urge to build a storyline out of our experience—getting in the habit of feeling our direct experience on its own, in our body first, and perhaps naming it if it’s helpful. But, and this is the key, leaving our experience there in the simplicity of what it is, without the who, what, where, when, and why, the what it means that follows and tightens our grip. 

Letting go is not denial or ignorance; it’s not about pretending our hurts don’t hurt. It’s also not about willing ourselves into a pseudo-okayness with something we’re not really okay with. Some traumas are simply not let-go-able.  But letting go is a process of stopping—stopping to cause ourselves further suffering when we don’t have to.  Some grievances will fade away when we stop stoking them, some will remain painful when bumped into. It’s not really up to us.  But what is up to us is the choice to stop awarding our grievances with our habitual attention, romancing them if you will, parading them in front of others and ourselves to see, again. Furthermore, we can choose to stop feeding and growing our hurts with more thoughts about them, the storylines we write which intensify their importance and power.

Imagine holding onto a little bird, holding it tightly because we want to keep it from flying off and leaving us. That little bird is our pain. We grasp onto that pain because we believe that keeping it, remembering it and feeding it, is a way of taking care of it, and thus ourselves. But what if we loosened our grip on that bird, opened our hand a bit. That bird might want to fly off. Our pain might want to fly off. Letting go is trusting that taking care of ourselves might mean not feeding our bird, but rather opening our hand and allowing our pain to transform and be free to fly.