“If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.” This quote, widely attributed to Richard Bach of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” fame, conveys the meaning of a proverb that appears in many cultures and languages. I remember the quote being reproduced on the inspirational posters of my youth. It was soon parodied by cynics: “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, hunt it down and kill it.”
The cynical version of this quote illustrates (however crudely) the difficulty that many of us have with letting go. Letting go of unhealthy relationships, of anger, of jealousy, of addictions, of coping mechanisms that no longer serve us well, can be difficult to accomplish. Why is it so difficult for some of us to “just let it go”? What can we do to ease the process of letting go?
Letting go can be a challenge because we, as human beings, are creatures of habit. There is some comfort in the familiar. Shedding old, destructive patterns or behaviors can leave us feeling as vulnerable as a small child throwing away a tattered and filthy blanket. Although logically we may reason that we are better off without it, emotionally we can be left feeling bare. Yet letting go is a process that we all must face at one time or another. We must let go of the old in order to invite in the new. Like the child who must say goodbye to the beloved blanket, we must bid farewell to what is holding us back developmentally. Letting go is growth. Letting go is akin to rock climbing, in which you must let go of a toehold in order to reach the next height. Reaching, striving – we must let go in order to find our next step.
Yes, you say, I understand that I must let go. But how? The following steps can assist you on your journey toward letting go.
Embrace the shadow:
We all possess a dark side, the part of us that we often prefer to remain hidden from the world. Karl Jung referred to that portion of us that we fail to see or know as the “shadow.” That which we refuse to examine does not disappear; on the contrary it takes on a greater power until it erupts in a harmful way. For example, repressed anger can result in displaced aggression. Robert Johnson, in Owning Your Own Shadow, posits that “to refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness; this is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents” (p. 26). Through self-examination we can cultivate awareness of the shadow, and through ritual or creativity we can discharge the shadow energy in a healthy manner.
Awareness of the grip that we have on unwelcome thoughts, feelings, or relationships – and the grip that they have on us – is crucial to the process of learning to let them go. For example, we all experience anger at some time or another. Holding on to anger can negatively impact our general sense of happiness, relationships with others, and physical health. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, likens anger to a howling baby, suffering and crying. He encourages us to be mindful of the anger, to cradle and embrace the baby. Once we have accepted the anger and acknowledged it as our own, we can work with it. We can realize compassion for the target of our anger and feel better.
Let go of having to control:
Taoism is a manner of living in harmony with Tao, the Way of the Universe. Lao-tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, urges us to see the value in being humble. If action seems called for, he asks us to consider nonaction. If we feel that grasping will help us acquire what we need or want, he counsels us to let go and be patient.
A cornerstone of many successful 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, involves letting go of control. The Serenity Prayer urges those seeking relief to be granted “…the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This idea can also be expressed in the notion of surrendering to win. A friend of mine likens letting go to dropping the rope in a tug-of-war contest. When competitors on both sides are pulling equally on the rope, a stalemate ensues. When one side drops the rope, movement occurs immediately. While the side that drops the rope may not “win,” the action still leads to change.
Grieve your losses
Take the time to honor the process of letting go and moving on. It may be helpful to recognize the stages of grieving identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Keep in mind that there is no timetable for grief and that your process will be different from others’. Kubler-Ross herself acknowledged that the stages do not necessarily occur in chronological order. It is common to cycle back through the stages before finally landing upon acceptance. Be patient with yourself. Have compassion for your journey. Walk, talk, draw, paint, or find other ways to tap into your thoughts and memories. Allow painful memories to enter your consciousness – with support if needed. I am reminded of the mantra in the beloved children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury: “Can’t go around it, can’t go under it…. Gotta go through it!”
In trying to let go of a grudge toward another person, think about apologizing and asking for forgiveness. Letting go of your past involves allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Or, it may be forgiveness of yourself that will set you on the path toward letting go. Be honest with yourself and others. If you have made mistakes, admit them. Forgiveness can be freeing. Forgiveness, at least in terms of interpersonal dynamics, appears to have benefits for both individual health and relationships. Research suggests that forgiveness “may free the wounded person from a prison of hurt and vengeful emotion, yielding both emotional and physical benefits, including reduced stress, less negative emotion, fewer cardiovascular problems, and improved immune system performance.” (Witvliet, et al.)
Move forward to let go of the past
It has been said that time heals all wounds. Trust that letting go will occur if you open yourself to that possibility. Look outside of yourself. Move outside of your comfort zone. Volunteering to help others in your community will aid in moving forward. Do something different! Taking a class at the local community college, learning a new language, or starting a new hobby will focus your attention on the present and assist in letting go of the past.
Isn’t that what we wanted all along
Freedom like a stone
Maybe we were wrong
But I can say goodbye
Now that the passion’s died
Still it comes so slow
The letting go
Melissa Etheridge, “The Letting Go”
References and Suggested Reading
Borysenko, Joan, Inner Peace for Busy Women: Balancing Work, Family, and Your Inner Life (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2003).
Hoff, Benjamin, The Tao of Pooh (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1983).
Johnson, Robert, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche (New York: Harper Collins, 1991).
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth, On Death and Dying (London: Routledge, 1969).
Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching (translation by Stephen Mitchell) New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
Thich Nhat Hahn, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001).
Witvliet, C.V.O., Ludwig, T. E., & Vander Laan, K. L. (2001). Granting forgiveness of harboring grudges: Implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science, 12, 117