After thirty years in the mental health profession, I have grown leery of psychological catchphrases. Sure, they make good headings on posters and coffee mugs, and as personal mantras they can even have a stabilizing and healing effect. However, much of the time these Neo-Freudian one-liners have all the sincerity of political sound bites and the illuminating power of an Itty Bitty book light. One of the reasons for their continued use is that quipping “It is what it is” is far easier than trying to untangle someone else’s life when your own feels like a ball of yarn at a kitten festival.
One tried-and-true piece of sagely advice that does seem to have stood the test of time, unlike “Heal your inner child,” is “You just need to let go.” I know this to be the case because, up until very recently, I, too, would find this phrase slipping past my therapeutically pursed lips. When I was not uttering this incantation, I would hear my clients say it with more than just a hint of self-deprecation, as in, “I know I should let this go, but I can’t.”
Recently, I had a professional epiphany as a result of the very personal experience of being a cancer survivor. Four years into cancer recovery, I found that I was still trying to figure out how to let go of the notion of being a cancer patient. This experience was being led by the four horsemen of psychological suffering—grief, stress, trauma, and anxiety—and I could tell they were still in the driver’s seat.
Then, one day, it happened. I noticed a space where once there was only a crowd of fears. I didn’t remember dropping anything, there was no emotional exorcism of the cancer-induced demons; there was just a gap, a silence, and a peace.
With this new perspective, it occurred to me that the reason we can’t make ourselves let go is that it is not a process in and of itself, it is the result of earlier actions. In the same way that the garden grows from our having tilled, fertilized, and watered, letting go is the fruit of awareness, acknowledgment, and acceptance. It is within the nature of all things to move on; however, there is clinginess to the human condition that often seeks to delay this inevitability.
Imagine the ripened apple trying to resist the pull of gravity. It would be sheer apple madness to try and hang on. As far as we know, apples don’t have that choice. The human dilemma is that we do, and as a result we end up cycling through the seasons withering rather than risking renewal.
Since it’s certain that, despite our efforts, our own personal day of harvest by the Grim Reaper will arrive, why not willingly enter into a new relationship with life? What if we became aware of what was happening inside of us, acknowledged that it was an internal experience that was causing the suffering, and accepted that whatever happened or is happening could not have happened otherwise? The answer is that when we become aware of our attachments, acknowledge that they are creating our suffering, and accept their impermanence, we find that, even in spite of the self that still feels the need to hang on, we move into the state that Thich Nhat Hanh calls Letgo. This is not a state of doing, but one of being, and in that state there is a space that surrounds our suffering, and in that space there is peace.
I often hear from people who have gone through great personal challenges, both mental and physical, that they have no idea how they did it. They will often look back with amazement on their certainty at the start that they would never make it. This has been my personal experience as a cancer survivor, and the wisdom I share with my clients who are struggling with letting go. My new catchphrase is, “Let go of your need to let go, pay attention to what is happening now, and life will move on, you cannot stop it.” Not as pithy as “Hang in there, baby,” but much more useful.
We’re More Like Teflon Than We Think . . .
- Take a moment to reflect on all of the things in your life you have already let go of. Feel free to start with no longer sleeping in a crib.
- Realize that even on a good day your conscious attention catches only a tiny fraction of what is going on.
- Accept small things first. The traffic jam, the rained-out picnic, and the countless things that frustrate and annoy are all opportunities to practice acceptance.
- Be mindful of the times you pick an old burden back up. Notice when that old resentment arises, and ask if you really want it renting space in your head.
- If you find that you have become flypaper and everything seems to stick, it might be time for professional help. If you really want to flex your acceptance muscle, accept that you might need the help of a trusted other.