Why letting go is important

June 20, 2021
Filipe Bastos

“Let it go”, is one of the most over-simplified mantras in any meditation or self-help practice. It can be very infuriating to be told to let something go, especially when this advice is given in the midst of our struggle with a negative experience or emotion. Additionally, it can be very confusing to determine what this actually means? How do we let go of something that feels so unfair, scary, or devastating to us?. Whether it’s an irrational fear or a  broken heart, there is no instantaneous way to let it go – like you would when dropping a piece of rubbish into the bin. 

This does not mean that it is impossible to move on from hurt and negative emotions, it simply means that the instruction is simpler than the execution.

Why let go

A question some of you may be asking at this point is, “why do I have to let things go?”

Maybe you had a falling out with a friend and have never been able to move past it. Whenever you think about this person you get angry or upset all over again, as if the falling out had only just happened. The idea of letting go of these negative emotions might sound like defeat, or giving up to you – as if you were in some way condoning the past event by letting it go in the present. 

So take a moment to reflect on how you feel when someone mentions that ex-friends name, or when you are reminded of any negative memory that you just can’t shake. That is in the past. Whatever happened can never be changed, or ‘fixed’. It just is.

No amount of resistance can change the simple facts of the past, but you do not have to ruin your present or your future by living in constant regret, anger or fear over these past events. And if you really think about it, the only person who is suffering when you hold onto these negative emotions is you. 

What to let go of

So now that we have discussed why we need to let go of negative emotions and thoughts, the next thing we need to determine is what exactly we would classify as a negative emotion or thought that needs to be released. And the answer is, we need to let go of anything that does not serve us in a helpful and positive way. Generally, these will be emotions and events from our past that have not reached a satisfactory conclusion in our opinion, like the example of an argument with a friend.

Similarly, we can let go of concepts of ourselves that may be holding us back. These restrictive concepts of ourselves might be more difficult to identify due to the fact that as human beings, we are predisposed to narratives and categories. We rely so heavily on the categories we place ourselves and others in and make up narratives in our minds about ourselves in order to make sense of our experience of life. For example, if asked to describe ourself we might say things like, “I am a teacher”, or “I am shy”. This is called our conceptual self, and despite the comfort, we can feel towards the story of us, it can also be limiting in our daily lives.

The story of us

It can be difficult to let things go because they add in some way to the story we have created about ourselves. This can hold us back if we start to create and believe negative stories about ourselves. As you may already be aware, our brain has a negative bias and so we tend to re-live the negative moments rather than the positive moments of our lives.  If we ruminate on things that have happened in our past, for example, a failed test or argument with someone, then we tend to build our sense of self off of what we perceive in these moments. In doing so, we amplify those moments when we felt bad about ourselves in some way and assign more meaning to our sense of self-based on these negative experiences.

For example; if we are constantly thinking about the test that we failed in high school we might convince ourselves that we are not intelligent, or that we cannot succeed because we get too nervous about tests. By engaging in this type of negative thought we create the “story of us”, which will then go on to influence our future behaviour. And unfortunately, fixating on thoughts like “I’m not intelligent”, or “I can’t take tests” will only hold us back in the long run. The next time we have to take a test we will already have made our mind up that we cannot succeed – even though we rationally know that just because we didn’t perform as well as we had hoped on a test in the past, doesn’t mean we will automatically fail every test we sit in the future.

These are the experiences and beliefs that we must learn to let go of; the ones that hold us back from even trying.

Seeking the ‘truth’

Following on from this idea of the “story of us”, it is interesting to investigate how our perception can hold us back in other ways, and where letting go comes into that conversation. 

Not only can our perception of ourselves create a negative behavioural pattern that makes it more difficult to let go, but also our perception of situations can stop us from letting go. Have you ever been in an argument where you believed that you were one hundred percent right and the other person was one hundred percent wrong, only to find out a little while later that there may have been a middle ground – or even that you were actually wrong? It is easy for us to look at a situation and decide we know exactly what is happening because our brains love certainty. However, this does not mean that we know the absolute truth. We should be cautious about branding anything as the absolute truth, as this can make us inflexible and make it more difficult for us to let go of unhelpful behavioural patterns.

Furthermore, we need to learn the difference between how things are and how we believe they should be. If we convince ourselves that life should be a certain way, and begin to blame ourselves or others for it not being that way, then we will only cause ourselves suffering and suffering to those around us. Again, we need to learn to let go of these ideas of how life should be, and learn to accept what life actually is. Again, the past is the past. Other people can make their own decisions, and it is not up to us how this will fit in with the way we believe things should be. 

Steps to letting go

There are some steps you can follow that will help you to let go of what is holding you back in life. Meditation is a perfect practice to use when working towards this goal, it offers you a chance to practise self-reflection and identify those elements that you need to let go of, as well as self-compassion to get you through what can be quite a painful experience of letting go. 

The main things to keep in mind when practising any meditation for letting go are:

  1. Self-reflection – As mentioned above, this is essential for identifying what is holding us back, and what we need to let go of.
  2. Acceptance – If we find that we are being held back by something that we never experienced closure on, then acceptance of that situation is the only route forward.
  3. Forgiveness – This goes hand-in-hand with acceptance. We must learn to forgive those with who we have difficult experiences withinwith in our past, as well as ourselves.
  4. Living in the present – Everything that is holding us back is in the past. Even if we find ourselves worrying about a future event, that worry is rooted in a past event. Meditation is the perfect vehicle for this step, as to meditate we must always remain in the present.

You can think of the process to achieve this skill of letting go in three stages. To guide these stages we’ll briefly introduce the Hawkins Chart which takes you from negative emotions to receptive emotions and finally to a sense of peace. When you are confronting an emotion you wish to let go of, remember you will generally move from something negative, like anger or fear, to something receptive, like acceptance or willingness and finally, you will settle on peace and calm.

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