Why Telling Yourself to "Let That Go" Doesn’t Work

2018-09-11T14:36:40+00:00October 28th, 2017|Growth and Transformation, Mindset|

Have you ever felt like you needed to let something go? Maybe it was a friendship, a job, a spouse, a grudge or a cherished opinion. If you have, you know that telling yourself to let that go doesn’t often work.

And then there are the well-meaning people that say, “You need to just let that go.” Immediately when I hear that, I find myself thinking I know I need to let that go, and I don’t know how I’m supposed to do that. If it were that easy I would have let go already.

I recently listened to a beautiful four-minute meditation on my favorite meditation app- Insight Timer. It was based on the poem She Let Go. It was extremely moving and I would recommend that you listen to it. By the end of it, I was envious of the person who wrote it because she had obviously mastered the art of letting go.

Our lives would be so much more peaceful if all that it took to let go of what’s bothering us was a four-minute guided meditation. The problem with that message is that it leads us to believe that if we tell ourselves to let something go, that it will just happen. And yet, most of us know that it’s often easier said than done.

Why is that?

The quote by Pema Chodron from her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times pretty much sums it up: “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”

Human beings are meaning making machines. We have the ability to reflect and learn from our experiences and then create meaning out of them.

The psychiatrist Victor Frankl in his memoir Man’s Search For Meaning described how he created meaning in his experience of living in four different death camps, including Auschwitz between 1942 and 1945. Frankl believed that as human beings our primary drive isn’t for pleasure, rather it’s the pursuit of meaning.

Frankl said, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

What does this have to do with the ability to let things go?

We usually want to let something go that is causing us some degree of suffering. If it wasn’t bothering us we wouldn’t want to let it go. As Frankl suggested, the suffering is transformed when we create meaning out of the experience. When we’ve extracted the meaning from the situation, we then transform the energy of feeling stuck into something that propels us towards deeper meaning and connection in our lives.

Here’s a concrete example from my own life:

Ten years ago I decided to leave a career in nursing. I LOVED being a nurse. After I left nursing, I had a hard time letting it go. Why? Because I really loved it and it gave me a sense of purpose in my life. And yet… at a deeper level, I knew I needed to let it go so that I could move on to something that had yet to be created in my life.

Over time, I was able to let it go but not because I told myself to let it go. I was able to let it go by creating meaning out of my experience as a nurse. As I began to understand why nursing had meant so much to me, I was able to channel my energy into a new path.

The same could be said for our relationships. If you’re in a marriage and decide that you need to let it go, and you haven’t learned the lessons that the challenges of the relationship created, you will repeat the same pattern in a new relationship.

This also goes for forgiveness. So many people say they’ve forgiven and yet still hold the feelings of anger and resentment in their hearts. Forgiveness is the ultimate of letting it go. And yet, in order to let go of the anger and resentment we need to create meaning around the experience.

Wanting to let stuff go before we’ve extracted the meaning and lessons from the experience is what keeps us stuck.

In the process of creating meaning, we grow and evolve. The fruit of that growth is the realization that we have let something go. We let it go when it had taught us what we were meant to learn. And until the experience has taught us what we’re meant to learn, we’re not meant to let it go.

So perhaps as a mantra instead of saying, “let it go” we need to ask, “What does this mean?” and “What am I meant to learn?”

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