Why Is It So Hard to “Let Go”?

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.

~ Psychologist Carl Rogers

I’m taking a course to prepare me to become a forgiveness coach. Our current assignment is to examine our personal lives and decide if we’re ready to let go of a story we’ve been telling ourselves about the past that’s causing us pain. I’ve been researching and practicing forgiveness for quite a while now and have gotten pretty good at letting go of regrets and resentments from the past. However, I’m in a personal situation now that calls me to let go of my desires for the future if I want to avoid needless anxiety and gloom. I’m working on it, but it’s not been easy.

Letting go is tough. When we are young, we learn things should be a certain way. We should get an education, have lots of friends, find a terrific job, marry our soul mate, have adorable kids, take exciting vacations that look good on social media. Failure, betrayal, abuse, divorce, mental illness, crushing debt, loneliness should not be part of our life story – but they often are.

I titled my book Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness because for most of us, it is hard to be human. If we can’t accept that – if we can’t let go of the fantasy that we shouldn’t have to feel pain, mess up, experience injustice – we set ourselves up for despair.

The Buddha taught that if we cling too tightly to our desires and expectations we will suffer. A friend reminded me that others will suffer too. She said, “When I try so hard to make sure things are perfect and just right, I get mean and controlling.”

 “Let go and let God” is a phrase that reminds us to lighten up and recognize we’re not in charge of the world.  Philippians 4:6-7 (New International Version Bible) advises:

 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

If we want peace and joy, it helps to unclench our fists, breathe deeply, and surrender to the mystery which is life.

Letting Go of the Desire to Change the Past

I have learned that letting go of the past means confronting its ugliness and messiness, dealing with shame, and understanding why something happened so we can prevent it from happening again. It does not mean looking back and thinking up excuses for what happened; it does not mean condoning or denying that something painful or unjust occurred.

For example, I’ve interviewed several people who had thought they’d forgiven, but were still haunted by their past. They eventually realized they hadn’t truly forgiven because genuine, deep forgiveness gets rid of the bitter taste of resentment and shame.

Why did some of the people I interviewed think they’d forgiven when they hadn’t? Often, it was because they’d told themselves a story that excused or condoned their abuse. The abuser had a bad childhood, was an addict, etc. Sometimes pain was denied because the person felt ashamed of their hurt. The problem with excusing, condoning, or denying is that the ache is simply buried and can’t make its way to the surface, where it can finally be dispelled.  

So how do we oust the pain? We talk about it, pray about it, and work on compassionately understanding it. One of the techniques used in forgiveness coaching is reparenting our inner child. We let ourselves go back in time and imagine comforting the hurt child or adult in us. We nurture our broken self in the way a loving, grace-filled parent would, and give ourselves the kindness we didn’t receive at the time. The goal is transforming our pain so we learn from it and feel safe and loved.

Letting Go of Expectations for the Future

The problem I’ve been working on in my class is how to let go of my expectations about the future. We naturally think we know the way life should be. We’ve been told by our families, schools, media, religious leaders, politicians, advertisers, that we should be a certain way and want certain things and live a certain type of life. But sometimes we need to let all that go and be willing to travel to destinations that seem foreign and frightening at first.

In my case, I desired a certain outcome to a personal dilemma and was clutching it too tightly. It’s hard not to have control over something we want so much and that we truly believe is for the best.  However, I reminded myself, “Who am I to think that I know what’s best?” and remembered the classic story that follows:

Story of the Farmer Whose Horse Ran Away

A farmer’s horse ran away. On hearing of the misfortune, the farmer’s neighbor arrived to commiserate, but all he got from the farmer was, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”  This proved to be true, for the next day the horse returned bringing with it a drove of wild horses in its train.  This time the neighbor arrived with congratulations, only to receive the same response.  This too was so, for the next day the farmer’s son tried to mount one of the wild horses and broke a leg.  More commiserations from the neighbor, with the same response, which was again validated, for soldiers soon came around commandeering for the army, and the son was spared because of his injury.

          The Dalai Lama tells us to “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.” And I do remember times in my life when that has been true. But what about when it’s not? What about when disaster strikes?

Who Will Catch Me If I Let Go?

Letting go is difficult because we’re often unsure who and what will catch us if we fall. We need the nourishment and support that comes from spiritual and human relationships we can count on. We need to connect with our higher power and people who will listen patiently and without judgment.

When everything seems to be going wrong, it’s more important than ever to remember any little thing that may be going right. Without thankfulness for something – friendly dogs, a favorite food, a kind word from or for a stranger – we deplete our power source and find ourselves in the dark. Gratitude can light our way and lift us up when we fall.

William Kent Krueger’s book, This Tender Land, has a quote I love. The main character, Odie, is reflecting on his life and says:

It’s pointless to rail about the twists in the river . . . worry about where the current will take [you]. . . I still struggle to understand what I know in my heart is a mystery beyond comprehension. Perhaps the most important truth I’ve learned across the whole of my life is that it’s only when I yield to the river and embrace the journey that I find peace.

Letting go means freeing ourselves from thoughts and emotions that are blocking our creativity and ability to find joy and peace. When we are truly able to accept that “It is what it is,” we find the courage to become what we are meant to become.

Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash

Addicted to Escaping Reality

The t-shirt said, “Life isn’t easy. Life isn’t perfect. Life is good.” I enthusiastically bought it for my daughter who is studying to be a mental health counselor and wished they also had one in my size.

Life isn’t easy, and we may struggle with the belief that life can be hard, imperfect, and good at the same time. Reality is often painful, and it’s natural to want to escape for a while. Life is full of difficult issues and when those issues get extremely difficult, we may want to escape for a good long while.

A break is sometimes just what we need to recharge our batteries and embrace the “life is good” philosophy. Complications occur when our break turns into a vacation so extended our passport expires – when it turns into an addiction. Our reality deteriorates and our need for an escape escalates.

When we talk about addiction, our minds generally picture alcoholics, illegal drug users, and gamblers. But we can become addicted to many things such as comfort foods, video games, pornography, social media, and even cleaning. We may try to get rid of the object of the addiction – the alcohol, the meth, the casinos – and assume the problems will then go away. But cutting off the supply won’t be effective if the demand remains. If one type of addiction goes away, what will stop us from simply seeking another way to escape a reality we find too complicated and unbearable to face?

If our need to evade our pain has become destructive to ourselves and those around us, making the object of our addiction illegal won’t be the cure. The cure will revolve around two components: making our reality less frightening and more hopeful; and finding healthy, short-term escape outlets.

Making Our Reality Less Frightening and More Hopeful

When life overwhelms us and we’ve lost hope in our ability to manage it, we need to know we’re not alone and we’re not doomed. We need to know we’re loved and have purpose. Help may come from people who care and provide support. It may come from spiritual sources that assure us we are forgiven and valuable.

As a society, we can look at what there is in the environment and culture we’ve created that is causing despair. Happiness researchers tell us that the amount of money we have is not related to our satisfaction with life once we have the resources to meet our basic living expenses. We don’t need fancy cars or huge houses, but we do need enough money for food, clothes, and shelter plus a little extra so we can fix the car when it breaks down and get medical help when we need it. Most importantly, we need to belong to a community that respects and cares about us.

Healthy Short-Term Escape Outlets

Life will never be a worry-free, gleeful path forward. There will be bumps and detours. We need to find positive ways to deal with hurt and shame. If we want to say “no” to an unhealthy addiction, we need to find healthy choices to say “yes” to.

I’m a big fan of reading myself and love any form of fiction that allows me to jump into the lives of characters I can care about on a pain-free level. Watching a thought-provoking movie or silly comedy takes me out of myself and into another world without worries of a hangover or gaining weight. Exercise, music, gardening, art, prayer, meditation, service to others, or whatever form of flow we enjoy can take us to a happy place and give us a needed respite from whatever concerns may be haunting us. 

We need to be wary of trying to escape our own difficult reality by gossiping about our neighbor’s shortcomings and displacing our personal angst onto others. Conspiracy theories and fake news may consume us because they are easier for us to digest than inconvenient truths concerning ourselves. Instead of being curious and open-minded, we become close-minded and addicted to passing judgment on others.

Communities can create healthy environments that reduce the demand for harmful substances and activities. Envision economic development plans that truly value making a community healthier, not just wealthier. Where progress is measured not just in quantity of dollars, but also in quality of life.

Loneliness can be deadly, and caring communities provide opportunities for connection so people can enjoy time together. Parks, gardens, and trails encourage time with nature, and the arts beautify our environment and educate us, inspiring positivity.

Health and medical writer Anne Fletcher stated, “Nobody stays recovered unless the life they have created is more rewarding and satisfying than the one they left behind.”We can create a more rewarding and satisfying reality on both a personal and community level.

On a personal level, we can lift ourselves up by finding moments that deliver us from our gloomy thoughts and feelings in a beneficial way. We become addicts because our lives are filled with pain and we don’t know how to stop spiraling out of control.  It’s hard to see the good in life when we feel good for nothing. We can, however, follow Maya Angelou’s advice “Do your best until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

On a community level, we can make reality less frightening by being more compassionate and accepting. By looking beyond a harmful addiction to what has harmed the soul and spirit of the person suffering with the addiction. We all need care at some time and we all can experience the joy of making a difference in the life of someone who needs care. Physician and poet William Carlos Williams advised, “The only way to be truly happy is to make others happy.”

As the t-shirt reminded me, life doesn’t have to be easy or perfect to be good.

Overcoming Trauma Through Forgiveness

Have you had experiences in your life that were extremely disturbing and still cause you emotional sadness or fear? Do you belong to a group that has been, or is currently being, oppressed or victimized?  If you answered no to both questions you are uniquely blessed.

Human history is full of trauma. I’m an educator and experienced at teaching world history. My students loved studying the wars, especially the dramatic world wars when humans were traumatized on a global level. Sometimes we think of history as studying one war after another, as if all we humans do is kill each other in the name of some grand or greedy cause. One student told me she couldn’t do a report on the recent history of Brazil because Brazilians hadn’t been in any wars during the last fifty years.

Survival as a human has rarely been easy. Prehistoric humans faced dangers like wild animals, food scarcity, and harsh weather conditions from which they had little protection. Fast forward to the last millennium and we find our hardships continuing.  

Europeans who had been traumatized in their home countries – by oppression, famine, homelessness, persecution of some kind – came across the ocean to what they referred to as the New World and inflicted trauma on the Indigenous people and the Africans they subjugated as slaves. Females have been viewed as property and had little recourse against rape or domestic abuse. Alpha males have made other males their pawns and directed them to kill and be killed for questionable causes. Kings, queens, and autocrats were constantly in danger of being beheaded or falling prey to some other sort of horror as those around them competed for power.

What has all that trauma done to us? It has indeed sharpened our survival instincts. We are equipped with an emotionally reactive amygdala that is powered by fear. It can override the rational, decision-making part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, because it’s programmed for quick, life-or-death protective action. Sometimes the amygdala is a hero, saving us from dangerous predators and accidents. But at other times, it destroys relationships and causes high blood pressure.

We have evolved to automatically focus on negatives because we need to be ready to defend ourselves against the perils of the world. But too much fear over long periods of time causes overexposure to the hormone cortisol, which disrupts our body’s natural processes and increases our risk of health problems like heart attacks and headaches.  

Grouping people into “good” and “bad” categories and perceiving the world as a place where it’s “us against them” has protected us from harm as we banded together against them. But whether we like it or not, we are all connected. Viruses don’t honor national borders, and combatting the negative effects of climate change will take a global effort. Nuclear weapons have the capacity to destroy all the humans in the world, but I’m guessing cockroaches will somehow survive, as fossil evidence indicates they have for around 300 million years. 

Why have cockroaches survived? It’s not because they are extremely fearful and have developed ingenious ways to punish and kill each other. It’s because they are good at adapting to changing and difficult conditions. They “overcome.”

Overcoming trauma, for humans, requires the ability to calm our instinctual fears and use our prefrontal cortex to adapt to whatever environment we find ourselves in.  Scientist Marie Curie advised, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Understanding helps us overcome our fear, heal from our trauma, and adapt to whatever situation we find ourselves in.

Fear can take the form of what Lakota writers have called Iktomi, the trickster. We must be careful because we can be tricked into harmful behavior unless we are self-aware and able to understand what we fear. That’s why Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. ‘”

All the major religions recognize self-control and forgiveness as virtues because fear, negativity, and demonizing “others” can lead to destructive decision making. We need to quiet down our amygdala and convince it to hand over control to what psychologists call our “executive function” – the part of our brain that can reflect and effectively problem solve.

A Bible verse, 2 Timothy 1:7, reads “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control.” 1 John 4: 18-19 tells us that love — genuine love for ourselves, for each other, and for God — can overcome all fear. But self-control isn’t easy, nor is loving without conditions. It’s something we must genuinely desire and strive for.

“Moral injury” is a term psychologists use to describe a wound to our inner soul. It’s a type of trauma and it happens when our actions, or the actions of those we have admired and followed, runs contrary to our deeply held moral beliefs. This may happen in war, a time when survival instincts are on high alert, or anytime our foundational beliefs of goodness and truth are shattered. Our spirit suffers.

Forgiveness means letting compassion and grace heal us and set us free. Coming to terms with our own humanness, as well as embracing the humanity of others, allows us to let go of our fears and our bitterness at all the unfairness and cruelty in the world. We still work for justice and kindness, but with the guidance of that part of our being that directs us forward with hope and love.

Orson Scott Card wrote, “When you really know somebody, you can’t hate them. Or maybe it’s just that you can’t really know them until you stop hating them.”

That advice goes for knowing ourselves as well. We can shed our shame and resentment by accepting our humanness and forgiving ourselves for not being everything we assume we should be. We can reject a culture of blaming and liberate ourselves from fear. We don’t have to hide from the truth or distort it to feel in harmony with the world.

Deeply distressing, disturbing experiences – traumas – are hard to overcome, but it’s worth the effort. Forgiveness helps us heal, making life a little easier and bringing joy and light into our darkness.

My favorite Native American dance is the hoop dance, and it inspired me to write the following words.

Great people don’t spend their time jumping through other people’s hoops.

Great people don’t spend their time creating hoops for other people to jump through.

Great people learn how to dance with hoops and create circles that inspire, include, and enrich others.

 Photo courtesy PDPhoto.org –  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=868316