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