Earlier this summer, my boyfriend and I got into a huge fight filled with tears, hurtful words, and loss of connection. In the middle of the fight, he told me my inability to let things go bothers him immensely. I immediately felt deep shame and a sense of rejection.
This was not the first time I’ve heard this from him.
In fact, he told me this very thing back in spring, just a few months prior.
I didn’t need his feedback to confirm what I’ve known for years; I struggled to let things go well before I met him. Since I left my childhood home, I’ve struggled since to find a way to let go that makes sense to me.
I watch as friends take their adversity, neatly package it up into a life lesson, and move on with their day. I wonder how they do it, how they make it look so simple.
When I become upset about a painful event in my life, my emotions become like glue and adhere to my psyche for months, years at a time. I feel the initial sting for hours, but the wound lasts far beyond that.
Then, when another event occurs that in some way resembles the original whether it be by the words uttered or similar circumstance, the wound rips open and the healing stymied.
I remember, vividly, the hurtful things people have said to me.
Even if my rational brain can recognize much of what people say to me is more a reflection of their inner process than any truth about who I am, my emotional brain holds on for dear life as if holding on to the emotions will somehow prevent them from hurting me.
This is my brain’s effort to control something inherently uncontrollable.
I talk about my anger, my disgust, my disappointment to prevent myself from feeling the emotions themselves. It’s far easier to talk about emotions than to embody them.
This is my first realization.
It’s not that I’m refusing to let go, it’s that I’m refusing to feel.
My second realization is this: letting go is a process.
When people talk about letting go, there’s something that gets stuck in my brain, like a rusted gear that refuses to grind smoothly. I become confused.
What does letting go even mean?
What does it look like?
I’ve spent years thinking I was failing at some essential human skill because I watched other people do it as if they had a switch in their brain while I struggled to discern whether I even had a switch in the first place.
People always talk about letting go like it’s a moment in time.
I don’t believe that.
Letting go, much like forgiveness and grief, is a process.
It doesn’t happen in a moment. It may not even happen in a day. You may think you let something go only to have it reemerge in your life a year later. Sometimes you want to let go but can’t find the exact combination of efforts to do so.
Letting go is an ongoing dialogue with yourself. It’s a calibration and recalibration of how you feel about a piece of your life. It is a conscious decision and it is an action.
I’m a tactile person. I learn kinesthetically. Most of the time, the act of talking about something doesn’t help me process it. I need to do something about it, ritualize it.
This week I had a stroke of inspiration.
I live near Lake Michigan and I decided to go to one of my favorite beaches where there are lots of stones near the water. I planned to write problematic beliefs I’ve held about myself for years and hurtful things people have said to me on the stones. Then, I would cast them into the hazy water never to be seen again.
I felt a little guilty about what I was doing. Was this even allowed? Would somebody see me and yell at me for writing on the lake stones with my purple dry erase marker (it’s all I could find in my cabinet)?
It didn’t matter what other people thought. This was for me.
I dusted the sand off all the flat rocks I could find and I filled over 20 of them with painful words I’ve heard from others and painful words I’ve whispered to myself. I wrote the most hateful, noxious emotional insults I could remember on these smooth granite stones. I picked up the stones, one by one, and as I held each of them, feeling the minute dips and grooves of their surfaces, I read the hurtful words. Then, I found the holes in the logic.
Instead of, “I’m not safe in my body,” I whispered, “My body is my sanctuary.”
Instead of, “You’re too sensitive,” I whispered, “The depth of my emotions is a gift.”
Instead of, “I am broken,” I whispered, “I am healing.”
Then I threw them into the lake, using my whole body to cast them as far away from me as I could.
As soon as the last stone disappeared beneath the waves, I noticed my arm throbbing from the effort.
As I walked back towards my car, I felt a surge of anxiety. It felt scary to leave those words somewhere I couldn’t find them. Allowing the stones to sink to the bottom of Lake Michigan meant I couldn’t hold on to them anymore and it terrified me.
I felt resistance to my attempt to let go, but that’s natural when you’re used to holding on.
It’s not uncommon to take what you hold on to and internalize it as part of your identity; letting go feels like a loss of self, the self you’ve become under the weight of emotional pain.
I woke up today and I feel better. I feel relief.
I may struggle to let things go, but it’s always been a matter of finding an accessible way for me to learn how to let go.
It’s a two-step process:
- Feel my emotions.
- Ritualize the process of letting go.
Even now, I don’t expect to be completely rid of everything I wrote on the stones the other day. There will be times those pain points will be triggered by something new. It is in those moments I need to recenter myself on my process and continue to do the work to release what doesn’t serve me.
Letting go doesn’t happen by pressure or judgment, it happens by meeting myself with compassion. It happens through small, intentional efforts to relieve myself of my burdens.
It happens when I step into consciousness and choose to begin dismantling the walls that emotional trauma built around me.
Then, I can finally be free.