Letting go: A step by step guide

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This article first appeared on The Big Smoke: http://thebigsmoke.com.au/2017/01/25/letting-go-step-step-guide/

“Well, I guess you’ll hold onto that for as long as you want to” – Well-meaning friend, 2016.

The outwardly innocuous looking words were the response to my previous text message, in which I’d disclosed feeling ashamed about not feeling like I’d been my “best self” at a lunch gathering that day. As I peered at his response, rather than feeling the intentional liberation that I assumed was within the sentiment, the powerful truth forced me further down into an emotional sinkhole of shame and worthlessness as I realised that “letting go” was not a thing that I had ever been taught, let alone mastered. Anyone who overthinks to the point of self-flagellation doesn’t enjoy it, and the whipping only intensifies when someone’s unwittingly pernicious observation of this is articulated.

As a related aside, it’s worth mentioning other kinds of statements that fit into this category; a short clip I received from another well-meaning friend around Christmas stimulated similar feelings of shame and self-loathing. The clip heralded five important truths to increase wellbeing:

  1. Overthinking causes unhappiness
  2. You can’t change the past
  3. Everyone is on a different journey
  4. Positive thoughts create a better life
  5. Kindness doesn’t cost a thing

Number four clashes violently with the stoic aspects of my eclectic ideological framework, but that’s a discussion for a whole other article. For now, let’s focus on the first one, “Overthinking causes unhappiness”. This is not a revelation, and when embroiled in a state of shame-ridden anxiety, this prophecy is precisely as unhelpful as telling a depressed person to “cheer up”. Unless you strive to be condescending, there is never a good time to say these things to a person who lives with depression and anxiety. The hackneyed statements are reductionist, and not prescriptive in any way.

I’ve noticed that people give this advice as though they are proficient in doing so. This is not a criticism of those well-meaning folk; this is the assertive acknowledgment of a shame story that so many of us share and are hasty to admit to.

To a point, a propensity for rigorous rumination can be really helpful. For instance, it can be really helpful with cognitive stuff; problem solving and the like, which are undoubtedly an invaluable asset.

More generally, and without adequate awareness of strategies to overcome your overthinking, it quickly morphs into a vice and leads to getting caught up in afflictive emotions, which saps physical and mental energy and results in compromised creativity, diluted life force, fractured spirit and decreased wellbeing. It is valid to argue that overthinking is the antithesis of mindfulness, ergo overthinking is at the root of so much suffering.

In order to address suffering, it’s wise to construct practical approaches to inhibit overthinking and increase mindfulness, in order to let go of all kinds of things. These are not easy or straightforward because letting go is easy to understand conceptually but difficult to do; it requires rewiring neural pathways and actively making better use of System 2 in our brains; which is responsible for bottom-up processing, rather than System 1, the default system shared by humans and animals that gives us the propensity to grasp at top-down processing first.

Cognitively, we know that “letting go” of a thing enables us to move on. I’ve noticed that people give this advice as though they are proficient in doing so, which I seriously doubt. I think that people are very good at identifying the value of letting go but in private, bury their problems and pretend to let them go, all the while lecturing others from an insubstantial, lofty perch about the value of letting things go. This is not a criticism of those well-meaning folk; this is the assertive acknowledgment of a shame story that so many of us share and are hasty to admit to.

So, my frustration with well-meaning advice has led to a lot of very useful overthinking about letting go, and at 2am on Saturday the 21st of January, it finally hit me. I scribbled down a model of thinking that actually made some sense in the morning.

Letting Go

The above model of thinking for letting go was prodded out of me through engagement with a metaphysical teacher. It is the result of experiential learning, and draws on epistemologies and philosophies of Buddhism and Behaviourism (specifically, cognitive behavioural therapy).

The process of letting go should also come with a disclaimer. There may be some expectation that abounding happiness will prevail once you engage with it – that’s not really the point. The point of letting go is to be peaceful rather than ecstatic, and to achieve peace may take time; especially if it’s an enduring thought pattern that you are tackling.

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