“Letting go does not have to mean releasing the thing that is bothering you. Trying to get rid of it only makes it stronger. Letting go has more to do with patience than it does with release ~ Mark Epstein”
Letting go is often spoken about as a step-by-step process. Complete step one, move on to step two, finish with step three. Fixed.
But it’s not linear, it’s actually pretty messy and far from instantaneous (quantum change experiences apart!).
It requires a paying attention to ourselves and our experience, a commitment to intentions, and tuning in to an attitude which stimulates healing.
Through the tumultuous lens of a relationship ending, in the early days of my training to be a therapist, I decided to get curious about my own process of letting go.
Beginning to pay attention.
I pace agitatedly around my room, heavy pulsing thoughts streaming through my mind, can’t get still. I’m doing weird Ben, insatiable for the need to know, intent on prizing open wounds. It’s as if I enjoy dwelling in the loss; beautifying, worshiping, struggling and moulding, inspecting from different angles.
This is not serving me–but I want to hold on, dig deeper, why?
I sit, try to be still, and ask myself—how am I?
I’m anxious, I’m scared, I’m confused, I’m tearful. I’m fucking angry. It’s messy.
And then I find myself scrolling through WhatsApp messages, an hour passes, looking for the moment when things changed. One week ago effusive with her compliments and now, with a few caresses of her keypad, so quickly discarded. What does this say about my worthlessness?
I notice myself reliving and revelling in the drama, the familiarity of old habits and stories; the reciting of my favourite not good enough myth. As I see the performance play out in my mind I force my attention away and into my work.
But…maybe her Instagram holds the answers; through her posts, followers and likes. Riding a spectrum of relief to pain, looping back and forth, I emerge some time later exhausted from the scavenge.
I’m searching for clues to fit a story I’ve already written. What. How. When. Why – why did it happen!? Enslaved by the addictive ruminating thoughts, my body craves the dopamine fix so lovingly conveyed just days ago.
I go cold turkey: unfriend on Facebook; quit Instagram; delete WhatsApp messages. It feels drastic, it feels worse!
Deepening attention and identifying the narrative.
Slumped in a chair, my face heavy, I stare through the forlorn gaze in the window’s reflection. Punishing stories stalk my mind.
Can I get a little space in here, be the discerning observer to this sticky narrative, invite my compassionate voice in. It’s just a story, this isn’t true, thoughts are just…thoughts.
A memory from three months ago glides in, that night she was acting a little strangely, is that the moment I should have known?
Watch that thought too. I pick-up my journal, let’s get this out of my head and onto paper.
I write “I’ve been here before. I know where this comes from; see how the stories arise from the belief I’m not good enough. A belief I’m holding onto, wrestling with, dissecting the evidence to support and challenge, on and on. Watch how I pin my worthiness on her actions”.
I desperately want things to be different to how they are, if I think about the past enough maybe I can magic up a new future. These thoughts are real. I feel them, they are me.
I watch how I’m clinging to my desire to be in control of things. To get what I want. To never be hurt. To stop things changing. An identity I’ve spent all my life creating is fundamentally under threat at its very core.
I sit with this experience, take a peep beneath these thoughts and into my very human need to be loved, safe, and connected with others. The hope for this to always be fulfilled. I breathe into my desire, pause, and on the out-breath I allow things to be just as they are. I imagine letting go my wish for things to be different. Gently, settling, resting on the breath, I give myself permission to feel what is there.
Being with the feelings and emotions.
With eyes closed my attention drifts to turning over images of her, unfolding new details. My breath quickens and anger streams in—I don’t want to let go!
Am I supposed to flick a switch, stop or drop something, throw it away; if I could just let go all would be fixed? These expectations of a sudden shift suggest I should be somewhere other than where I am, it’s keeping me stuck.
I pick up my book, immerse myself in the story of someone else’s life.
“But believe me, my dear boy, there is nothing stronger than those two: patience and time, they will do it all ~ Leo Tolstoy”
These words time and patience resonate, perhaps it’s about letting it be rather than letting it go.
I find my intention to get closer to this natural flow and take a look at what I’m really feeling. Or rather, what I’m trying not to feel.
I go towards the pain, for a small moment I welcome it in.
It’s shit. I don’t want to sit here with this. If I go out and fuck someone I’ll feel better, that’s gotta be easier.
I head out, meet friends, drink and party, funnel my agitation through deep conversations and intoxication.
I may not feel ready to let go—bumbling between distractions, doing helpful and unhelpful thinking, feeling and not feeling—yet the process has already started. Like it or not, the course of time is easing me in a new direction.
“Be patient” I tell myself, “return to your intention”. In this moment it’s a turning towards what might be best for me, not what I want, not what is comfortable.
I come back to the pain and sit. Underneath my anger, lethargy and longing, the thinking-thinking-thinking, is something rawer. Sharp and jagged. I tussle with the emotion competing for control, holding myself inside the flurry with compassionate responsibility.
“I got you” I say, giving way to the emotion, tumbling tears I let it all be.
I cook, I clean, I sleep. On the other side an idea comes to me—my brain is an efficient organism, it wants to heal, I just need to get out of the way.
And then I notice.
I can’t quite remember parts of what was said, the tone of our voices, what it meant and how it felt. The vividness dulled, something begins to lose its place. There are gaps in here, just small, space to breathe in the new.
Deepening the intention for change.
A thought of her arises, ouch, fuck, it still hurts. The wound prized open, a flow of anxiety spills forth enveloping me.
I call out the underlying emotions; there’s fear and anger in here. Acknowledging them, I observe how they feel in my body – uncomfortable, hot, tense, racy, beating…warm, slowing, easing and softening. I engage my mind in noticing the world around me. I pull on my resources. Take my camera outside. I write.
in shapes and tones
I find my release”
This taking charge, responsibility, calms the pain; with some agency asserted I find a purposeful and creative direction.
“Put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way ~ William James”
There’s a new attitude of optimism ignited, I’m seeing that where I put my attention, and the intention and attitude accompanying it, can help the process of letting things be.
A thought appears. I imagine her with someone else, someone who can give her what I couldn’t…
…I wrestle this thought, tangle, and then nip it away. It’s not quite a gentle noticing and letting be, but it does the job. A little more flexibility and authority finds its way back to my mind.
I’m gradually weaning myself off the stuff that makes me feel bad, and orientating towards that which feels good. It’s rewarding, I’m finding momentum.
An attitude of forgiveness and compassion.
Letting one thing be, means giving myself to something else. In the spacious awareness a little distance arrives. No longer in the eye of the experience, a broader perspective reveals itself.
I begin to feel more tenderly towards my own vulnerability. I’m noticing the pain experienced from wanting to control my emotions and being attached to my desire for her to behave the way I expected.
Fuck, I’m actually a little ashamed of weird Ben, expending so much energy on her, all those unhelpful actions I took, building expectations when I’m supposed to know better.
Prickly, shaming warmth flows to the surface. I try to discharge through erupting with hate for how she wronged me.
I notice the experience unfold, take an interest with compassion. Maybe it’s not weird Ben, but young Ben the vulnerable child within.
As the gathering of thoughts and feelings arise, I suffuse with the intention to forgive myself. I give up the hope for a different past, feeding myself on the cultivation of more healing emotions.
With this, comes room to imagine her vulnerabilities too. Her imperfections, fears, confusion. We’re all just trying to get by, this is not as much about me as I made it out to be.
Can I even be grateful for this experience, what it has taught me, the opportunity to know myself more deeply. Maybe. Perhaps I’ll leave that one for next time.
Patience is key.
When I encounter the end of relationships now, they might still hurt, they may still be messy, but I get a little head start and find a steadiness within the process.
We need to rewire the neurons in our brain; those expectations, hopes, dreams will keep playing until synaptic plasticity rewires them. It takes time.
We know what to do, it’s sticking to it. To give ourselves the best chance of letting things be, we must create the best conditions for change.
“Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we’re waiting ~ Joyce Meyer”
I remind myself to start from where I am, accept things as they are, and with small steps:
- Pay attention to what’s going on in my mind and body
- Identify the unhelpful narratives, get underneath them, feel what needs to be felt
- Orientate myself towards healing experiences and emotions
- Cultivate an attitude of patience, compassion and forgiveness, towards myself and others
Everyone’s process is different, we all have to find our own way. Maybe some of my obstacles will be familiar to you, and I hope some ways of dealing with these obstacles helpful.
The power of belief can be enough to trigger feel-good chemicals. Whatever your healing process is, believe in it.