The community I live in is having its annual garage sale next weekend. This is an opportunity, as one of my friends said, to shift the stuff we no longer want to somebody else’s garage. While that has merit, there are some other interesting (and lighthearted) aspects of letting go of things.
What does it mean to let go? For me, there is a host of emotions depending on what it is that I am letting go of. For example, I have kept a beat-up doll that I received as a gift when I was three. Letting go of the object is near impossible because it has acquired a history that continues to trigger memories that bring me joy. Without the doll, the gateway (or trigger) for those memories remains closed. Give that doll away? Heck no!
Other “things” are attached to emotions. Again, it’s not so much the object, but how that object represents a chain of thoughts, feelings, and memories. Certainly pictures evoke emotions. For years after my husband passed away, I had pictures of him all over my house. In the early days, I would burst into tears remembering the event associated with the pictures, and feeling his absence deeply. As time went by, looking at the pictures brought feelings of reassurance and happiness. Then, almost without notice, the pictures became part of the décor, and went virtually unnoticed. This did not mean I forgot about my husband, just the triggering of the memory was reduced to almost nothing.
I recently put all his pictures away. This act is a benchmark in my letting go of my grieving. It marked the passage in the grief process where I acknowledged that I was ready to move on.
Other letting go’s are not so easy. Letting go of prejudices, vendettas, preferences, beliefs, hopes, dreams, fantasies are all forms of cognitive content that have their own power. For many of the folks I work with, there is real struggle and typically many years of suffering because they cannot let go of beliefs that cause them to act in ways resulting in self-harm. For example, some people respond to a belief that they are not pretty enough, happy enough, or worthy of having a loving partner by drinking too much or using substances to mask their pain. Letting go of these negative beliefs is difficult not just because of the belief itself, but because the strategy used to manage those feelings has consequences.
I believe letting go is one of the most important skills needed as we age. I call it a “skill”, because the more you employ it in your life, the better you get. And the opportunities for using this skill become more frequent as we age. For example, most of us will move at least two times after we retire. Moving is one of those opportunities to let go of stuff. In this case, it is the stuff left behind by the kids when they moved out, the stuff we inherited from our parents or gifts from friends, and the stuff of life that seems to accumulate effortlessly.
As we downsize, it is important to acknowledge that there are emotions associated with the things. I recently moved my office. In doing this, I let go of a couch that had been my grandmother’s. The couch itself was huge, awkward to move, and needed repair. But I was in tears as the movers took it away, feeling as if I was somehow betraying her memory. I was saying goodbye to my grandmother and all the times she had rocked me to sleep, cared for me when I was sick, watched her soap operas, and entertained family and friends over decades. It was not just a couch. I was letting go of my grandmother.
Letting go is essential if we are to let new things in. Many of us are at capacity – already filled to the brim with stress, exhaustion, and responsibilities. This is particularly true if we are responsible for caring for another. Letting go of some of this responsibility may seem impossible, especially when finances are an issue or there is a lack of resources including caregivers, time, and energy.
In the short term, letting go in cases like this can feel catastrophic. In the long term, it may result in having change forced on us and our ability to direct and remain in charge taken away. I have seen this with friends and clients. A husband and wife who desperately want to live independently, attempting to care for one another, but unable to get to doctor’s appointments, afford medication, and care for their home. Slowly, inevitably, because they would not let go of the desire to remain independent, outside agencies were called in, and the decision was made to admit the husband to a skilled-care facility. His wife’s life changed drastically, as she experienced profound guilt and grieved over her husband having to be in skilled nursing. She could not visit him on a daily basis since she didn’t drive. She had been forced to let go of her way of life.
On the other hand, I have been privileged to work with people who have intentionally confronted traumatic experiences in their lives, where they have let go of the emotional baggage they had carried for so long. This way of letting go can be effective and very healing. It is an act of self-love that I wish more people would consider.
I often find myself ‘teaching’ my clients how to let go in our sessions. I invite you to practice using the following protocol. It really requires little effort on your part, as you are already engaged in doing this every day. However, you may not have thought about it in this way. I am talking about breathing.
Ever since you came into this world, you have been letting go with every exhalation. I now tell people you came with a pre-loaded app! Breathing in is an act of acquisition. Breathing out is an act of letting go. You already know how to do this. I invite you to do this with intention several times a day. Just pay attention to breathing out. Maybe even let go of your breath in a slow way, extending it as long as you can, and completely emptying your lungs. I believe what you will find as you do this for a very short while, is that letting go feels good. Keep practicing!
Thanks for reading!