In the yoga and meditation world, there are many iterations of this phrase from “feel yourself releasing all your stress” to “letting go of your day.” While they feel like pleasant ideas, did you ever wonder how to actually do that?
The Shrink Space therapist, Erica Schommer shares a three part series of the psychology behind why it can be so hard to let go, including tips and tricks on how to overcome these challenges.
It’s hard letting go
I’ve heard this general sentiment often from clients, yoga students (and in my own mind), and feel like no matter the context, it’s hard letting go. Sometimes, we can’t stop thinking about that job we didn’t get, or that paper we didn’t write, or that relationship that didn’t work out.
It can be consuming and frustrating, and being told to ‘let it go’ can feel like an invalidating experience.
Let’s explore the psychology behind why we struggle to let things go, and find ways to better cope with the power of it. (tl;dr summary at the bottom for those on the run.)
We’re just trying to be happy
Consider the last time you said that phrase or some version of it to yourself. Where were you and what sparked this desire? Can you identify what it was you wanted to let go of? It could be anything- a material possession, a place, an event, a specific relationship, a thought.
More often than not, people want to let go of something that causes them discomfort or pain, not the ‘good’ stuff.
This is Freud’s pleasure principle at its finest – we really like and crave the things we like, and dislike and avoid what we do not. We also see this mental pattern in the Happiness Trap, created by Dr. Russ Harris as a part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. He posits that what we humans want more than anything is to be happy, and therefore, we place disproportionate amounts of value on this one emotion over all else. We put whatever we believe will make us happy on a pedestal, and the narrative we begin to tell ourselves is that nothing else could possibly make us that happy.
Operating from this narrative, we set ourselves up for either immense joy and satisfaction OR disappointment and regret. It’s either a big win or a big loss, and that big loss can be very hard to let go of when all your chips were stacked on that happiness pedestal.
Have expectations but don’t get too attached
You may be thinking, “okay, so if I don’t put expectation on things, then I won’t be disappointed, and therefore won’t have to let go of the thing that didn’t work out because I wouldn’t have attached to it in the first place.” [Insert long winded exhale] Problem solved, except having standards and goals for ourselves is not all bad, and arguably necessary to live a fulfilled life.
In yoga philosophy, there is an important concept known as Aparigraha, Sanskrit for non-attachment and non-greed. This ethical principle or Yama centers around the fact that nothing in life is permanent, and the more we can live without grasping or clinging to things, the more contentment we can find.
I appreciate this Yama because it seems to agree with Freud and Harris’s perspectives while offering different language for our new narrative about how to let things go. It reminds us to always keep in mind that everything is temporary, including our own thoughts and emotions. The more we grasp to our thoughts as truth about our reality, the more we create meaning out of them, and the longer they will last in our mind.
Attachment to our thoughts make it hard to let go
The thoughts themselves may be stressful. But it’s the attachment to them that creates tension and this desire to not want them around anymore.
When you set standards for yourself, consider ways in which you need that goal to happen. How can you shift your language from need and desire to one of possibility?
Instead of asking yourself what needs to happen, can you shift to the narrative to how can I create more opportunity to be fulfilled?
Process over Results
By attaching less to the results, we focus on our process instead, and allow the end goal to be contentment rather than happiness. We can view contentment as an emotion, as well as a practice of finding balance between ease and effort (sukha and sthira). If our attachments are what cause us stress, sadness, or anxiety, then let’s focus on rewriting our narrative from that lens.
Rather than try to get rid of the thing we want to let go or the result we don’t want, what if we let it ride parallel, side by side, to the rest of our thoughts?
Linked you’ll find different thought experiments and mindfulness exercises to learn how to sit next to our attachments, rather than cling to them. These practices are meant to be general and adaptive – don’t be afraid to get creative with how you use them.
Remember, in letting go – focus on process over result!
Of course, some thoughts relating to trauma or long-standing mental patterns, for instance, may require more guidance from a mental health provider. My recommendation is to start using these skills with things you want to let go of that don’t create too much stress. Then work up to the thoughts that are more challenging to release.
- We, as humans, have a tendency to place disproportionate amounts of value on happiness.
- The thoughts themselves may be stressful, but it’s the attachment to them that creates tension.
- Yoga philosophy suggests focusing on contentment and finding a balance between ease and effort when we set goals or expectations.
- Choose self-talk language that gives you more opportunity and possibility, rather than need or want.
- Letting go is repeated practice of acknowledgement and acceptance. In the words of Dr. DJ Moran, “I am here now, accepting the way I feel, and noticing my thoughts, while doing what I care about.”
To learn more about Erica Schommer or to schedule an appointment with her – check out her TSS Profile. The Shrink Space has over 7,500 mental health therapists and psychiatrists across the US, UK, Canada who specialize in working with young adults. You can search by specialities, location, provider identities, availability, and much more!