Are You Finding It Difficult To Let Go Of The Stuff You No Longer Want?
Let it Go! Let it Go! Let it Goooooooooooo! My 4 year old niece and every other Disney-addicted child can sing it loud and clear. It sounds so easy – if you’re sad, angry, frustrated…just let it go. If you’ve lost your favourite bracelet…let it go. If you’ve just got a parking ticket…let it go. If your boss has just criticised your work…let it go. Sounds so simple, but do you let it go? Sometimes. But mostly you find yourself obsessing about the location of the lost bracelet, regretting the decision to park in that one hour spot and imagining quick-witted defensive comebacks to your work boss. And then there are the symptoms and ailments! Rashes, itches, aches, pains and digestive reactions (the bloats!) that just refuse to GO AWAY. These recurring and chronic symptoms just seem to hold on for dear life, frustratingly defying every therapy, supplement, cream, potion and lotion that is thrown at them. Why is the concept of letting go of stuff so simple, yet so difficult to implement?
Logically we know that there are much better ways to pass the time than rehashing past occurrences. We also know that regret, worry and stewing are emotional states that are completely fruitless and energy draining. We also know that many things are totally out of our control, we cannot change nor do anything about them so we just need to LET. THEM. GO. But for some reason, we can’t.
One day I asked my friend who is a Paramedic how she psychologically handled the trauma she witnessed in her everyday work. She said that she coped quite well because she knew what to expect and was therefore prepared for it. What she wasn’t prepared for however, was seeing the way people lived. She admitted that it was visiting people’s homes that had surprisingly proved quite challenging. She was particularly bewildered by Hoarders – people drowning in their own belongings and often completely unaware of it. Hoarding, now officially recognised as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)[i], is a good example of how illogical the inability to let go is. It simply doesn’t make sense to bury yourself in decades’ worth of newspapers because you can’t throw them out, but people do it.
To an extent we all limit ourselves due to our own seemingly illogical inability to let go. We hold on to symptoms, emotions, weight, thoughts, theories, beliefs, habits, people and possessions even when they no longer serve us. Sometimes they are even harming us or inhibiting us from achieving our goals or moving forward. Why is it that we cannot seem to let go of things that we clearly no longer want? Often, the more desperate we are and the more conscious effort we make to get rid of a problem, the harder it is to let go. As a result we feel blocked, powerless and frustrated.
We struggle to let problems go simply because we don’t realise that the conscious mind is not totally in charge of letting go, it can initiate the request, but it won’t have the final say. While the conscious mind sings ‘let it go’ and wheels out all of those ‘letting go phrases’ like: ‘that’s not my problem’, ‘well, I’m not going to worry about it’ and ‘that’s their stuff’, it is actually the subconscious mind that will determine whether you can actually let it go and not worry about it.
The inability to let go is a result of a conflict between the conscious and subconscious minds. The conscious mind wants the problem gone but the subconscious mind holds on to it. This conflict is known as a sabotage program. For example, the conscious effort to give up chocolate is ‘sabotaged’ by subconscious impulses, habits and beliefs that underpin the need for chocolate in order to feel good, supplement flailing zinc levels and survive horrible episodes of PMS or The Real Housewives of Melbourne.
Usually when we are in conflict our instinct is to implement a ‘boot camp approach’ and push harder – to overpower or deprive or the subconscious mind (which is really the body) and beat it into submission. Of course anyone who has tried to ‘win the war on chocolate’ knows the futility of this approach. As soon as you declare ‘no more chocolate’ the impulses, cravings and general mental anguish just doubles and all you can think about it is chocolate.
Why does this approach fail? Because the conscious mind has made an assumption that the subconscious, the body, is wrong. It blames the body for the problem and judges it negatively and believes that it must be overpowered and retrained. It is worth pointing out here that it is the conscious mind that decided to start eating chocolate and watching The Real Housewives in the first place! It’s not the body’s fault it’s been programmed, yet the conscious mind is keen to continue its power trip and keep blaming the body and bemoaning the problem. Of course, all of this has only one outcome, which is to maintain the conflict between the conscious and the subconscious.
So how can we start to let go of symptoms, emotions, habits, addictions and limiting beliefs? It should be obvious that the priority is to end the conflict! This starts when we accept that our subconscious/body is not deliberately trying to sabotage us, ruin our life and stop us from being free of our problems. It is actually designed to live – to survive, grow and evolve, not to destruct. As strange as it may seem, what appear as “problems” are actually methods and ways that the body has found to adapt and do its best to achieve these aims. From this perspective it makes sense that the body is reluctant to let go of anything that is helping us – or keeping us alive and safe!
It therefore makes sense to start listening to the subconscious/body in order to understand the reasons we are holding on to something such as a symptom or habit – what purpose is it serving? What emotional or physical need is it meeting? How is it keeping us safe? What benefit might it bring us? What does it help us to avoid?
When we view problems through the lens of ‘body working with me, not against me’ we can focus on the purpose that problems are serving and once we have awareness of this purpose we are free to decide whether we a) still need to fulfil this purpose or b) can choose another, perhaps more beneficial way of meeting the purpose. For example, if I speak to my chocolate addiction I may come to understand that it is serving the purpose of bringing me comfort. I am now aware that I have an unmet need for comfort. I can determine whether I still need to be comforted and I have the power to choose how to meet that need for comfort – I could keep scoffing chocolate or I could get a hug from a loved one instead. Either way, I am empowered to make a conscious choice that is in alignment with the body and I can easily let go of the unconscious drive for chocolate. The body will always agree to let go of something that no longer serves a purpose – it’s pretty clever.
So let’s look at some of the common types of reasons the subconscious/body holds on to ‘problems’. The problem (unwanted belief, emotion, symptom etc.) is serving the purpose of:
Fulfilling a Need
All problems are meeting an emotional or physical need. Unmet needs will be at the root cause of all things the body is holding on to. Example: Holding on to an illness because the body has the need to feel nurtured, rested and loved.
Payoff or Gain
The problem may be annoying but it also yields results. There is a fear that if you let go of the problem you may not get the same results. Example: Holding on to perfectionism because letting go of high standards and excellence may not bring the same level of success.
Avoiding Deprivation (Fear of Deprivation)
It’s scary to let go of something when there is nothing to replace it. We don’t trust that we will still be fulfilled or that the ‘new’ will arrive to replace the old so we decide that something is better than nothing. Example: Holding on to a relationship (a dickhead boyfriend) because we’re scared of being alone.
Avoiding the Unknown (Fear of the Unknown)
We are also scared of the unknown. We may not like our problems, but at least we are familiar with them so it’s safer to hold on to them (better the devil you know!). Example: Holding on to a job I hate because I’m scared of finding a new one and lack confidence that I would succeed in another one.
Avoiding Painful Emotions (Fear of Emotions)
We are programmed to avoid and resist emotions so we hold on to things to help us avoid feeling painful emotions. Example: Holding on to the habit of over-thinking, over-working, over-eating or controlling everything to ward off the emotions that threaten to bubble up when there is time to process them.
Coping (through habit)
We develop ways of coping with challenges which prove very useful and because they proved so useful in the past, we keep using them over and over again (even when they don’t work or apply to our current problems.) Example: Holding on to independence and self-reliance (even though I need assistance) because at a time in the past I did not have support and had to rely on myself.
We learn from our past mistakes and cleverly devise ways of protecting ourselves from letting them happen again. Example: Holding on to the avoidance of shellfish because of a past bout of food poisoning from eating shellfish.
We can hold on to memories and past grievances to maintain superiority over others. We often drag out past injustices and betrayals to justify ourselves and feel self-righteous. Example: Holding on to the time (or all of the times!) your wife/husband didn’t listen to you in order to bolster your feeling of being ‘right’ and feeling ‘wronged’ by them.
Remember that often you may only need to bring conscious awareness to the subconscious purpose of the problem to be able to let go of it. Other times you will need to take action, whether that is letting go of the unmet need (do I really need their approval anymore?) or ensuring it is met in another way, which may bring about a significant lifestyle change (I need to leave this job). Sometimes problems are serving multiple purposes so it can be a bit of a journey. Patience and compassion with yourself is the key…listen to your body and let it gooooooooooooooo.
[i] American Psychiatric Ass http://www.psychiatry.org/hoarding-disorderIt is estimated that between two and five percent of the population in the US suffer from Hoarding Disorder, significantly higher than the rates of OCD, panic disorder, schizophrenia and other disorders.