We listen in order to build arguments rather than to connect, leading to isolation and further strife
'Letting go' is the gold ring of positive change, releasing us from the chains of the past. Intuitively, to let go means immediate relief, being unburdened, relaxing into and passing through suffering into peace and possibility.
Mental action is modelled on physical behaviour. Evolution, it is thought, borrows from basic brain systems in constructing sophisticated psychic life. Being close to someone physically equates with emotional intimacy, growing apart from someone means the relationship is changing, sitting with a thought or feeling rather than running away, moving through distress, basking in joy as one would light, and so on... there are countless examples, so basic as to often be invisible.
Holding onto trauma means holding onto old identities. Letting go is so important, and so elusive when people are inside of restrictive narratives of victimisation. Letting go implies we are holding on to something painful which we wish to but can't easily relinquish. Cherished but unwanted, there is a paradoxical sense of terror at losing it.
Holding on is involuntary, not a conscious decision. Maybe at some point in the past it was purposeful, necessary, but no longer. Self-deception is adaptive, maintaining a sense of self-continuity, wholeness, a view of the world and people which however imperfect nevertheless works when reality is too disruptive to accept. Survival is the first priority. There is time later to thrive.
What actually is the act of letting go?
There are many ways to contemplate the act of letting go. A key element of letting go is recognising the presence of what might be called a pathological need. Many times pathological needs stem from traumatic experiences, efforts to negate or undo maltreatment or deprivation.
In many cases, pathological needs stem from unhealthy narcissistic adaptations to unresolved developmental experiences with caregivers who did not meet basic needs required to develop a secure sense of self. Neurotic worry, emotionally hoarding every grievance and injury, reflects unhealthy attachment to the past, and often to hurt parts of oneself which require healing rather than obsessive picking at scabs. These needs seem necessary for self-protection, and may feel life-and-death. The details vary but there is a common quality of alarm which typically feels normal, narrowing our view of situations without us even realising it because it is so familiar.
Letting go is a practice, requiring discipline, focus, and embracing open vulnerability as a path to strength rather than shame. It takes time to get good at it, and there is no room for perfectionism. Letting go requires learning how first to self-sooth emotionally - finding a place in between emotional storms and totally checking-out - to get perspective on the often misleading beliefs and viewpoints people repeat as if they were facts of life.
High anxiety leaves no room for thinking. Grabbing onto the first idea which comes along in order to alleviate anxiety is exactly what leads to holding on in the first place. Being curious and calm allows us to try out other ideas first. In that window of relative calm, we have more options. In order to let go, we may find that we forgive ourselves for not having done so sooner.
Grant Hilary Brenner is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst based in the US. -Psychology Today