You’ve heard the casual advice to “let it go.” You may have even said it (or sung it) to yourself. But what does it really mean? Can you really do it? And, is it helpful?
When people say it, in simplest terms, they mean they won’t let something bother them. For example, Jean felt like her mother criticized her every move. So, when her mother said it was a wonder that her husband remained interested given her sloppy way of dressing, she was furious. But she knew she’d never change her mother, so she explained to her friend that she just let it go.
It would be great if people could just set aside their emotional reactions when they’ve decided to do it. But, we generally don’t have that much control over what distresses us. To a large degree, our thoughts and feelings happen to us. So, saying you’ll let it go can leave you pretending to be more okay than actually you are.
When this extra baggage that you cannot leave behind on the side of life’s road gets too heavy, you will need to do something with it. You will no longer be able to ignore the hurt, anger, or whatever. Even if you don’t realize it, you may begin spewing the distress in your words or actions – such as when Jean began snapping at her mother. If you have convinced yourself that you let it go, you will be surprised and confused when the person you are lashing back out at reacts either defensively or aggressively (or both!). This often happens when the person does something mildly annoying, and you hit them with the full weight of the baggage you’ve been holding.
Instead, it’s helpful to truly acknowledge how you are feeling. Admit that you are not ready to let it go. Admit that to move forward, you will need to find peace with the issue. The first step for this to happen would be for you to allow yourself to feel your emotions. This means taking time to “sit” with your feelings rather than quickly push past them. (For help with this, watch Coping with Emotional Pain). Take time to validate, empathize with, and have compassion for your reaction, either by working it through within yourself or by talking with a supportive friend. You might also want to talk it through with the person who has upset you. Aim to truly have empathy and compassion for them; and perhaps even forgive them. Then you will find peace within yourself – even if you still don’t like what the person has done or is doing.
To know whether you can really let it go then, think about the situation. Can you reflect on it in a way that shows you accept what’s happened even if you don’t like it? Can you really let it go? If you can, then great. But if you can’t, it’s best to be honest with yourself. Continue to think it through, or give yourself space. Revisit the issue as you try to make progress. Finally, when you can truly put the baggage on the side of the road as you walk on, you will honestly be able to say to yourself or others that you have let it go.