It’s Thursday morning, your partner left dishes in the sink again, the vision you had for your hair today is not going according to plan, and now the train is running late. What do all of these have in common? They’re small, everyday occurrences that often leave us feeling frustrated. Like we just can’t. They’re also the types of annoyances that can leave us in a bad mood for the rest of the day – even when we wish they wouldn’t.
Sound familiar? I think for most people (and by most, I mean all), it does. It’s easy for our minds to cling to things that don’t go our way. Things that don’t feel fair and leave us feeling completely stuck in our frustrations. But oftentimes, the only person who ends up suffering through this experience is ourselves. A wise old sage once said, “Let that shit go.” It sounds appealing, but can sometimes feel way too hard to do. However, if you’re finding yourself stuck on things that you wish you could just let go of, read on for ways to do just that.
First – Why can’t we just let things go?
First, I want you to try something. Using a scale of heavy to light, I want you to think about how some of our thoughts make us feel light, content, and free (this is the light end of the scale) and other thoughts leave us feeling heavy, stuck, and down (this is the heavy end of the scale).
Now, close your eyes and repeat something kind to yourself – tell yourself you are beautiful, you are joyous, or even tell yourself what an AMAZING day you are having. After repeating this several times to yourself, see where you fall on our lightness scale? Do you feel lighter?
Okay. Now, let’s repeat that exercise, but this time, I want you to try saying something not so kind to yourself. Perhaps you’re telling yourself you can’t do that thing that you really want to do, or you’re ruminating over what a terrible day it’s been. Take a few moments to repeat this to yourself.
Now ask yourself how you feel? Do you feel heavier?
When I do this exercise with clients, they often feel lighter after the first part, and heavier after the second. So, you’re probably wondering (as my clients often are too) – why on earth would I ask you to do this exercise?
The point is that our thoughts change the way we feel in our bodies. We experience an actual physiological change. This is what emotions are – physiological experiences. And when you feel lighter or heavier, your thoughts have literally changed how you feel. So, it makes complete and total sense that when we hang on to things that happen to us, when we linger on the things that don’t go our way, we often feel pretty crummy. This can be made more difficult by the fact that our brains like to look for and make connections – so when we’re stuck on something that didn’t go the way we wanted it to, we often begin looking for connections to this, and a sort of snowball effect begins to take place. What else isn’t going my way? What else isn’t happening the way I want it to? If we continue to let these thoughts build up, we’re often left feeling heavier and heavier, like a snowball in our brains that weighs us down further and further with each thought we add to it.
Second – Why do we want to change?
There’s an old saying that goes, “Resentment is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
Who or what are you resenting in your own life? Is it your partner, who isn’t doing the dishes when you want them to? Is it your hair, for defying all visions of a perfectly executed half up-do? Or is it the blue line, who had the nerve to show up 5 minutes late?
Perhaps it’s something more serious, something you’ve been holding on to for years. Something that feels far too painful to even look at, and so it stays painfully held in your heart, for fear that looking at it will simply be too painful.
The reality is, big or small, holding on to these things only harm ourselves. Some things are easier to let go of than others, there is no denying that. But often times if we stand boldly in front of ourselves and ask: “What am I holding on to?” we can find something that is weighing us down. If we stand there long enough to hear that answer we can ask an equally important question which is this: Is holding on to this serving me? Is holding on to this holding me back from who I want to be?
Third – How do we change?
Letting things go is a daily practice that, just like any muscle in our body, needs to be worked on to get stronger. Here are some of the best ways to work that muscle:
1. Cognitive Defusion
Cognitive defusion is a technique that allows us to create distance from our thoughts. Often times, our thoughts become so tied to our emotions that we don’t realize how these fleeting messages in our brains hijack our emotional system. However, if we can create the distance from them, we often find the space to let them go without carrying the emotional baggage with us. One way to help create distance from these thoughts, or “defuse” from them, is to place the sentence, “I am having the thought that…” in front of any thought. For example, instead of thinking “I’m so angry at this person,” you would say, “I am having the thought that I’m so angry with this person.” This is merely one way to use cognitive defusion. For a more in depth look at this topic and other strategies, take a look at our recent blog post on the topic here.
Mindfulness is the practice of compassionately bringing your attention to the present moment, and noticing where we are in this moment without judgment or criticism. Cultivating mindfulness is like working a muscle in our brain (just like the letting go muscle). It requires consistent practice, but once we begin to develop this muscle, we begin to notice our thought patterns more quickly. We develop the ability to catch ourselves in these mental snowballs, take a second to stop, and choose to let these thoughts go. When we do this, we can stop ourselves from continuing the pattern and create the space to let things go. There are tons of different ways to cultivate mindfulness in your life.
- Mindfulness Meditation: Set a timer for 5 minutes to start (you can work your way up to more time if you’d like) and begin to count your breaths. Inhale, 1, exhale, 2, inhale, 3, exhale, 4…and so on, working your way up to ten. When you’ve reached ten, begin again from one. Your mind will draw you away from this focus throughout the process. When you notice your mind drifting, simply bring your attention back to your breath, with both kindness and compassion towards yourself.
- Mindful Eating: The next time you sit down for a meal, allow yourself to be free from distractions (aka put that phone away) and truly experience your meal. Mindful eating is the act of mindfully bringing attention to the act of eating. Allow yourself to slowly take some deep breaths before you eat your meal – check in with yourself during this time, smell the different flavors. Then, slowly and mindfully, savor each bite, paying attention to the different flavors and textures as you go. When you notice your mind drifting, with kindness and compassion, simply bring yourself back to the present moment and refocus on your food. An added bonus here – not only will this help strengthen your mindfulness practice, but mindful eating can also aid in digestion by switching your body into a parasympathetic state.
- Mindful Walking: The next time you are walking, take a moment to be mindful of what’s going on around you. Slow down your pace and take in your surroundings. Use your five senses to guide you in this process of attending to the present moment. What do you smell? What do you see? What do you hear? What do you taste? What do you feel? Often times, we get so caught up in getting to and from a place, we completely lose all that is happening along the journey we take to get there.
While you don’t need to be flexible to do yoga, it’s true that yoga makes you more flexible – both on and off the mat. Yoga does indeed allow our muscles to become more flexible over time the more we practice it, but if we take the lessons we learn on our mats and become more flexible in our daily lives off them as well. An example of this: Each day I step on my mat, I’m greeted with a different body. My body today reflects all that has happened up until this point. Perhaps I’m tighter from sitting more the previous day or from doing a more intense strength workout. Learning to be flexible with my body means learning that some days – I’m not all that flexible in my hamstrings. I learn to adapt my practice as needed. Maybe I need to modify what the teacher is offering in order to meet my body where it’s at today. With time, I’ve learned to take that flexible thinking off my mat. When things don’t go as planned, the way that perhaps I wanted or expected them to, I can adapt and modify. I can greet the situation with the same flexibility I do on my mat and choose to either hold on rigidly to the way I wanted things to go (which never feels good – both in life and in my hamstrings) or I can choose to greet the moment as it is and let go of what I originally expected, choosing instead to be flexible and open to what is happening in this moment. Just as I can choose to greet my body with compassion and grace, I can greet each moment in the same way, and in turn, let go of the things that weigh me down.
One great way to really work on letting go of what weighs you down is to create a ritual around releasing exactly what those things are. This can be a daily practice, such as journaling at night to take inventory of what you’re holding on to, and exploring how to let that go. Some ways to complement this practice would be to (after identifying what you’re holding on to) close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. With each inhale, visualize filling yourself up with all the things that weigh you down and on your exhale, deeply let go of these things. This breathing exercise can also be done on its own. You can also make a habit of doing a ritual monthly as well. At the end of each month, take some time to reflect (and perhaps journal) on what you’re holding on to at the end of this month and what you’d like to let go of. You can also take this a step further by including a time to set your intentions for the next month. Another way to do this is to work with the moon cycles. The New Moon represents a time of new beginnings, a time to plant the seeds of intention for what we hope to grow. The Full Moon represents the time to let go of the things that no longer serve us. By tracking the new and full moons each month, you can begin a monthly ritual of taking time to identify what you would like to let go of and with that, the new seeds you would like to plant and cultivate. The more we let go of, the more space we create to bring new things into our lives.
Letting go can be tough. While I hope these tips can be helpful in finding ways to let go of things that no longer serve you, remember to be kind with yourself in the process. Some things take longer than others to let go of, and therapy can be a great way to work through some of these more difficult things. Trust in the process and know that when you’re ready to do so, you can begin to let go.