Why “Letting It Go” Doesn’t Usually Work (and what to do about it)

elsaletitgoAs the father of two devoted fans of the movie “Frozen,” my home is often ringing with these three
inspiring words–“Let it goooooooo!” The other day, as my four-year-old was belting them out, her soul unrestrained by oppressive conventions such as “singing in key,” I began thinking about how often we say these words to each other and to ourselves with mixed results. If the key to being happy were simply knowing that it helps to let things go, wouldn’t we all be pretty blissed out by now? By the time Disney builds an army of plastic dolls singing “Let it go” on-demand, we can be pretty confident that it’s not exactly a new idea. So why are we all still so uptight?

By the time Disney builds an army of plastic dolls singing “Let it go” on-demand, we can be pretty confident that it’s not exactly a new idea. So why are we all still so uptight?

I think it’s because it’s not whether to let it go that hangs us up, but how to let it go. If we’ve recently had a medical test and are worrying as we wait for the results to come back, most of us know that it would be helpful to relax and let go of the worry, but the way that we tend to go about it can actually create more tension not less.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: when we decide to let go, we typically try to do it in our mind rather than our body, which just compounds the problem. When our thoughts begin to spin out, the problem won’t be resolved by adding more thoughts into the mix.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: when we decide to let go, we typically try to do it in our mind rather than our body, which just compounds the problem.

letgoofwhatsinhandReturning to our example, our thoughts can move quickly from a medical test to severe illness, and without noticing it we are resolving problems we don’t have: “Do I have enough sick leave at work if I need surgery?” “Who will take care of my dog if I can’t take her for a walk?” “Wait! Who will take care of my dog if I’m DEAD?!!” If we tell ourselves, “I should just let it go,” we may get brief relief, but it’s a bit like that old trick, “Don’t think about a pink elephant!” We’ve created a mental rule, “I’m not going to think about my poor lonely dog after I die.” In order to be successful, some of our attention is devoted to looking for thoughts that break the rule so that they can be suppressed or we can quickly distract away from them. Often, we find that we’re not successful, and the “forbidden” thoughts continue or accelerate, leading to self-judgement: “What’s wrong with me? Why am I such a worrywart?” Even if we are “successful,” if the mental project requires a subtle vigilance to “not think about something,” it is not a recipe for relaxation.

Here’s what you might try instead: rather than creating mental rules, move your attention from your thoughts to your body and find the tension there. Perhaps you notice that you’re clenching your jaw or, if you’re like me, your shoulders are tight and hunched.

Your body is responding to the future your mind is painting as if it were occurring right now. Your body needs your help.

self-massageYour body is responding to the future your mind is painting as if it were occurring right now. Your body needs your help. The same can be said when we are ruminating over a past regret. Rather than trying to let go of any particular thought, scan your body, releasing unnecessary tension. See if you can invite your shoulder blades to release down your back, unclench your jaw, smooth your brow. Are your toes gripping the earth that your mind is suggesting may drop away at any moment? Regard your body the way you would a toddler who has woken up terrified of the monster under their bed. Smile internally at your poor body doing battle with images supplied by your ever-creative mind. When you soothe and comfort your body with a spirit of self-compassion, your mind will relax on its own. If a worried thought pops into consciousness, bring your attention back to the specific places in your body where you find tension and, once again, offer your beleaguered body the comfort it sorely needs.

Wish me luck convincing my daughters that it would be just as enjoyable to sing, “Smooth your browwwww…”

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Lisa

    I found this article particularly
    apprpiriate – i am finding myself worrying alot less – being mindful and in the moment helps. Also the practices of self-compassion have helped me to slow down and access ‘situations’ with my body and my mind togehter. Thank you for sharing this article.

    1. Sean

      Glad it helped, Lisa!

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